Brexit. Donald Trump. Rodrigo Duterte. It has become commonplace to observe that we live in a time of populism and public political disaffection.
We've not yet reached crisis levels everywhere but, even where democracy is not broken, it's breaking. Trust in traditional government is declining steeply. And inside government, partisanship is intensifying - stoked by old and new media, and aggravated by the rise of powerful political parties.
Voting in elections is a narrow vehicle through which most citizens can't adequately make their wishes known. And, beyond voting, citizens lack influence over a democracy that is meant to serve them. Policies that citizens believe are in the public interest - like addressing climate change, regulating banks or providing dignity in aged care - are not enacted. Little wonder there is declining trust in democracy as it is commonly imagined.
Yet, while democratic decline has dominated headlines, a counter-movement has gathered steam. Popularised in an experiment in British Columbia in 2004, citizens' assemblies and similar events have become the go-to options for political reformers. Now, after 15 years' experience with "deliberative democracy" - including here in Canberra - many people want to make the innovation permanent.
Citizens' assemblies offer a strikingly different kind of politics. Random selection is the key: assembly members are ordinary citizens. They're unlikely to belong to political parties. They generally approach their deliberations afresh, with few preconceived notions and a strong willingness to learn. And learn they do: typically, a wide range of experts inform them on technical matters and policy options.
After 15 years, we no longer need further proof of the concept. The bottom line in numerous academic studies and real-world experiments is that, compared with parliamentarians, citizens' assembly members are less partisan, more open-minded, better trusted and - importantly - robustly capable of deliberating about policy options.
But if the model is so promising, why is it still "experimental"? That's about to change.
Citizens' assembly members generally approach their deliberations afresh, with few preconceived notions and a strong willingness to learn.
Next month, Belgium will inaugurate, in one of its eastern provinces, a permanent citizens' council. An originator of the Belgian plan, Professor Min Reuchamps, has been visiting the Australian National University for the past few months. During his time in Canberra, he has assembled colleagues and democratic reformists to propose a permanent ACT citizens' assembly. The body would have 25 members - like the ACT Legislative Assembly - chosen randomly for two-year terms. The panel would be "agenda setting" - that is, they would consult experts and the broader public before deliberating about which new policy directions the Legislative Assembly could pursue.
The panel would convene about once a month on weekends. Those chosen would enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn about government and to influence its direction. Membership would not be compulsory. Over the years, a sizeable number of people who want to be part of the ACT's governance would get that chance. A permanent citizens' assembly would open up government to the influence of far more than the current select few. Importantly, it would also ensure that any such influence is deliberative - and qualitatively different from what the Legislative Assembly already provides.
With its tradition of leading social and political reform in Australia, and as a relatively stable and successful jurisdiction, the ACT is an ideal place to adopt this new model. But the ACT government is also an unusual beast. Not only is it governed by a unicameral parliament, it combines territory and local government. Thus, it lacks the oversight of a house of review, and the oversight that state governments provide to local government elsewhere. In this context, a permanent citizens' assembly could provide an innovative oversight mechanism and a needed layer of accountability.
Our proposal is somewhat novel - but only somewhat. Not only have the Belgians adopted it but the ancient Greeks did something similar over two millennia ago. Athenian citizens regularly met on the hill they called the Pnyx to debate and decide about matters affecting the community. And, of course, in our own tradition, randomly selected juries have been part of the legal system for over 800 years.
We have a decade and a half of experiments with citizens' assemblies to draw on as we work out the details of the permanent model. But there is much still to be worked out in consultation with the ACT public.
- The authors - Carolyn Hendriks, Ron Levy, Simon Niemeyer, Wendy Russell and Beth Slatyer - are a group of academics and others proposing a permanent citizens' panel for the ACT. Readers are invited to attend a forum on this topic on August 19. Click here for details.