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Breathing new life into our tired public debate

By Paul Kildea - posted Monday, 19 March 2007

As the fallout continues over the Brian Burke affair, it has become increasingly difficult to know who to believe and, inevitably, most of us end up switching off. This brand of hollow public debate is standard fare in an election year, which is why it was such a breath of fresh air to spend a weekend involved in an innovative exercise aimed at improving the quality of public deliberation.

The deliberative poll, on Muslims and non-Muslims in Australia, offers a blueprint for public debate in which participants learn about issues from a range of perspectives and debate them face-to-face with people who may hold different views to their own.

A representative sample of almost 400 Australians, Muslim and non-Muslim, gathered at Old Parliament House on the first weekend in March to hear from experts and religious leaders and engage in small discussion groups moderated by impartial facilitators. Topics discussed included terrorism, immigration and the treatment of women.


The early results of the deliberative poll indicate a significant change in opinions of many participants over the course of the weekend. Before attending the poll, 35 per cent of non-Muslim participants thought that Muslims were a threat to the Australian way of life. By the end of the weekend this had dropped to 21 per cent.

Other results showed a similar trend, and are promising signs for Australians concerned about ongoing tensions between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Even more promising is the potential of the deliberative poll model to overcome some of the shortcomings of democratic debate in Australia.

It is a reality of our political life that voters are often uninformed about key public issues. Citizens lead busy lives and often do not invest the significant time and effort required to come to a considered judgment on a given issue. Most people also get their information from a narrow range of sources.

These shortcomings are not confined to Australia. To an extent they are the natural consequence of living in a large-scale democracy in which individuals lack motivation to engage in the political process.

The deliberative poll model, pioneered by American academic James Fishkin, seeks to overcome these problems by creating an ideal environment in which people have access to balanced information and a wider range of opinions than they would likely encounter in their daily lives. The focus is on interaction, deliberation, and knowledge.

More than 20 deliberative polls have been held around the world, and have yielded interesting results. In previous deliberative polls, the number of participants who supported the republic model proposed at the 1999 referendum jumped by 20 per cent, and those who saw reconciliation as an important issue facing the nation doubled.


What is significant is not the opinions themselves, but the fact that ideas change when people have the opportunity to learn about and debate the issues.

Both sides of politics should pay close attention to the results of the deliberative polls held in Australia. They represent what the electorate would think if they were given the opportunity to become fully informed about political issues.

But for all their value, deliberative polls only involve a microcosm of the voting population. What would happen if this exercise in deliberation was extended to the entire electorate?

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About the Author

Paul Kildea is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of New South Wales and was a Group Manager at the deliberative poll.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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