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Democracy in action

20 June 2017

Prof. Chris Riedy (standing) with Australian participants in WWViews on Global Warming, a global public consultation project on climate change.

Democracy is one of the defining features of Australian society, yet there is a strong sense that our democracy is in crisis. Voters are increasingly dissatisfied with the politicians that claim to represent them, membership of political parties is declining and trust in governments and politicians to deliver on their promises is low. International developments such as the UK Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump fuel this sense of democracy in crisis.

In response, a global movement of scholars and practitioners have turned to alternative democratic theories in the hope of reinvigorating democracy. One of the most prominent is the theory of deliberative democracy. Deliberative democrats advocate deliberation, rather than voting, as the core democratic practice. Instead of voting for a representative who makes decisions on your behalf, they argue that citizens should have the opportunity to deliberate together on decisions that affect them. When we deliberate, we give and exchange reasons in a mutual effort to reach a shared decision.

A quick glance at the modern media landscape indicates that opportunities to genuinely deliberate on important public policy decisions are rare. Public debate is dominated by the ideological positions of major political parties and a commercially-driven media that operates on a 24/7 news cycle. There is little time for considered reflection on what is in the best interest of citizens. Instead, we get exchanges of soundbites from the usual suspects.

This lack of public deliberation is a problem for those who seek to create change towards sustainable futures. Opponents of these changes can whip up a scare campaign and create public doubt without their claims being help up to real scrutiny in the public sphere. We have seen this time and time again over the last decade in the area of energy and climate change policy.

Recognising the challenge of supporting deliberation in the public sphere, deliberative democrats turned to an innovation called a ‘mini-public’. A group of ordinary citizens is randomly invited to participate in the mini-public, which meets to deliberate on a specific public policy issue. In the protected space of a mini-public, supported by good facilitation and good food, participants become informed about the issue and deliberate on it, before reaching a decision. Often, the decision is quite different to the prevailing political preferences circulating in the public sphere.

The newDemocracy Foundation (nDF) is the leading proponent of mini-public processes in Australia. nDF funded Professor Chris Riedy and Dr Jenny Kent to explore the impacts of mini-publics. We looked at three mini-public processes:

The mini-publics had 25-40 participants, and met five to six times over several months, for up to a day each time. They heard from expert presenters and wrote their own report, which they delivered to the organisers.

We interviewed participants in each mini-public, the organisers, and local stakeholders in the issues covered by each mini-public. We found that the mini-publics were largely successful in creating a space in which participants could deliberate and reach collective decisions together. Participants largely valued the experience and the opportunity to become informed about an issue and have their say. We can imagine that, over time, Australian democracy could be greatly improved if mini-publics were more widely used and accepted as a normal democratic practice for seeking citizen advice on consequential topics.

However, we think that mini-publics can still do more to improve the quality of democracy even while they remain rare. Mini-public organisers and participants could more actively engage with the wider public sphere to stimulate public deliberation on the issues they are considering and build awareness of deliberative forms of democracy. This could help to reinvigorate democracy in Australia. Further ideas for improvements are documented in our report.

The Institute for Sustainable Futures has a long history of supporting deliberative democracy. In 2001, we convened one of the first mini-publics in Australia as part of a review of container deposit legislation in NSW. In 2009, we ran the Australian part of an international mini-public called World Wide Views on Global Warming. This mini-public brought together more than 4,000 people around the world to deliberate on climate change response.

In his new role as Professor of Sustainability Governance at ISF, Professor Chris Riedy has made deliberative democracy an important research focus. The path to a sustainable future needs to be a democratic one, so it is crucial to find ways to reinvigorate our ailing democracy. ISF can assist with designing, facilitating, advising on and evaluating mini-publics. More broadly, we deliver participatory processes that involve people in sustainability decision-making at organisational scales and beyond.