Power of non-party people

12 Feb 2009

From last Friday to Monday, sandwiched between official parliamentary sittings, a different type of parliament sat in Old Parliament House. The so-called Citizens’ Parliament convened to consider how our democracy could be improved. The message from the participants, randomly chosen from the electoral roll, was clear. Most of the citizen parliamentarians were deeply sceptical and often openly cynical about our parliamentary system and certain that it fails to connect sufficiently with its citizens. Particular disdain was felt for Australia’s political parties and their divisive approach to politics.

This deeply shocked those former politicians present, including co-chair, former Liberal federal minister Fred Chaney. The Citizens’ Parliament was convened by a coalition of interested individuals and groups that included the new Democracy Foundation, the idea of Sydney architect Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, and researchers from three universities Australian National University, Sydney and Curtin supported by an Australian Research Council Linkage Grant. At a cost of $500,000 plus a lot of volunteer time, this experiment brought together a representative from each federal electorate, 150 in all, to form a parliament. After earlier online discussions and one round of preparatory face-to-face regional meetings which generated 11 proposals, they gathered under the guidance of the co-chairs, Lowitja O’Donoghue and Chaney, as well as numerous professional facilitators. The 11 proposals quickly grew to nearly 50.

The time available was double that allocated to the recent 2020 Summit, though still much too short. What occurred was an intense mix of small-group interaction, engagement with expert panelists, brain-storming and quiet reflection with the aim of creating proposals, refining and consolidating them, and ultimately setting priorities for action. The final outcomes focused on reducing duplication in government, making it more open and accessible and empowering all citizens, especially the young, to take part in it. Ultimately, however, the particular propositions that emerged are not as important as what the Citizens’ Parliament stands for and what it says about Australian democracy.

The Citizens’ Parliament is part of a growing worldwide intellectual and activist movement that aims to reinvigorate the style of decision-making in representative democracy and in society at large. Different threads of the movement are associated with diverse and overlapping concepts including participatory democracy, citizens’ juries, town hall meetings, deliberative democracy, and e-democracy. For many decades now, business people, academics and activists, despairing about the inadequacies and shallowness of our parliamentary system, have been seeking new ways of involving citizens more directly in decision-making. They have, in many different ways, been seeking to eradicate adversarial politics, to build new deliberative mechanisms and to foster common ground.

Some elements have already entered the existing Australian system, not transforming it but supplementing conventional ways of doing things. They have even fed into the fringes of the party system itself through the processes practiced by the Democrats and the Greens. Initiatives have included big-ticket items funded by both federal and state governments. In the 1990s, the Government-funded Constitutional Centenary Foundation staged hundreds of local constitutional conventions to examine questions like the future of federalism at the local community level in the lead-up to the Centenary of Federation in 2001. Another strand has been deliberative polls, many run by Issues Deliberation Australia, made up of randomly-selected Australians brought together to discuss controversial questions such as the republic (just before the 1999 referendum), reconciliation and bills of rights. At state and local level there have also been experiments trying to bring together antagonistic interests around a table.

Former Western Australian state minister Alannah McTiernan told the Citizens’ Parliament how the Western Australian state government tried to find common ground on a divisive question like the growing size of road trains by bringing together industry groups, environmentalists and other interested parties. Citizens have long been involved in various forms of consultation and enquiry processes by parliaments and governments. The Bill of Rights consultation chaired by Father Frank Brennan fits into this category. The important difference though is the lower level of structured on-going interaction as distinct from learning what individuals think on a single occasion. A parallel development has been what might be called elite citizens’ parliaments. These go back at least as far as the National Economic Summit called by Bob Hawke in 1983. Kevin Rudd’s 2020 Summit last year is in this tradition.

They involve selected community and corporate leaders and professional and academic experts brought together for facilitated debate. These initiatives are very different but they share a common view that not all wisdom lies in Parliament and that official representative democracy needs a greater injection of citizen thinking. What does it all mean and will it ever change the way Australian democracy operates? Representative democracy needs help. It is losing legitimacy. Governments and parliaments need to change their processes and reach out more to their citizens. This conclusion attracts widespread sympathy, if not agreement, in different quarters.

The practical difficulties in achieving this goal, however, remain enormous, though information technology helps by breaking down distances, costs and time constraints. There remains widespread ignorance in the community about all things political and constitutional. Much more community education is required to reverse that. It may even be an unrealistic goal. The bulk of the population may not be interested in more democratic involvement and are not touched by any of these developments. To touch them would require not just 150 representatives on one occasion, but at least one Citizens’ Parliament, repeated frequently, in each federal electorate. Even that would be just scraping the surface of what is necessary to reinvigorate our democracy. But the challenge is a more than worthy one. 


John Warhurst is an adjunct professor of political science in the Faculty of Arts at the Australian National University. He was an invited panelist at the Citizens’ Parliament. This article first appeared in the Canberra Times. Photo: Alan Porritt/ AAP Image

Publication Details
Published year only: 
Geographic Coverage