The political power of kitchen table conversations

The political power of kitchen table conversations

The opinions of Canberra's suburbs are credited with more importance than you might think.

Do you see yourself sitting around a table with a dozen friends and neighbours, talking about what you think is important?

Sure, and you do that all the time, in smaller, informal groups, at the shops and over the back fence.

Democracy at home: Professor Bob Douglas at home in Aranda.

Democracy at home: Professor Bob Douglas at home in Aranda. Credit:Rohan Thomson

But Bob Douglas from the Australian National University wants to try an experiment in participatory democracy he believes will resonate strongly with the citizens of Canberra.

Here how it works. A person volunteers to host a "kitchen table conversation" where the basic ground rule is respect for the opinions of others.


The eight or nine participants spend several hours discussing either a general or specific issue. One person is nominated as the scribe and undertakes the (very difficult) task of distilling two sessions of three hours of conversation into a meaningful report.

If that takes place in 100 houses, the organisers will have a wealth of information about the opinions flowing through Canberra's suburbs.

So what? If you're cynical and disengaged from public discourse, why should you give up your time and energy, with the possible result your opinions are buried in a mass of words that will never be seen by policy makers?

That's a good point, one that infuriates MPs who can spend months on a committee investigating an issue, conducting hearings and writing a report, only to have the government leave it on the shelf, with no response. But if being engaged in civil discussions for a couple of meetings reinvigorates you, isn't that a good thing?

John Warhurst, emeritus professor of political science at the ANU, thinks so. And he points to the influence of the kitchen table conversation movement in the federal seat of Indi at the last election where the sitting member, Liberal Sophie Mirabella, was dumped.

"I think it's an interesting proposition and one that picks up on a number of threads in the Australian community of the moment," he says.

"For instance, the Sydney Alliance and I know there are things going on the Canberra community some of which Bob mentions but also there's a group call Canberra Conversations.

"As far as I know they [the Victorian group] did have an influence in Indi - there are other influences and they had a very good candidate in Cathy McGowan and they did need the support of some community leaders too but from all I've read and understand they did have a bit of an influence."

You and I should be able to have a robust disagreement arguing the evidence for example – that'd be nice - without us telling each other that we're as ugly as a hat full of monkeys.

Mary Crooks

The Purple Sage project in 1998 involved about 6000 people in kitchen table groups meeting to discuss what was happening in Victoria, then under the leadership of Liberal Jeff Kennett.

Suggestions have been made that the subsequent report by the project played a role in Kennett losing what had been considered to be an unloseable election.

The Women's Trust then used a modified form of the model to explore water policy.

Executive director Mary Crooks says the model was able to handle a single, complex topic.

"So we refined the model and then we ran a similar kind of kitchen table process over the couple of years of that project which was all funded by private donors," she says.

"We produced a community framework for thinking and acting about water called Our Water Mark and the upshot of that was about 38,000 copies of the book have gone out across Australia."

Crooks says the aim of the project was to increase people's level of water literacy.

"It produced so many outcomes that we know of and presumably many that we didn't," she says.

"At one end of the spectrum for example it gave some people enough sense of self confidence that they've nominated themselves to go on catchment management authorities.

"At another end of the spectrum, here in Victoria for example, a state government inquiry into water management adopted our definition of water efficiency that we had built up during the project.

"And the book we produced, Our Water Mark, is prescribed reading in a number of campuses across the country."

To explain how this water project worked, Crooks asks you to imagine a triangle.

"At one point of the triangle are the thousands of ordinary men and women who have come together in the small groups to have a serious conversation about the issues," she says.

"At another point of the triangle we had about half a dozen of this country's leading land and water scientists giving their time to us for nothing.

"Then at the other point of the triangle was a small group, the secretariat if you like, but we had made ourselves as expert as we could about water as well.

"Now when you get the experience and the wisdom of ordinary people, merged with that of professional scientists, merged with that of a small professional group who are trying to do justice to the collective wisdom, then you get a very powerful product at the end of that.

"Often times in our society and our approach to policy, you cover two points of that triangle so sometimes people are consulted like crazy and they never see it going anywhere.

"At other times in that triangle you've got a lot of people working on policy issues at their desks without reaching out to where ordinary men and women are. Sometimes you get scientists beavering away doing fantastic work but in their own domains.

"What we did in this process through the kitchen table model was provide a mechanism that brought the wisdom of ordinary people into aggregation with scientific thought, mediated by us."

Following the Our Water Mark project, Crooks was asked to help a grassroots group in Indi.

"I worked with that group for five months to show them the kind of model that we had developed - they got it, they absolutely so understood it," she says.

"I mean, it's not rocket science but it is about how do you get genuine and respectful dialogue occurring between people and how do you get things going so that it's not a talkfest because people don't just want to talk, they actually want to see things change.

"So the experience of Indi was an important step for me as well because it was the first time I had been part of an exercise to try to tailor our model to fit an electorate, to fit the process of engaging people prior to an election. I hadn't done that before and it worked like a charm.

"People had all the right intentions, all the right motivations - the Voice for Indi was the right people for the right task for the right time and my model was the right model for them.

"There has actually been a huge impetus from Indi in particular, there are people in several parts of the state now applying something like the model in the run up to the state election in November."

The upshot was that Douglas invited Crooks to Canberra last month to talk to a small group about her model and her experience in Indi and with the Our Water Mark project.

"I think by and large, people left with the real spring in their step," she says.

"I think one of the most successful things that comes out of this is for people to start feeling some energy again, to feel positive.

"We know our democracy is not a perfect system but my point is that you have just got to keep on nurturing democratic values and democratic practice, it does not occur by some click of the fingers.

"I think in a professionalised, political world maybe a lot of our apparatchiks and the too-clever-by-half people in our political world think that it's their game for playing, instead of our system of government.

"One of the things that underpins the kitchen table conversation model is that it works to people's best sides and so it will take people who might be hard-nosed and cynical and realise that unless we work to yours and my best sides, we just don't achieve as much as we could.

"I think what's been happening frankly, in the last half dozen years in particular, is one of the reasons people withdraw and disengage because they just hear and see stuff that they know cuts across values of respect and civility and a respect for dissent.

"You and I should be able to have a robust disagreement arguing the evidence for example – that'd be nice - without us telling each other that we're as ugly as a hat full of monkeys.

"One of my concerns when we approach this territory of democratic engagement is, if you are going to do it, do it properly because if you don't do it properly, it risks becoming counter-productive.

"So the main thing is to have a combination of the right spirit, the right intention, the right commitments, like a commitment to respectful dialogue. It's something we are losing sight of - it's not old-fashioned, in fact it's a fine tradition.

"It's not rocket science but it is about working to peoples' best sides, it is about trying to merge talk and action, it is about trying to put some wind behind our wings as far as citizens in a democracy.

"As independent Tony Windsor said after he retired, the important thing in a democracy is you've got to keep on turning up."

Douglas describes the session in Canberra with Mary Crooks as an extraordinary morning.

"Everyone went away very invigorated," he says.

The meeting he is convening in Canberra on Tuesday, September 23 is intended to brief possible hosts of kitchen table conversations.

"People don't have to say that will be a host but they can come along to find out a bit more about it and get a host kit," he says.

He has run a trial among friends, many of whom are involved with SEE-Change ACT.

"One of the ground rules for the conversations is everybody comes along expecting that everyone is going to have a say, that they'll make an effort to listen to one another, they will stay on track, they will respect people's rights to their opinions even if they disagree and they will try at all times to be constructive and not be critical of others," he says.

"It is an opportunity for people to learn more about their neighbours and friends. "You can invite whoever you like but one of the things they found in Victoria is it is quite useful to people who aren't just your like-minded friends.

"So that's one of the suggestions, that you don't just go for the like-minded so there is some kind of interchange."

But once the opinions are ventilated and distilled, how do they get listened to by policy makers? "You have jumped two steps there," Douglas replies to that question. "We probably do need something like a public interest council but I don't think the kitchen table conversations do that automatically.

"I think what the kitchen table conversations are doing, and they did in Indi for instance, is giving a voice to a set of concerns and issues that aren't currently getting out there.

"We are saying, in the first conversation, people simply say what's important to them, what are their biggest concerns for the future and what are their greatest hopes.

"We feel it's got something that could reinvigorate community sense and ownership of the future."

Warhurst agrees that many people feel jaded with the political system.

"They feel they haven't got a voice and you need a lot of money to make an impact on Australian politics and you can only see the corruption scandals and those sorts of things," he says.

"Here's something that is relatively inexpensive, that is done at the local level and is an alternative way of getting people invigorated in the local community, not so much by joining groups but by involving neighbours - it's a very traditional way of getting people involved in discussion."

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