Australia elects a new federal government on May 19. Despite a mature election process, the quality of policy debate has fallen dramatically in the last decade. A combative parliament and news cycle driven by social media is no place for rational policy formulation. Has the art of debate and compromise been lost?
Revolving party leaders and frequent ministerial changes are the tip of an iceberg-size policy problem. Critical policy is missing public consultation and expert input, meaning sophisticated or innovative policy ideas are overlooked in the political race to look decisive. What is Australia’s reluctance to master the art of deliberative policy? Local trends and bold experiments overseas hold lessons for a new government.
Back in 400 BCE in Athens, Greece between 5,000 and 6,000 residents gathered each ten days in the Agora city square to vote on the important issues. The speaking and voting agenda was set by the 500-person Boule, selected randomly from the city-state’s ten tribes (though no women allowed, of course) by drawing lots. Its members served one year terms and not more than twice in their life, nor more than once a decade. Contrast Australia’s narrow political class where in 2017 49% of the Liberal caucus and 55% of the Labor caucus were former political staffers. The Athenians in the Boule, stonemasons, shipwrights, architects, fishermen and potters, were a vastly more representative group to weigh which issues should make the agenda.
The Greeks used their talents, rotating expertise to ensure equality in decision making. Australians seem stuck with an outmoded decision-making system. Is this unwillingness to embrace the best thinking and listen to alternative voices leading to party politics no longer producing laws and services that achieve social and economic equality?
If the answer is yes, recent shifts in how we debate indicate that learning and deciding is evolving outside plodding parliaments. Or do these experiments simply illustrate how rigid parliamentary and party processes quickly crush logic when inconvenient truths emerge?
Here are five trends to shape a very different decision making process.
1. Politics resists putting values issues on the agenda
Three examples from the last Australian parliament illustrate how mired it is with political posturing driving weak responses on issues with strong public support. First, the marriage equality debate settled by referendum in 2018 was resisted by the federal government despite 62% or higher public support since 2010. Second, the Uluru Statement from the Heart issued by Australia’s First Peoples in 2017 sought a national representative body to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people a voice in laws that affect them. This proposal emerged from an 18-month deliberative process and was dismissed within days by the government. Third, Australia’s stance on international commitments and local action to address climate change has been a political plaything even though 2018 research by The Australia Institute reiterates long-held majority public opinion where “70% agree that the Government needs to implement a plan to ensure the orderly closure of old coal plants and their replacement with clean energy”.
2. Power of internet and digital data
Social media giants, technology corporations, banks, Australia’s international airline, and even major non-profits supporting Australians experiencing disadvantage, have become major repositories of personal and social data. The public is unsure who to trust and how to police this information. This concern masks a more powerful question about how richer data today can be analysed to inform good choices between policy options. Governments are very timid to unlock insights from data, possibly for fear that what it would reveal may not align well with party policy, existing law or budget priorities.
3. Rise of vested interest influence
Influence on policy debate often happens within shadows where facts and arguments are not available to the community. For example, donations to political parties are not transparent and real-time. Long-powerful industry sectors in Australia, especially those representing large numbers of workers, continue to have strong political influence. The lobbyist industry working at federal and state government level is more diverse and stronger in numbers than at any time in the past. And advocacy groups like GetUp build campaigns around issues chosen and funded by members also subject to external influences.
4. Fall in the voice of the expert
Respect for expert opinion is at low ebb. We have witnessed concentration in media ownership, partisan print and television media, the rise of radio ‘shock jocks’, and news consumption shifting to social media. All crowd out or misrepresent expert voices, leaving politicians significantly more influenced today by social media feedback than expert opinion. Tweets are too short to convey nuanced assessment of complex issues, so simple policy slogans take their place.
A stark example is then-Treasurer Scott Morrison’s 2017 stunt waving a ‘friendly’ lump of coal on the floor of the House of Representatives. It was well know at the time 97% of peer-reviewed, international scientific literature determined humans are causing global warming. Yet, the image of the coal lump and the words “don’t be afraid, don’t be scared, it won’t hurt you: it’s coal” were designed for a public lulled into believing political conviction over the expert.
5. Limited success of deliberative democracy
Since the first tentative attempts in the 1980s, deliberative democracy has promised much and met many obstacles. Authentic deliberation asks that decisions flow from equal input by members of society, especially those directly impacted by an issue, regardless of economic or political power. Decisions either emerge from consensus or voting on options developed from extensive consultation. Australia’s challenge is whether it can embrace deliberation as the primary way to debate difficult topics, where a wide cross-section of voices are heard and positive experiences lead to it becoming a new norm.
In 2016, a 350-strong citizen jury assessed the merits of whether South Australia should store nuclear waste from other countries. As a highly controversial proposal, many experts were called and a jury majority eventually did not support the proposal, highlighting flaws in the economic case, no consent from Indigenous groups for land use, and a general lack of trust in government processes. In this case, the citizen views were respected and the government’s proposed future referendum never eventuated.
In contrast, creation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan stretches back to 1985 and could have been a shining highlight of deliberative democracy with its water management spanning 4 states and one territory, a 2 million population, and providing water to 3 million people. Instead it has been a saga of protracted arguments between state governments, and with the federal government, where debate is based on entrenched self interest. It has blatantly ignored climate change projections and the best available scientific knowledge.
Too often deliberation is avoided for fear that outcomes may embarrass incumbent governments. This leads to a lack of framework and investment in processes that make inclusive debate known, understood and respected widely as ‘the way we do it here on important issues’. Convincing elected representatives and senior public servants that none of this is a sign of weakness in political thinking or policy implementation is not easy.
Australian democracy is ignoring dangerously the signals from these trends. Unwilling to trust proven methods of deliberation, short-term and faulty decisions arise. Calming public voices appears more important than pursuing a more inclusive conversation with equity at its heart. Here is a set of recent challenging issues better served by using deliberation:
· Lack of response to climate change
· Rise in long term unemployment at both ends of the age spectrum
· Digital transformation of work and social lives
· Effective use of citizen data for better decisions while protecting privacy
· Growing effects of mental health concerns for young people
· Immigration, refugees and inclusion
· Income inequality driven by tax policy and structural disadvantage, especially for women
Hung parliaments and minority governments, commonplace in many European countries and in Canada’s very similar democracy, are the places where better tools for deliberation are critically needed. Were the 2019 election to result in a minority government, our lack of deliberative methods would be exposed.
The very recent Great National Debate process in France, in response to concerns raised by the ‘Yellow Vest’ movement, is the largest deliberative democracy process undertaken by a country. Ten thousand citizen-organised meetings, 16,000 grievance books and close to 2 million online contributions ensued. A new Australian government would be wise to commence an inclusive deliberation process before it inevitably becomes tangled in thorny issues. Helpfully, the resulting informed public opinion would be strong support for government action, quelling any uninformed partisan calls from opposing interests.
If we don’t redesign our ways to extract and represent citizen and expert views, it may be that opinions win over facts with damaging consequences. Our Athenian forebears knew that society advanced under representative, listening governors where the population’s voice was seen to be heard. This respect and kindness for each other’s views would be a strong sign of inclusive and mature democracy.