Democracy: now for Plan B
Advertisement

Democracy: now for Plan B

AS THE Occupy Sydney protesters gathered in the city's financial district last week, another group of agitators met nearby to mull over similar ideas. Both groups are intent on restoring power to the people. But the parallels end there.

The latter engaged in considered debate in the comfortable surrounds of the Ivy Ballroom. They were launching Democracy: Plan B, an initiative of bipartisan research group the newDemocracy Foundation.

A bust of Pericles.

A bust of Pericles.

The people who are behind newDemocracy - a mix of business people, academics and former politicians - support the idea of ''power to the people'', but in a more focused way.

''You can march in the streets and make a noise but that's not enough,'' newDemocracy founder Luca Belgiorno-Nettis said. ''You have to show more direction.''

Mr Belgiorno-Nettis, a multimillionaire director of Transfield Holdings whose family is one of Australia's great migrant success stories, conceived of the research body seven years ago with the idea of improving the democratic process.

Advertisement

Perhaps the most promising idea to come out of the think tank is a proposal to include everyday citizens in forming groups which would consider some of the issues governments wrestle with each day. Known variously as citizens' juries or citizens' parliaments, they could make recommendations on topics big and small.

Imagine, for example, if you wanted to extend your home. Instead of lodging a development application with the council, your plans could be assessed by a panel of your peers along with some experts to advise them.

Mr Belgiorno-Nettis believes the application of the citizens' jury can work equally well on questions of health care, education, tax reform and infrastructure as well as newer concerns such as climate change.

''Perhaps I am being a little ambitious but I would like to get to a point where we could run citizens' assemblies, parallel to the Senate, in NSW,'' he said. ''It might sound a far-fetched now but, if there are well-minded people behind it and there is public support for it, well, why not?''

Why not indeed? The concept of citizens' juries have been tried in countries such as the US, Denmark, Italy and Germany.

There are a few examples in Australia, notably in Western Australia, where the state government let a citizens' jury decide on the location of a new administrative building in Albany in 2002.

The newDemocracy Foundation, in conjunction with the Australian Research Council, created a citizens' parliament in 2009. Convened on the topic of democratic reform and comprising 150 randomly selected people from every electorate, it was Australia's largest such deliberative event.

Their recommendations, as it turned out, were utterly sensible. They called for the reduction of duplication between levels of government, improved public education about politics, better accountability regarding political promises, stronger community interaction with politics and greater youth engagement with politics.

Yet it was not the stuff revolutions were made of, said Lyn Carson, director of the newDemocracy Foundation. Professor Carson specialises in applied politics at the centre for citizenship and public policy at the University of Western Sydney. She has observed numerous citizens' juries over the years and is consistently impressed by how well they work. ''It's like a jury in a criminal trial,'' she said.

''They have such a long time to listen to all the evidence; they become incredibly knowledgeable.''

And they make good choices, in her experience, she said.

''They come up with rational recommendations - the kind of recommendations that we would hope a parliament would make.''

The former NSW premier Nick Greiner, a member of the newDemocracy research committee, believes citizens' juries could be an antidote to the widespread disaffection with the political culture.

''We have a 24/7 news cycle now, it is harder and harder for governments of either persuasion to actually have a serious debate about issues, to have a long-term view rather than a short-term one and, frankly, just to avoid the instant response,'' Mr Greiner said.

''Instant responses, almost by definition, are populist claptrap, or they tend to be defensive,'' he said. Mr Greiner believes governments could benefit from admitting they don't have all the answers on policy debates and throwing questions out to a wider forum.

''If you give a group of randomly selected people access to both sides of the debate and all the expert opinions they need, they can make a considered judgment,'' he said. ''I think that's worth trying in a lot of these difficult areas. It is about empowering governments to give them a better chance of doing difficult things.''

Mr Greiner has such faith in the concept of a citizens' jury, he intends to discuss the idea with Infrastructure NSW, the advisory body he chairs.

The former Western Australian premier Geoff Gallop, who chairs the newDemocracy Foundation's research committee, said if governments had convened a citizens' jury on climate change 20 years ago, before the issue became politicised, Australia would be ''three-quarters of the way to having a policy framework'' on it by now.

''The whole issue got caught up in bipartisan politics, as is the case with so many big issues,'' Dr Gallop said.

Mr Belgiorno-Nettis said there was nothing new about having this deeper level of public input into the democratic process. The Greek statesman Pericles, often called the father of democracy, had proposed the idea 2500 years ago.

Whether governments in Australia offer support for the notion remains to be seen. ''But I am optimistic,'' he said. ''We have to start somewhere.''

Most Viewed in National

Loading

Morning & Afternoon Newsletter

Delivered Mon–Fri.

By signing up you accept our privacy policy and conditions of use