My colleague Professor Lyn Carson is right on the money when she argues that the concept of a citizens' assembly is a good idea.
These types of democratic dialogue, which Julia Gillard has recently promoted as a consensus-building strategy for the fraught issue of carbon pollution and climate change, are empirically-proven means by which consensus on extremely difficult issues can be reached with groups of diverse citizens. They've also been shown as means by which participants’ understanding of complex policy issues (the kind political mandarins discourage politicians from attempting to communicate to the public) can be significantly increased, biases and entrenched prejudices overcome, and collaborative decision making reached by real people.
These processes have been used in Australia to develop nuanced responses to complex ecological management issues, and fraught ethical dilemmas. The focuses on participant education, long-term goal setting, and cost tradeoffs make them attractive rational decision making tools for modern politics
I know all of this, which requires justification of my initial reaction to the announcement: "meh."
Can you do the right things for the wrong reasons? Even if you can, does bad karma taint your actions?
The Carbon Assembly is simply a short term strategy aimed at kicking the climate change issue into the long grass for the length of the campaign. Gillard's shorthand narrative of this pronouncement is simply this: I've de-legitimised debate on this issue with this announcement. End of discussion: move forward.
As a lot of this noise was largely coming from her left flank, the promise of "more democracy" to resolve the problem is a salve to those who'll be disappointed yet another election is passing without a strong national policy debate on a critical issue. The subtext of the wider strategy is aimed at wavering Greens voters, but also GetUp!: please stop riding me on carbon pollution and get back on the job of attacking the Coalition like you used to do so well.
While its unlikely that, in the battle of the blands that is election 2010, the media will allow Gillard to take this niggling sore off the table, in the longer term she's just banked a host of problems with this most temporary of fixes.
The first problem is that the idea is already tainted. Kevin Rudd co-opted chunks of the media and other elites with his 2008 strategic planning love-in, and trick-me-twice they'll not easily be fooled again: scepticism will dog this proposal if it goes ahead, and cynicism mar the government (who may well need the Greens balance of power votes from mid-2011) if it gets shelved.
Second, in an era of fiscal responsibility where the opposition's talking about reducing political engagement with the community to save money its important to note that these things are expensive, and you get a lot for a little. That is, a lot of deep and rich understanding of the paradoxes of policy making but with only a small number of participants.
As we saw from the ongoing and comparatively intense coverage of the republic convention, popular understanding of the relatively simple issue of the Head of State was quickly derailed by a small post-event media campaign by a minority group of conservatives.
One of the difficulties with these events is that they do smack a little of government suggesting to punters that the only real problem in policy development in Australia is that we're much dumber than they want us to be: we'd make far better decisions if we just weren't so darn ignorant. Regardless of how you frame it, you have to see this as a bit of a burn; even if it is true.
But overall the major difficulty I have with this type of promise-to-make-policy on the run is that it confirms the terribly toxic view that some parts of the rational choice school have about elections: the oft-cited statistical probability that you're more likely to get killed by a car on the way to the polling station than have your vote actually make a difference to the outcome.
Elections can be about ideas. They present opportunities to build mandates. The former PM didn't slide in the polls because he mishandled his 2008 talkfest, but because he shelved his 2007 election commitment: one made on the back of the democratic action of slightly more than 150 people.
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