Growing up politically: conducting a national conversation on climate change

9 Sep 2010

Lyn Carson argues that citizen assemblies do have a lot to offer if they are done the right way.



The real test of a democracy is not whether it can overcome its disagreements, but how it conducts itself in light of them. The manner in which our open, honest national conversation proceeds will say a good deal about our democratic maturity.
Tim Soutphommasane


On Friday, 23 July 2010, at the end of the first week of the 2010 Australian federal election campaign, Prime Minister Julia Gillard held a press conference to announce her commitments regarding Australian Labor Party (ALP) climate change policy.[1] Central to that announcement was her proposal to convene a "Citizens' Assembly" (CA)[2] that would involve 150 randomly-selected Australian citizens.

I awoke that morning to a radio report of this impending announcement, and leapt out of bed in excitement. It was news to me, but I was thrilled! I had only recently initiated, co-designed and co-convened Australia’s first large-scale Citizens' Parliament[3]. While our effort was convened by a non-government organisation and academic researchers, the CA looks suspiciously similar with its 150 participants. This could finally be the Government-sponsored citizens’ assembly that deliberative democrats in Australia have long been hoping for.[4]

The development of national economic policy in response to climate change has been a tortuous affair in Australia, one of the strongest economies in the world and underpinned by natural resource extraction and coal power generation. The Copenhagen Summit had passed in disappointment, with Australia committing to only a 5% reduction in emissions by 2020. The industrial and political forces pitted against government intervention with a carbon emissions tax system (ETS) have been relentless.  Opinion polls showed strong public acceptance for an ETS, but a vocal minority of individuals, motivated by climate change scepticism and free-market ideology, spurn any such government intervention. In spite of this contention, even within each major party, they came close to legislative agreement on an ETS, only to fall away for various reasons. With that failure, the Government had the trigger to take the electorate to a double-dissolution election, but ignored that opportunity as they neared the end of their term of office. At the time of the election, the Government had deferred the possible introduction of ETS legislation until 2013, blaming the recalcitrance of the Opposition.

Another important point of context is that Julia Gillard was only in the Prime Minister's chair for six weeks before the election. A spill engineered by ALP power-brokers had put her there to replace Kevin Rudd, under whose watch the earlier developments had occurred. For many, the perceived back-down on the ETS had been too much to bear after he had committed to its establishment as "Australia's greatest moral challenge".

Immediately after her announcement and her first comments to the media, I received an email from a public participation practitioner and colleague: "I think Julia Gillard has set back the cause of citizens’ assemblies as a politically useful exercise by years, if not decades."

The intent of this paper is to show how the introduction of public engagement into the politically charged arena of climate change policy could not have been done more poorly. First, the ideal form of citizens' assembly will be compared to what was announced. Then, it will be shown why the adverse media commentary that ensued was caused by several key miscalculations or confusions in its introduction. Finally, this will be related to the ongoing and frustrating inability of public engagement scholars and practitioners to appeal to the mainstream.

What is a Citizens' Assembly?

I believe that protracted deliberative public participation is necessary to inform and monitor public policy formation in contexts that are contentious and long-term. I accept that this stance is in itself contentious, as it runs contrary to the prevailing paradigm of representative democracy that conventionally grants authority to elected politicians and the public service executive. My academic and community work is all about designing public engagement processes that invite statistically representative or diverse samples of people into facilitated policy deliberation (known as mini-publics), both to be informed and to inform and influence legislators.

As a researcher, practitioner and former elected representative, I know these processes work. I know the recommendations arising from them are always thoughtful and reasonable. I know they attract support from the wider community if that community is aware of, and has confidence in, the robustness of the process. They must be procedurally fair. A mini-public like a CA must possess certain attributes.

 Firstly, a CA must be a miniature population with at least 150 people (confident that the results for the population as a whole will be within approx 5% of these results) who match a demographic profile (derived from census data) of the Australian population. We do not need to include 20 million Australians. They must be randomly selected from the electoral roll (we had a 35% response rate for the Australian Citizens’ Parliament and that was not a government initiative so we could expect an even better response rate if the government convened one). Everyone should have an equal chance of selection and it should be voluntary (but a privilege). This avoids the “usual suspects” and means the government can find out what a cross-section of informed Australian citizens consider should be done to address this “diabolical policy problem” (in the words of Ross Garnaut).

Secondly, the Assembly must have access to a range of experts and as much information as they need. All interests, all perspectives should be available to participants—all barrows should be wheeled into the room. Citizens are remarkably good at weighing up the strengths and weaknesses of arguments and arriving at a considered, collective judgement. A steering committee can ensure that all views are heard and the Assembly itself will be curious enough to ask for what it wants if there’s anything missing.

Thirdly, the Assembly must have neutral facilitators who can help the group reach its own judgement. The environment must stimulate inquiry and respectful discussion (just as has occurred in the CAs convened elsewhere). Consensus is not essential. There’s room for minority views. People are encouraged to share stories first to establish their shared values, then they can uncover differences and explore common ground.

Finally, and this is the most difficult to achieve, it must have influence, the outcome must matter. This does not mean the CA decision is the government’s decision. However, the decision maker has to say upfront what will become of the recommendations—they have to take the results seriously. The recommendations of the British Columbia (BC) CA went straight to a referendum and people who supported the model at the polling booth said they did so because they trusted the judgment of citizens like themselves who had met over nearly a year of intense learning and deliberation. This will not happen in Australia. No referendum will follow the CA. But the government must be genuine in its preparedness to listen to the judgement of a microcosm of Australian citizens. If other CAs are anything to go by, citizens’ recommendations will be sensible and insightful and will help to build community confidence in addressing this vexing problem of climate change.

It should also be stated that it must be organised by an independent group with a steering group overseeing the process. It should be completely transparent. Government must distance itself from the CA planning and organisation while endorsing and celebrating the dedication of its members.

During the election campaign, Julia Gillard was advised by Tom Bentley,[5] former director of the non-profit Demos think-tank in the UK. Bentley was the prime mover for this announcement. He has been an active advocate of institutionalised public engagement and grass-roots participation. In 2005, he wrote,

... the essential lesson of democratic history is that unless the maintenance of political structures is combined with deepening cultures of democratic participation, democracy will fall apart. The solution is not simply to create more direct democracy, or to set up an ever-growing array of consultative processes divorced from the exercise of real power, but to embed both these principles – direct and deliberative – in the range of institutions through which people can express their concerns, their needs and their identities.[6]

There is ample academic literature about the theoretical benefits of deliberative democracy –a representative legislature and public administration that is informed by officially-sanctioned processes of public deliberation (analogous to juries that determine trial verdicts in a judicial system). But like most theorists, Bentley did not advance how a deliberative democracy should actually be introduced!

Miscalculations and Confusions

The day after Gillard’s announcement, I gave two television interviews and one radio interview after my media release had been picked up. The Sydney Morning Herald ran with a positive media release[7] from the University of Technology's Institute for Sustainable Futures (which had convened an Australian forum as part of an international gathering, WorldWideViews on Global Warming). But this was lost amidst the subsequent outcry of derision from all corners. By the end of the day, I was appalled by the quality of media coverage. What had gone wrong?


Confusion #1: Commentators and the public do not know what a CA is

No information package was distributed to describe the CA to the media. Commentators were left to make incorrect and damaging presumptions based on poor engagement practices in the past, thus misinforming the public. So a CA was repeatedly discounted on false premises.

Gillard inappropriately set the agenda while omitting details about how the CA would actually work. Climate Change Minister, Penny Wong, added to the confusion, never explaining a CA but stating: “It’s a way in which we ensure that we give a voice to ordinary Australians”[8].

Wong undermined the promise of “a wide range of advocates” to inform the CA. “Asked... whether the assembly would be addressed by climate sceptics, Climate Change Minister Penny Wong said: “If they’re credible scientists.”[9].

The CA was described variously as a national focus group or a committee or a deliberative poll[10]. This led to knee-jerk reaction like that of the Food and Grocery Council demanding that the CA “include industry representatives”[11]. The Executive Director of the conservative think-tank Australia Institute, Richard Denniss, who in his position might be expected to elicit more thoughtful remarks, suggested that “we’ll be doing climate policy on Facebook next”[12]. He exclaimed that it was possibly “the single worst idea that has ever been floated by an elected government in a federal election”.

The media canvassed criticisms of it almost exclusively[13]. This happened through their choice of opinion pieces, news coverage, letters to editors and television panellists and news interviewees. Damning the CA became a blood sport. Glenn Milne[14] called it “risible” and “pathetic” and tabloid slogans dominated, predicting “squabbling and seething” and that “only idiots” would dedicate a year to a CA. The Opposition’s spokesperson Greg Hunt thought it “farcical”, “national policy by lottery”, with participants “chosen from the phone book”[15] adding that it was “2020 Summit meets Copenhagen conference” [16]. Michelle Grattan reported that people consider it “a bit of nonsense”.[17] Headlines described it as a “gab-fest”. Paul Kelly accused Gillard of engaging in “gimmicks” and claimed “consensus is the great hoax”[18].

Miranda Devine viewed it with deep suspicion: a “melange of bewitching hokery-pokery and beguiling flummery.... The chosen ones will be subjected to a ‘rigorous process’ to establish consensus, Gillard said. After 12 months of duchessing, subtle bullying and brainwashing, what kind of consensus will materialise? ... by what sinister means are we to be more ‘deeply’ persuaded? … No mind that we already have a citizens’ assembly – a democratically elected Parliament … C.S.Lewis would recognise her ploy of beguiling the masses with endless supplies of Turkish delight, just as her lookalike, actress Tilda Swinton, does as the White Witch, Jadis, who froze Narnia in the Hundred Years Winter.”[19] Goodness: witchcraft, beguiling flummery and bullying.

Gillard has a view that a CA involves passive participants, being consulted[20]. At its best it would build consensus (perhaps in line with Bob Hawke’s successful modus operandi as PM?). At its worst Gillard positioned herself thus:  “I will lead the debate and lead the advocacy of our approach...”[21]

A Greens voter was reported thus:[22] the CA “left Ms Black and her family unimpressed. ‘If she wants to represent Australia then instead of just randomly picking people she should actually pick people who have some kind of knowledge about climate change,’ Ms Black said.”

Letters to Editor[23] included these views: “May I suggest the following makeup of the citizens’ assembly: 30 coal industry executives and workers; 30 members of the finance industry; 30 people from suburbs known as ‘aspirational’; 30 farmers. It would be interesting to know what the consensus would be.” [Susan Cornish] “One thing Jane Stevenson (Letters, July 26) can be sure of is that Ian Plimer will not be invited to the citizens’ assembly.” [Alistair Browne] “... if you don’t have a clue, form a committee. Turn your thoughts to the 2020 summit, at which 1000 of the smartest Australians were called together by a different prime minister with much fanfare to determine our future. Pure spin and no substance. Nothing has changed.” [Peter Doyle] “Julia Gillard needs to be advise that the Federal Parliament is the elected citizens’ assembly of the Australian people. If she is unable to convince that group she should move on.” [Ben Caplan]

Confusion #2: Expressing a desire for "deep consensus" (perhaps rhetorically)

We don't know exactly what Labor wanted a CA to achieve. Presumably it was to produce a policy that everyone can at least live with and that sustains beyond election cycles; to advance a process that is comparatively non-political.

Gillard always spoke of the CA in a same breath as “building a community consensus”. This attracted comment from Anne Twomey who claimed that CAs don’t educate and don’t promote consensus—“Citizens’ assemblies work fine—in theory” and “Worthy as a citizens’ assembly might be, if the purpose of this proposal is to build consensus, then much more needs to be done”. [24] Twomey ignores evidence from BC example, that onlookers trusted the judgment of fellow citizens and voted accordingly.

The CA itself is not designed to reach consensus. It’s designed to explore common ground and establish the extent of that, creating space for preferences to shift but allowing for minority views to emerge and be retained. Along with comprehensive media coverage it could stimulate a national conversation. However, activists were imploring: “It’s time to stop having complex conversations and start implementing some simple solutions."[25]

Confusion #3: Announcing a CA as a "policy" during an election campaign

It was not a policy, and hardly "centrepiece". It was just a process issue (like the ATO shift to a call centre model of public communication when the GST was introduced, that was not announced as a "policy"). The policy here could be institutionalised public engagement, that would go beyond the issue of climate policy to all government activity. It takes more than just announcing one process, especially when it becomes lost in all the electioneering.

Perhaps the government really had so little to offer after the deferment of its CC policy, that this was just a creative exercise, not expected to fly, but signalled now so that it would not come as a surprise later. It was noted that:

Labor MPs are deeply embarrassed by Julia Gillard’s 150-person citizens’ assembly she hopes will find a consensus for climate change. Several of them are deliberately downplaying it and instead focusing on Labor’s other environmental promises. The Australian has spoken to several Labor MPs who privately concede the idea has gone down “like a lead balloon” and has hurt, rather than helped, Labor’s climate change credentials.[26]

At least one Labor Member of Parliament wished the idea had been discussed by Caucus where he would have opposed it.[27] Of course, election campaigns give leaders freedom to defy the convention of consulting with Caucus or Cabinet (supposedly the reason that Prime Minister Rudd was removed by his party—his unwillingness to consult anyone but his ‘kitchen cabinet’[28] prior to the election).

Confusion #4: Not recognising the Government itself as a stakeholder

There are many proposals about climate policy, and the Labor Party has a stake in an ETS. For example, it has resisted a carbon tax. The government cannot say that it is both committed to an ETS and to the recommendations of a CA, which may not align well. The CA cannot be "educated" to adopt the Government position. If the CA is framed only to consider variations of ETS, the public may feel hoodwinked. More work should have been put into the method (and to the way this method is communicated to the public) to which the CA would be given transparent independence from the Government and all other stakeholders.

Therefore, by stating that she would use the carbon pollution reduction scheme (CPRS: the failed legislation) as the basis for the CA she put critics of that legislation offside. It should have been one of many proposals that a CA could examine, not the basis for its work. People should be encouraged to push any barrows they like before the CA—push them all into the room, and let participants decide.

Confusion #5: The relationship between political leadership and public engagement is confused, as always

Most of the caustic commentary was about "failure of leadership". Deconstructing the commentary, one finds an almost universal expectation that politicians should exercise power in a liberal democratic tradition that provides them with that mandate. Gillard and Wong fall into the same trap by saying that they will "lead the CA", which is inappropriate. That the CA will "merely" inform the politicians is derided; the expectation by those who design such processes is that a CA should directly determine, or at least genuinely influence, policy.

“We already have a citizens assembly—a democratically elected Parliament” so said Miranda Devine[29]. The Greens and a number of political commentators also ran this line. Parliament is not descriptively representative, as a CA would be. Parliament has also been the impediment to change since both Coalition conservatives and Greens refused to pass the CPRS. Parliament has become so adversarial and polarised that it is unlikely that any future make up of the Senate will approve climate change legislation. If the Greens hold the balance of power they are likely to stand firm in their belief that only a carbon tax is acceptable. Ben Cubby[30] noted that

 [d]ebate has deteriorated to the point where 150 unelected, randomly selected Australians that would sit in a Gillard government ‘citizens’ assembly’ are probably more likely to see the issue clearly and reach a consensus than Federal Parliament.

There will never be a consensus on this issue. Two political leaders have already fallen over it – Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd. Garnaut described it as a diabolical policy problem for good reason: there are political costs, the science will always be contested, economists disagree about the best way to price carbon, and there are inevitable financial costs for all. Nobody likes costs. Political leaders avoid them but ultimately must impose them and earn the ire of voters. Lenore Taylor said:

Labor knows a carbon price is inevitable. So do many Liberals. They just aren’t quite ready to unwrap this policy in front of the electorate.[31] 

The Opposition spokesperson on climate change, Greg Hunt, described the CA[32], as a massive failure of leadership. Peter Hartcher wrote that Gillard is

... the archetypical professional prime ministerial procrastinator… Of course, there is another ‘citizens’ assembly’. It’s called Parliament. But Gillard argues it is not enough to have agreement between the political parties in Parliament. [33]

Business Council of Australia chief executive Katie Lahey stated that, while Labor’s commitment to building community consensus was constructive,

... in this complex policy area, long-term solutions that balance Australia’s economic and environment considerations will only come through strong political leadership.[34]

Richard Denniss dismissed the CA with these words:

The idea that we can delegate this to a citizens’ assembly when the government already has expert advice from Professor Ross Garnaut and the Chief Scientist to name two is absurd.[35]

However, leadership is easy if everyone agrees or if the leader does what the stakeholder wants. Involving voters in difficult decisions is one way to diffuse that anger by sharing ownership of those decisions. Furthermore, experts alone will not resolve this issue. Diabolical policy problems require more than facts; they involve values and the solution rests on the willingness of citizens to pay, and more. Neither bureaucrats nor technocrats alone can deal with these vexing issues. Parliaments certainly cannot. This is going to require the collective intelligence of the nation, most easily organised through miniature populations or mini-publics (and certainly not via superficial polling or focus groups; it requires public judgment not public opinion).

Confusion #6: Not being persuasive enough that participating citizens should be trusted

It turns out that citizens don't even trust themselves, since most apparently want elected leadership to do their job. The media either influenced voters or accurately reflected their opinion. Poll respondents firmly rejected the CA [36]. Fran Kelly reported that “60% of Australians are unimpressed by centrepiece of climate policy, the citizens’ assembly”[37] and this was consistent with the Herald/Nielson poll that found 41% of respondents wanted a CA, 53% were unimpressed[38]

I received an email after the leaders’ televised debate that said: “We watched Channel 9 to see the worm in action. It dived southward every time the issue [CA] was mentioned. It was so distressing.”


The good news is that 41% did poll in favour of a CA, even though surely most did not even know what it is. This could be a ray of hope for wishful deliberative democrats. Imagine the level of support had voters been given clear information about a CA by elected representatives and the media. (Indeed, I conducted informal interviews in the marginal western Sydney seat of Lindsay and found that the majority opposition to a CA swung easily the other way once a CA was briefly described.)

Following an article published online by The Age, one blogger, “Prince Planet” stated: “you ask ignorant citizens (science illiterates), you get bad policy”[39].  Letters to the Editor attracted comments such as this: “I do not want a citizens’ assembly of 150 rank-and-file Australians to decide the fate of Labor’s climate measures on my behalf”. [Ross Barlow][40]

They need not worry. Gillard is not giving the CA much influence. It

... will not be ... the final arbiter or judge of consensus, but to provide an indicator to the nation of the progress of community consensus.[41]

If one accepts that “the current commitment to review … in 2012” then having a group of citizens help to inform vital policies seems reasonable enough and hardly determining the country’s fate.

Confusion #7: Introducing public participation much too late

Mark Bahnisch was one of the few commentators with a good understanding of the CA, giving it merit in principle. But he was still critical: "The problem with a climate change jury is that it's far too late in the game."[42]

This feeds the cynicism of the commentariat and the public that it's just a stunt. It may very well be a stunt insofar as Labor really did not have any real 'action' and they would be lambasted for changing their mind. So strategically, this was probably the best 'solution' they could come up with.

Others were quite abusive. “The majority of Australians will see this for what it is: a feeble attempt to defuse climate change as an election issue. But the time for talking is over; it’s time for action."[43] The Greens (via Senator Christine Milne) called it "rubbish", an excuse for inaction. Worthy of note is that Gillard never spoke about the Greens at all, perhaps holding out future possibility for negotiation.

After hearing the criticisms from the Greens, and being aware that they had a policy of supporting CAs,  I contacted a Greens MP. The response was that the Greens supported community engagement for policy development, but not on this issue at this time—the CA was being used to delay action. This was not quite true. Action had been delayed already. The PM had previously said she would not introduce her centrepiece climate change policy until 2012. She had said that prior to the announcement of the CA. The intentional delay was already evident. In the interim she wanted to build a community consensus on climate change action because of the polarised, divisive nature of the debate.

I have sympathy with the Greens’ position. Having co-designed a number of deliberative forums on climate change (including a large one in New South Wales involving local and state government), I know what everyday citizens think about this issue. My belief is supported by a credible four-year study “targeting more than 7000 Australians” by the Centre for the Study of Choice at the University of Technology, Sydney.[44]  A clear majority wants the government to adopt a carbon pricing policy now—these people want a climate change plan that works. Citizens are already acting in their local communities and want their governments to catch up.


Unfortunately, cautious politicians are lagging behind their constituents and heeding the ghettos of like-minded people with whom they usually discuss these matters. A CA could, perhaps, help to correct that.

Along with the accusation that it was an excuse for delaying action, came an accompanying refrain: that industry and big business have too much influence. Greenpeace spokesperson, Stephen Campbell, claimed the CA was nothing more than a smokescreen – code for “I need more time to talk to my friends in the mining industry”[45]. Faced with such condemnation, politicians are increasingly reluctant to do anything that might “disturb the horses” (electors) or unnerve their donors (vested interests).

It is one of the reasons why we are thought to have the politicians we deserve. We have made them meek and mild and the media plays on this. Consider what happened when Gillard announced the CA. One would think the sky would fall in if people had a say in decisions that affect them.

I received an email that said “all the negative and boisterous media pieces really hit home just how far deliberative practices are from being understood and how politically difficult it must be for leaders (at least initially) to go against the grain and actually do something different, especially when the ramifications are so wide-reaching”.


On a positive note, the ALP has given itself some breathing space. The embarrassment driven by the media frenzy will die away quickly, and defections will go to the Greens, which advise preferences be returned anyway. They can start again afresh after re-election. Mark Bahnisch again:

A citizen climate jury will see the debate re-opened, rather than consensus built... Politically, it's more of what we've had so far from Julia Gillard PM - a holding action rather than a genuine way to "move forward". The true consultation will be with the corporate interests who were able to load the CPRS with so many give-aways it became a policy instrument incapable of achieving its stated aim.

What should have happened

As the days passed, others tried to shore up the value of a CA and correct the errors. Carolyn Hendriks wrote: “Citizens' assemblies are tools for eliciting considered policy advice from informed citizens. They are not about building ''community consensus'', educating ''the people'' or even about gauging opinions. For these we have elections, information campaigns, and opinion polls.”[46]


A CA should be introduced as part of a campaign that situates public participation as a central policy platform in line with the government’s own Declaration of Open Government[47] which states that the Labor government “is committed to open government based on a culture of engagement”. Why was the CA not couched in these terms? Is it a coincidence that the minister responsible for this Declaration, Lindsay Tanner, has resigned from parliament. Did he lack support for this policy direction?  Perhaps his colleagues prophesised the fall out.

Jim Snow, in a Letter to the Editor, tried his best to enthuse readers:

Julia Gillard’s proposal for a citizens’ assembly on climate change is welcome. Parliament is clearly unable to reflect public opinion on the matter while its members stick to the party line even when they disagree with it. The ability of a party to reflect the views of its members is constrained by the decision of the majority and often, before that, a public declaration by its leader made under pressure. I have been involved with conferences on environmental, transport, agricultural and marine issues that brought together people with contrary opinions – experts and non-experts. They clarified issues and were followed by government action with less acrimony and futile debate than before. The citizens’ assembly, selected as a representative body and informed by the best proponents in the debate, may just give us the long overdue informed conversation on climate change. [48]

Ron Lubensky wrote (on 26 July):

The output of a citizens' assembly will be judgements that the government can apply with confidence to satisfy and respect the broadest range of public, private and institutional interests, with a greater chance of achieving support from across the political spectrum. Provided that the government implements policies that are consistent with those judgements, the citizens' assembly adds legitimacy to those policies that will stand the test of time.[49]

In a video interview with Sydney Morning Herald on 13 August, Gillard said much the same thing[50].


There is a clear incompatibility between perceived leadership management imperatives and the facilitative nature of participatory governance. For me this is nowhere more apparent than the worldviews expressed by the initiator of the CA, Tom Bentley, and the PM who communicated the details. Bentley sees a future in which local people make their own decisions in sustainable self-organising communities; Gillard is a creature of elected parliaments supported by expert policy advisors, exercising strong leadership. The two are not incompatible but are often seen, or portrayed, as such. This case study demonstrates just how wide that divide can become. Deliberative democrats may have a long wait until congruence emerges between the worldviews of initiators and their political champions.

Had the CA been announced for a less-pressing issue, one that had no demonstrable mandate, for example, a sustainable population policy, would it have been supported rather than derided? I continue to wonder. I believe the legitimacy issue and the misunderstandings would persist. Not until CAs become routine will these challenges abate, along with less dependence upon strong leadership.

Those defending parliament have criticised it yet defend its capabilities in contrast to a deliberative innovation involving citizens. Given the democratic deficit that exists it seems sensible to look at ways to improve public confidence in policy making. Who has an eye on the long-term—an elected politician with the next election in view or an everyday citizen without any vested interest except in his/her own future? In other words, a CA could enhance legitimacy. Excluding the public can compromise legitimacy.

Timing is everything with community engagement and every process designer will list “timeliness” as a pre-condition for engagement. Always stressed is the importance of engagement occurring early in the life of a policy challenge. The government could have convened a CA when it took office in 2007. (Collaborative governance was a recommendation arising from the 2020 Summit which Rudd commended then ignored.) The government  miscalculated, in my opinion, and this is a big take-away lesson from the humiliation wrought by announcing a CA during an election campaign.

If Tom Soutphommasane is right, and the test of our democracy is in the way we conduct ourselves in the light of disagreements—resolving those intractable problems—then the future could be grim if we proceed as we have begun during this election campaign. However, if Labor wins a fresh term, it can start again, but properly. This means educating the party and the public about the potentials of public engagement. This is the type of work being done in local governments across Australia. A shift is needed in the public perception of democratic participation from mere voting to engagement processes that have more power than focus groups or opinion polls. This transformation would see an electorate confidently embrace participatory governance.





[1]               For the full transcript of the press conference, see,--moving-forward-together-on/

[2]               It was not the only commitment. There was also to be an independent commission of experts appointed to consider the science and a range of proposals for renewable energy, energy efficiency, pollution reduction etc.

[3]               See and for further details

[4]               Citizens’ assemblies have been convened by governments elsewhere, for example, in British Columbia, Canada (2004), Ontario, Canada (2006/7) and The Netherlands (2006) – each of these on the topic of electoral reform.

[5]               Michelle Grattan (2010) “Wily wonk devised PM’s gab-fest”, The Age, July 28

[6]               Tom Bentley (2005), Everyday Democracy: Why we get the politicians we deserve, DEMOS, UK. p22.

[7]               Tom Arup (2010) “Citizens assembly praise”, Sydney Morning Herald, Weekend Edition, 24-25 July, p.7

[8]               AAP

[9]               Michelle Grattan (2010) “Wily wonk devised PM’s gab-fest”, The Age, 28 July, accessed online

[10]             George Megalogenis called it “a national focus group” then confused it with the Deliberative Poll on the republic (The Weekend Australian 25-25 July, p.7). Lenore Taylor called it a “committee” (online 23 July)

[11]             Chief Executive, Kate Carnell’s comments can be found at – (0)

[12]             AAP

[13]             To be fair, ABC Radio National’s Life Matters program on 30 July 2010 devoted 60 minutes to a balanced discussion about civic participation culminating in the last 25 minutes focused on the citizens’ assembly (0)

[14]             ABC News 24 (Television) “The Drum” 29 July 2010 at 6.20pm

[15]             ABC Radio National’s Breakfast program 27 July 2010

[16]             An event convened in 2008 by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd soon after his election (in 2007). Participants, including the author, have been critical of its process and outcomes. See Carson, L (2008) “2020 Summit: Meetings in the foothills”, Australian Review of Public Affairs, May (305)

[17]             ABC Radio National’s Breakfast program 26 July 2010

[18]             The Weekend Australian, 24-25 July, 2010, p.1, 6

[19]             SMH Weekend Edition, 24-25 July, 2010 p.7

[20]             ABC Television Q&A program


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