Beyond the (local) ballot box

27 Aug 2012

Australia's system of representative democracy is stable but weak. We aren’t about to have an Arab spring, but, when people’s engagement with democracy is limited to voting at elections, often with hostility or resentment, it’s a weak democracy. The system needs revitalising and the local government level – the level closest to the people – is the obvious place to start the process. With local government elections coming up in NSW in September, and Victoria to follow in October, there is an opportunity.

Ignorance, apathy, disillusionment and hostility towards governments and political processes is widespread throughout Australia, and much of the western democratic world. This creeping malaise, eating away at society, is strong at the local government level. Combined with a lower level of scrutiny from the media and among the public we find a greater likelihood of opportunistic behaviour among elected local councillors. After all, local government has always been a stepping-stone for those with higher political ambition.

So the situation arises where community alienation, in effect the mass turning of a blind eye, supports decision making and governance that may underpin personal ambition at the expense of the public interest. Local government is much more than roads, rates and rubbish. It touches the lives of almost every citizen in some way on a daily basis and the alienation affects quality of life, community harmony, economic development and environmental sustainability. The occasional eruption of open conflict within councils or between a council and its community alienates many. This is well and regularly demonstrated throughout Australia in actual and perceived abuse of process in local politics. The condition becomes self-sustaining, a non-virtuous cycle.

Local government reforms throughout Australia in the 1990s focused on management improvements, efficiencies in service delivery and cost saving. Opportunities for supporting community development and wellbeing were overlooked. Community wellbeing, a report for a local government community services association notes, is “built from a foundation of participatory local democracy – good governance and active citizenship – together with a commitment to promoting social justice and the growth of local social capital.”

This is at odds with the “we were elected to make decisions” strain of representative democracy that is common in elected councillors. Ted Mack, Mayor of North Sydney Council between 1980-88 before extended periods as a state and then federal MP, has said this “leads to increasing frustration, aggression and ultimately violence.” Being closest to the people and more accessible, this is most apparent at the local government level.

All councils carry out community consultation, which the community is rightly cynical about when much of it is meaningless, following the DAD approach – a decision is made, it is announced and then defended. For many people once bitten twice shy applies to their dealings with council. People withdraw further when they see their opinion is not taken seriously. And being taken seriously, Hugh Mackay has noted in his book What makes us tick? The ten desires that drive us, is the number one desire of Australian people. To be taken seriously sits atop a list that includes the desires for control, for love and for something to believe in.

In recent years all NSW councils have developed community engagement strategies which focus on finding what the community want rather than what elected councillors want. These community wants are addressed in a community strategic plan, the top dog of all council plans. But while honourable in sentiment the best engagement strategy is of no use if it isn’t matched by a supportive attitude among councillors. For those councillors who work on getting the numbers and are comfortable with a winner-take-all approach, there is some conflict with this new community-focused paradigm. The conflict may extend to staff who after years of working in one system are faced with an upheaval.

In the early 20th century Australia was seen around the world as a leader in democracy. The secret ballot was an Australian initiative and we became a nation when six states voted themselves into a Commonwealth without a war. Add to these achievements a minimum wage, unemployment benefits and a universal pension and it becomes clear why Australia was regarded as an egalitarian social laboratory.

A recent discussion about democracy on ABC Radio National saw a couple of program guests expressing their view that, on the whole, Australians are happy to outsource decision making to politicians. There was, they claimed, little appetite for closer engagement. I suspect this is because most people haven’t experienced engagement that takes them seriously and provides an opportunity to have real influence on a decision. Engagement that provides an opportunity to come to grips with complexity, weigh up diverse viewpoints and options before making a considered decision. These opportunities can be found in deliberative democracy.

This is a proactive process where citizens engage in the policy decision-making process at the earliest stages. In deliberation people take note of and question expert opinion. They share their personal views with the aim of finding common ground, while recognising differences. Decision-making follows reasoned and respectful discussion. Consensus does not become an obsession. Deliberative democracy is more about enabling citizens to participate in joint problem solving than merely inviting them to have a say. During deliberation, self-interest is put aside as the consequences of different options are explored. And it works.

In 2010, after it had developed its community strategic plan, Waverley Council carried out an extensive process of consultation about options to overcome financial shortfalls. The outcome of this was community support for a rate increase of 12% each year for the next seven years. Support for that level of rate increase is never going to be found through outsourcing. At Waverley it came by taking people seriously, giving them real choices and opportunities to learn and understand. They also had a variety of ways to participate other than at a public meeting, where there is usually more heat than light.

At around the same time this was underway in Waverley, Shoalhaven City Council where I live, considered a report prepared by staff to address its long-term financial sustainability and infrastructure issues. The report recommended engaging the community to seek views on various options, which included a possible rate increase. At this time several councillors were getting ready for the NSW state election the following March. Having their name associated with a possible rate increase wouldn’t help their electoral prospects so that idea was shredded. Personal ambition outweighed the public interest as that council preferred to rely on public meetings where it was not unknown for staff to outnumber residents.

Earlier this year Canada Bay Council formed a citizen’s panel of 32 local residents to help develop a four-year budget. Similar to a jury, the residents were randomly selected and have an age and gender mix that mirrors the census statistics for the area. They look like any 32 people you would see in the street. Not a “usual suspect” in sight, none of them had ever been to a council meeting before joining the panel. None had any interest in standing for election to council. That may change as a result of their involvement in the panel and that may well be a very good thing.

Randomly selected citizens, unlike politicians, don’t have to worry about their media profile, their party’s policy, keeping donors happy – or their political careers. They just have to worry about making good decisions. Given the right forum citizens can and do take the trouble to learn, and to struggle with complex issues, to understand and make informed decisions among competing choices. These deliberative processes enhance the legitimacy of decisions because a range of people have participated in the decision. A final report by a university researcher into a Victorian citizens’ jury noted how effective the process was in shifting preferences towards what was seen as the common good.

There is ample evidence of high levels of trust and satisfaction with deliberative processes and outcomes. Participants in different deliberative forums consistently report their personal satisfaction, developing skills and confidences they hadn’t known they possessed. Lyn Carson, deliberative democracy practitioner, academic and former local councillor, says that cynicism and distrust do not equal apathy. Participation, she says, is like an unused muscle, it atrophies, and so with adequate exercise it can be strengthened.

Making an informed decision on a complex issue is liberating. It changes people. They discover they like being active citizens more often than occasional visits to the ballot box. Ancient wisdom from Confucius, 450 BC, is still relevant today: Tell me I forget, Show me I remember, Involve me I understand.

Citizen engagement and deliberative democracy can be seen as signs of political maturity and a committed form of community leadership that recognises the importance of providing opportunities for citizens to participate beyond the ballot box. Leadership like this would support local government core responsibilities for promoting active citizenship and community cohesion. The descent into dysfunction and rancorous conflict that some councils and some communities experience when faced with difficult choices would be less likely to take hold.

Deliberative democracy can not replace representative democracy but it can strengthen it, providing a vital connection between participation of the relatively few and representation of the many. Increasing participation through deliberative processes provides realistic and meaningful opportunities for individual development and relationship building. Following from this will be re-engagement and a strengthening of citizenship.

Time now to return to the laboratory at the local level. Australia may again be a leader of democracy, a role model for the world. Here, with the nearness of problems to be solved, deliberative democracy can be most responsive. Local people solving local problems can re-define local democracy to truly serve the people, strengthen local political processes and build stronger and more resilient communities along the way. This calls for a social movement, a civic engagement campaign, led by local communities working with local government on the journey – and it will be a journey, rather than a destination. Like environmental sustainability and Aboriginal reconciliation we should never feel we are quite there. The campaign won’t be without its risks, mistakes will be made, but the alternative is quite unpalatable and ever more risky. Candidates for council elections please take note.

Graeme Gibson is the author of Beyond Fear and Loathing: local politics at work




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