Listening not talking

7 May 2009

George Williams explores what changes need to occur to really bring about participatory democracy.

Governments often consult. They set up inquiries about new laws and policies on everything from taxation to climate change to how to reform the system of government itself. These processes rarely live up to the aim of giving the community a say; they typically turn into dialogues with experts and those with a stake in the outcome. Ordinary Australians, most of whom are completely divorced from how they are governed, rarely participate.

It is not meant to be this way. In his 1863 Gettysburg Address, US President Abraham Lincoln famously described democracy as being ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people.’ We seldom live up to the ideal of government ‘by the people’ and consequently Australians are typecast as apathetic, lazy and ignorant when it comes to showing an interest in government. After all, if they do not take part when given the opportunity, surely this indicates a lack the desire.

My experience demonstrates the opposite to be true. Australians do not lack the motivation to be involved; rather there are few real opportunities. Although political rhetoric often talks of ‘community engagement’, government makes little effort to move beyond those people already engaged, rarely expending the extra effort needed to reach the suburbs and regional and rural Australia.

My interest in public engagement lies in the area of reforming government. I believe that change is needed to improve our democracy, and that the process by which we bring this about should itself proceed by democratic means. I am sceptical about the capacity of any large reform to be successful unless it has been generated and owned by the people it is meant to serve. Of course it is easy to criticise community participation in government and law reform; the much harder task is to put good practice into action. My first opportunity to do so came when I was asked to chair the Victorian government’s community consultation on whether that State should be the first in Australia to have a bill or charter of rights. The process demonstrated that, if given an opportunity, Australians want to be involved in how they are governed and can be passionate about expressing their views. I even found that many self‐described apathetic Australians became actively involved when given the chance.

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