Collaboration the key to better governance

Collaboration the key to better governance

My barber and I were both surprised at the election result. His feedback from his clients and my reading of the correspondence columns of The Canberra Times had suggested to us both that Canberrans were ready for a change.

We had both also expected that the proliferation of independent candidates and new parties would influence the results. But 85.4 per cent of the primary votes went to the three major parties, a total of 10.3 per cent went to a collection of eight minor parties, and 4.5 per cent went to the ungrouped candidates that included 17 independents.

It's time to empower Canberrans to engage in owning and planning for our common future and the common good.

It's time to empower Canberrans to engage in owning and planning for our common future and the common

As we talked it all through, my barber and I agreed on a number of points. First, that we should expect to pay taxes and rates at a level that provides us with the services that we need and that a mindless discussion to keep rates and taxes low for the sake of it, does not impress either of us.

Second, that we need better systems of public transport, whether or not light rail is the answer to that need. We also agreed that we are glad we don't live in the United States at present and that democracy is in trouble here as well as there. We agreed that we need to rethink the nature and purpose of the economic system. And in his words, that "local governments need to get out of the pockets of the property developers".

Spectrum Democracy illustration by Michael Mucci

Spectrum Democracy illustration by Michael

I also wondered whether the failure of the Liberals to make an impact related partly to the way Canberrans currently feel about the Coalition in the federal government.

There was not time in my 15 minutes in the barber's chair for us to fully sort out the future of the ACT but we made a good start. We agreed that Andrew Barr has an entitlement to proceed with the city to Gunghalin tramline and noted that he has signalled an intent to extend it to Woden. But we felt that we still need a better discussion about the best way to upgrade Canberra's public transport system before we get locked into a system of tram lines everywhere, which many claim to be outdated technology.

The discussion we didn't have time for was about the Canberra Alliance for Participatory Democracy, which was formed about a year ago to improve the democratic process. Many of us in that group are concerned that democracy is being corrupted by a destructively adversarial party system that depends for its survival and large amounts of its policy on corporate interests.

The objectives of CAPaD are to empower Canberrans to engage in owning and planning for our common future and the common good; to develop and support citizen, community and civil society engagement in public decision-making; to facilitate opportunities for citizen input to government deliberations and to develop citizens capacity to hold governments and policymakers more directly accountable.

So how will we do that? We began this year by holding a Festival of Democracy (DemFest16) at the University of Canberra where we discussed a number of ways to engage the community. A key outcome was the development of a Charter for Democratic Commitment, which we offered to all candidates in the recent ACT election as part of a one-page candidate statement. These were published on our website. In the event, 62 of the 141 candidates placed a statement on the website and of the 25 candidates who look at this stage most likely to be elected, 16 of them did so.

We now look forward to engaging with all of the elected candidates and to observing how those who signed a statement will deliver what they promised.

There are many ways in which ordinary citizens can become more actively involved in the development of public policy and in monitoring the way the legislators develop and implement it. One of these is the Citizens Jury, which is being used extensively in Victoria and South Australia with very positive effect.

Another way is to apply the principles of community organising including the holding of citizens assemblies, kitchen table conversations and relational meetings between groups and between community representatives and their legislators. CAPaD representatives also met recently to discuss a new approach that is being developed in Britain to appoint randomly selected individuals from the community to monitor what is happening in the legislature, and we are considering the possibility of a pilot project of that kind in the ACT.

There is plenty of scope for us to improve our governance. It will not happen, however,without new collaboration between the various elements of civil society to better identify needs and to monitor the way those needs are being interpreted and managed by our legislators

As CAPaD reaches the end of its first year and develops its strategic plan for the coming year, it is seeking inputs from the many concerned citizens and organisations, which make up ACT society. There is no doubt that there is alienation and anger in much of our community about the way democracy currently functions. So let's set about fixing it.

Bob Douglas, a retired public health academic and a Director of Australia21, is a committee member of CAPaD.

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