Allan Takes Aim Blog

Towards more participatory democracy

Posted on: 9 February 2012

First published The Chronicle Canberra, Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Let me make a radical suggestion. Have a member of the public serve on all Standing Committees of the Assembly. Apart from being participatory democracy in action I believe the member’s presence would also help improve a Committee’s performance.

How to pick the public members? The positions would be advertised as being available to registered voters. To avoid conflict of interest and /or political manipulation, successful applicants would be given a number that would be drawn from a barrel by the Clerk of the Assembly. Clearly, applicants should not be members of political parties, officers of ACT unions, executives of trade and business organisations, lobbyists and nor members of the political commentariat.

And I’d put them on Standing Committees because their presence on these Committees, allegedly the protectors of the Assembly’s democratic process, might stop the Committee’s elected members thinking of democracy in phrases like Humpty Dumpty in ‘Alice through the Looking Glass’: ‘’When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

Regardless of their chosen political philosophy, it is likely that all MLAs would argue against such appointments. However, in the course of a year, and because new problems arise will have arisen, it seems a not unreasonable assumption to make that some of the problems voters thought important on election day are no longer thought important. With that in mind, where better than a committee to make both Government Ministers and bureaucrats aware of the changes and also tell them why current policies are either working or not working.

I am in no doubt Ministers would say that voters have ample opportunities to meet them even though anecdotal evidence might suggest otherwise. Indeed, I have heard people say that trying to arrange a meeting with a Minister to complain about a problem that might possibly reflect badly on the Minister, is like trying to make a bare foot attempt to climb Everest. Some say this also applies to meetings with senior bureaucrats. Indeed some go as far as to say that by trying to arrange a meeting with either Minister or bureaucrat hey get branded as whingers.

In my conception of democracy all elected members of parliament are supposed to represent all the people all the time. Ask yourself: do you think they do? And you also need ask the question: does democracy mean the same for all politicians?

I think not. Indeed in the case of the ACT Assembly I suggest that neither Chief Minister, Katy Gallagher, Leader of the Opposition Zed Sejelsa, Leader of the Greens Meredith Hunter or any other MLA think of democracy in the same terms? If they did, there would be no factions of any kind.

The MLAs would argue also that at election time voters have the chance to decide between the competing political philosophies on offer. Unfortunately at election time this doesn’t happen. Popularity reigns and so during the election campaign the money parties use to publicize policies of surface popularity that they hope will give them government is far in excess of that given to policies that wouldn’t give them government but put into practice would be better for the community.

It could be argued it is the responsibility of voters to ask about the latter policies. Some do, but, unfortunately, because the media focus is on the popular, reporting of the latter is limited. Indeed it seems to me that Federal, State and Territory Elections are now reported on as if they were television talent quests where viewers telephone to pick the winners. (Could this system be worth a try?)

But talent quests aside, more and more it seems to me and many others, that politicians have forgotten that voters are their paymasters and so deserve to be fully informed about how and if they are solving the problems they were elected to solve.

And while co-opting public members to Standing Committees won’t change politicians’ thinking overnight it could be a step in the right direction.

The Chronicle for Canberra’s best community news. Published every Tuesday


38 Responses to "Towards more participatory democracy"

This is done at Local Council level in at least one town in France. When the left-leaning Councillors found themselves in the majority, after years of right-leaning Mayors, the Council set up a series of Commissions which covered absolutely all aspects of municipal life, and advertised in the local papers as well as in the Municipal Bulletin for members of the public to sit on the Commissions. Each Commission was presided by one or more Councillers and you could sign up for as many Commissions as you liked. I was on six at one stage. You had to be “approved” by a certain number of people concerned by the Commission’s decisions (I was turned down for one because one person didn’t like me personally, which was news to me). The Commissions studied everything and voted on actions to be taken, which were then put before the Council by the Councillor in charge of the Commission. Council Meetings were public and attended by the Press. Commission Meetings were private and confidential. This system worked quite well, I thought.

Dear Lady Marylin, And here was I thinking I was being radical. However, I am pleased that such a system is in force in France. That leads me to hope that Australia will eventaully experience real participatory democracy. After all, Australia’s prides itself on being egalitaian though its egalitarianism seems to have as many divisions as its democracy. But while there’s life there’s hope.

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