Bridging the gap between government and the people

6 May 2009

THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT’s somewhat tardy response to last year’s 2020 Summit largely sidesteps the content in order to suggest it was “an extraordinary learning experience in the value of engaging with the Australian community.” What is the provenance of today’s community engagement strategies and how meaningful are they? This is an issue taken up in the capstone volume of the Democratic Audit of Australia, Australia: The State of Democracy, due out in June.

It might seem paradoxical even to speak of community engagement in the context of Australian traditions of secretive government on the one hand and high levels of community distrust on the other. Reluctance to divulge information about how government reaches decisions has been reflected in weak FOI legislation and excessive charges and delays. The significant rise in distrust in government over the past 30 years has been revealed by large-scale survey research. In 2007 the ANU-based Australian Survey of Social Attitudes found that 38 per cent of respondents believed that government was entirely or mostly undertaken for the benefit of a few big interests and only 20 per cent believed it was run for the benefit of all. Those who identified as working class were the most sceptical.

But of course it was a vivid demonstration of such distrust, the sudden rise of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, which prompted the current wave of community engagement strategies. One Nation fed off disenchantment with representative democracy and promoted the belief that “political elites” were out of touch with citizen concerns.

When One Nation won over 20 per cent of the vote in the 1998 Queensland State election, one of the first announcements of the minority Beattie Labor government was a program of “community cabinets.” As Professor Glyn Davis, head of the Queensland Department of Premier and Cabinet suggested, community cabinets were “a way to bring citizens back into the political system.” Cabinet meetings were held in regional centres, including those where support for One Nation had been high, and opportunities were provided for individuals and groups to discuss their concerns with ministers. A 1999 survey of participants found a high level of satisfaction with the process as well as improved understanding of government. As a useful way of showing government was listening (if not always taking notice), community cabinets were taken up in all jurisdictions – most recently by the Rudd government, which held nine community cabinets around the country in 2008.

Meanwhile other strategies were also being adopted to bridge the gap between government and the people. To be successful in allaying distrust they needed to reach out beyond the “stakeholders” usually invited to participate in inquiries. While consulting with those most affected by particular policies (often via peak bodies) might provide useful information to be absorbed in the policy process, it can also be portrayed as a cosy relationship between insider elites.

An Immigration official recently described the “key stakeholders” who would be consulted over work rights for asylum seekers as follows: “They include groups such as the Refugee Council of Australia, the asylum seeker centres and resource centres and the various refugee advice and casework-type services, so that it is a broad group of stakeholders and community organisations that have an interest either in the policy settings or in the provision of support to asylum seekers while they are in Australia.”  Clearly such a consultation process would fuel the worst fears of those who, like Pauline Hanson, believed government had been captured by elites and special interests. The “community engagement” strategies being initiated by the Queensland government were designed to reach a broader and more regionally dispersed public, including the alienated and disenchanted.
In 1999 Tasmanian Labor Premier Jim Bacon followed with a two-year Tasmania Together community consultation process to establish a “vision” for the State to be achieved by 2020. More than 60 public meetings were held across the State and individuals had the opportunity to make submissions, fill out postcards and make comments on websites. Participants were encouraged to develop both goals and performance indicators for government and a statutory authority was established to monitor progress against the resulting 143 benchmarks. Although the Tasmanian government failed to meet the 2003 Tasmania Together target for ending clearfelling in old-growth forests, its process for developing “community ownership” of government directions was regarded as a more positive example than the Victorian government’s subsequent Growing Victoria Together.

In Western Australia, the Gallop Labor government elected in 2001 also made a commitment to increasing citizen engagement and set up an Office of Citizens and Civics in the Premier’s Department. A Citizenscape portal was developed with details of all consultations currently being undertaken by government agencies. In the same year the Queensland government established an E-Democracy Unit, also in the Premier’s Department, to promote citizenship engagement through webcasting, online consultation and online polling. A portal, ConsultQld, was established for the use of government agencies undertaking consultations and it also provided maps showing where public consultations were taking place across Queensland. Almost half its users claimed they would not have made a submission to government if this facility had not been available. The Howard government lagged behind the kinds of community engagement being undertaken by State and Territory governments, claiming it was already governing for the mainstream and eliminating the influence of elites and special interests in areas such as policy towards asylum seekers. Howard himself attributed his electoral success to his ability to use unmediated communication with “the people” through talk-back radio.

Another mode of direct communication between the people and government is the ancient right of parliamentary petitions. Lack of government response to such petitions had led to them being regarded as largely a waste of time and paper – only three ministerial responses were received to the 2587 petitions tabled in the House of Representatives between 1999 and 2007. Although the Senate was the first parliamentary chamber in Australia to accept electronic petitions, it was again Queensland that took a lead in making the process more meaningful. Queensland moved to allow electronic petitions in 2002 and established a popular petitions website where petitioners could start or sign petitions, track their progress and view ministerial responses. Tasmania followed suit, adding a tight timeframe for ministerial responses.

In 2008, the Rudd government announced that for the first time since Federation, the House of Representatives would have a Petitions Committee to “listen to millions of Australians.” Although electronic petitions were not yet accepted, the committee would now refer petitions to the relevant minister and conduct public hearings. Today the committee’s online register of petitions records a large number of ministerial responses as well as the program of public hearings at which the committee takes evidence from petitioners and government officials.

The Rudd government’s 2020 Summit was another way to show government was listening, building on the various State government experiments already mentioned and with Professor Glyn Davis again playing an important role. Like other community engagement projects the 2020 Summit used online technology to gather submissions from individuals and the many local summits held in the lead up to the main event. In terms of governance, one of the main commitments was to enhance community engagement through e-governance and more events like community cabinets and the summit itself. Specific policy proposals were largely fobbed off to more traditional forms of consultation such as Green Papers, exposure drafts of legislation and parliamentary and government inquiries involving “stakeholders.” While the 2020 Summit had brought together 1000 delegates who were leaders in various fields, the staging of the event was directed more to showing the government was listening than to the production of coherent policy proposals.

In truth, the policy process is more tightly controlled than ever, but if strategies for “enhancing community engagement” can help overcome some of the more dysfunctional distrust in government this is a positive outcome. A certain level of distrust may be the mark of a healthy democracy, but if alienated citizens believe that political elites are betraying their interests by, for example, upholding international human rights norms, then any initiatives that bring them more in touch with government must be to the good. Otherwise they are much too susceptible to talk-show hosts or political leaders presenting themselves as the “voice of the people” while undermining the processes of representative democracy.   

Marian Sawer is an adjunct professor at the ANU’s School of Social Sciences and Director of the Democratic Audit-ANU. Australia: The State of Democracy, by Marian Sawer, Norman Abjorensen and Phil Larkin, will be published by Federation Press on 15 June 2009

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