Opinion: a new window has opened for deliberative democracy

By Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, Wednesday May 13, 2020

During this period of the pandemic, many have remarked how well the national cabinet has worked — something it rarely does. It would seem that we need a crisis for politicians to leave politics at the door. Why can’t they do it all the time? Do we really need to ‘embark on a war-footing’ to get politicians to cooperate?

This collaborative interlude was always going to end, and it did this week. Anthony Albanese’s alternative ‘vision statement’ — as meritorious as it may be — reminded us that the fight’s back on. We may be dismayed by the pugilist behaviour, but we’re inescapably resigned to political debate — and elections — as the universal default. Our political system requires our political leaders to stress their differences, and to grab every opportunity to distinguish themselves — one from the other.

With COVID, a little window opened: we witnessed a national conversation quite unlike anything we’ve seen before — and a better way to do politics. It happens when people deliberate together. For COVID, we put our faith in the medical experts and our political leaders – without the routine political shenanigans. Sensible dialogue prevailed. But it shouldn’t be that surprising: it happens every day in our lives, in our homes, community groups and workplaces. People appreciate interacting with others of diverse perspectives — when they can all share evidence, proposals and outcomes.

As we emerge from this pandemic, why can’t deliberation be the new normal? Because politics — as we know it — is all about divide and conquer. We need to explore alternative, less combative and more inclusive models of political representation. Last year, the OECD recommended that ‘deliberative processes be embedded into democratic institutions’. In their report, the OECD identified over 200 successful instances of deliberative democracy, where everyday people — selected by way of civic lottery — come together to discuss and agree on matters of public policy. In 2012, for example, Ireland convened a citizens’ assembly of 99 to reform their constitution and, in France, this year, the government is bringing together 150 citizens to address climate change. Last year, in Sydney, a group of 50 discussed for a period of three months what the vision for the city could be in 2050. Through continuous rounds of dialogue and hearing from experts, proposals were progressively distilled down, and eventually, eight overarching concepts were agreed upon. For Sydney’s future, the first concept tabled to the Council was ‘Participatory Governance’ — a model that places citizens at the centre of decision-making.

Observers to these ‘mini-publics’ note how well the public can resolve problems — creatively and intelligently, without rancour. For too many years, our parliaments have been held back by unnecessary and unproductive debate. Let’s not waste this crisis. Let’s explore how we might leave adversarial politics at the door — all the time.

Read the article at The Mandarin.

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