When is a democratic innovation not a democratic innovation? The populist challenge in Australia.

Lucy J Parry

Lucy J Parry is a research assistant at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra

Democratic innovation is burgeoning worldwide. Over 50 examples from Australia alone are now detailed on Participedia, an online global project documenting democratic innovations. In some states, ‘mini-publics’ proliferate at local and state level. South Australia in particular has wholeheartedly embraced the notion of deliberative democracy and has embarked on an ambitious raft of citizen engagement processes including several Citizens’ Juries.

According to Graham Smith (2009) a democratic innovation must a) engage citizens over organised interests and b) be part of the wider political process. Mini-publics operationalise these aims through convening a group of citizens who are at least broadly representative of the wider population to deliberate on a given topic.

Despite fulfilling Smith’s criteria, democratic innovations in Australia run the risk of becoming neither democratic nor innovative. Scholarly debate over mini-publics peaked over a decade ago – isn’t it time to move on? Moving on necessitates moving with the times and dealing with contemporary challenges. One such challenge is the rise of populism. Australian democratic innovations typically rely on premises that are fundamentally opposed by populism: random selection and expert knowledge. This populist challenge cannot be ignored, and theorists and practitioners must meet it together. 


Inside the room

A Citizens’ Jury is a well-known mini-public format: a small(ish) group of randomly selected citizens who meet several times to deliberate on a given topic. Random selection underpins the process in two ways. It aims to produce a descriptively representative sample, making the jurors literally a ‘mini public’ (Fung 2003; Ryan and Smith 2014): a microcosm of the wider population. Random selection also relates to deliberative quality: bringing together a group of random citizens reduces the likelihood of the loudest voices dominating. As Australian research organisation newDemocracy Foundation point out, ‘governments inevitably hear from the noisiest voices who insist on being heard’; lobbyists, Single Issue Fanatics (SIFS), Not-in-my-back-yards (NIMBYs) – call them what you will. Mini-publics to foster a less adversarial, more nuanced debate with a group of random citizens.

I have observed Citizens’ Juries in the flesh it is quite an extraordinary experience. Watching a room of disparate and diverse people evolve into a committed team negotiating technical topics like wind farm development leaves me feeling almost jubilant (I don’t get out much). When you are inside the room, watching the deliberative process at play, it really is wonderful. Australia is home to a number of practitioners including newDemocracy Foundation, DemocracyCo and Mosaic Lab and it is undeniable that some great work is going on in Australia in this area, which should be commended.

But alas, the path of democracy never did run smooth. Suffice to say that cracks begin to emerge when you are outside the room. If decisions are legitimate to the extent that they have been deliberated upon, then the decisions made by a mini-public suffer a legitimacy deficit, given the typically small group involved (Parkinson 2003). And although some recent Citizens’ Juries have sought to expand the number of participants, this diminishes the quality of dialogue (Chambers 2009). Furthermore, in the past 15 years a growing number of scholars have sought to move beyond the mini-public paradigm in deliberative democracy to tackle deliberation at the large scale – through deliberative systems (Dryzek 2009; Parkinson and Mansbridge 2012), deliberative cultures (Sass and Dryzek 2013) and deliberative societies.

Yet, the practice of deliberative democracy (in Australia at least) clings to the mini-public approach. South Australia is notable for its extensive citizen engagement yes, but is it really innovative? The Western Australian Department of Planning and Infrastructure undertook a similarly ambitious program of mini-public style engagements over a decade ago. This critique is not a reflection on the quality of democratic practice in Australia, nor is it a criticism of what goes on inside the room. It is instead a concern that further underpins the need for deliberative theorists and practitioners to work together.


Outside the room: the populist challenge

Remember those NIMBYs and SIFs that mini-publics aim to exclude through random selection? Their exclusion rests on the assumption that the quality and outcome of deliberation is better without those insistent voices. The aim is that through a process of deliberation, people will become ‘more public-spirited, more tolerant, more knowledgeable, more attentive to the interests of others, and more probing of their own interests’ (Warren 1992, p8). Producing deliberated public opinion involves weeding out weak and poorly informed arguments. Again, this is all very well if you are inside the room. If you’re outside the room, you may very well object.

And let’s face, those objectionable voices are not going away. As Ben Moffit points out, ‘Populism, once seen as a fringe phenomenon relegated to another era or only certain parts of the world, is now a mainstay of contemporary politics across the globe’. The voices that a Citizens’ Jury wants to keep out of the room now have the room surrounded. If we continue down the mini-publics road, the very thing that allegedly legitimises mini-publics will also be its downfall. The assumptions underpinning random selection are that it is representative of the wider community; and that it facilitates better quality deliberation by bringing together everyday citizens rather than insistent voices. Whether these things are accurate or not is a moot point – what actually matters is how they are perceived by broader publics. It is sad but possibly true that for those outside the room, what goes on inside the room doesn’t matter. And I suspect that the argument that a Jury is representative and very well informed is simply not going to cut it.

Trust in the Australian political system is at a staggering low with very little trust in any level of government; mini-publics in Australia are almost invariably associated with a government body or statutory authority. Mini-publics rely on information presented by experts; populism rejects the knowledge of experts. With all the will and most independently-recruited-and-facilitated process in the world – people may just not trust it. And yet, even if there were greater trust in politics, the justification of random selection explicitly rejects populist public opinion – and vice versa. Bridie Jabour’s Guardian interviews with One Nation voters exemplifies this disconnect. One Hanson supporter is quoted as saying:

“I’m not a politician, I’m not an accountant, I’m not anybody who knows anything but I see stuff and think ‘that doesn’t look right to me’, the average Joe Blow feels things more than they actually understand or know, they feel things, they know stuff.”

The logic of randomly selected mini-publics goes against this. The question is how to respond; the populist challenge cannot simply be ignored or sneered at. Yet in a way, this is exactly what mini-publics can be perceived as doing.


The time is right.

We are at a critical juncture in Australia. One option is to continue plying the mini-public trade and make extra efforts to engage more people in the process, and to better explain mini-publics to a wider audience. The question is whether we simply need to work on explaining ourselves better, or whether the populist challenge requires deeper reflection on the practice of democratic innovation and deliberative democracy. I am inclined toward the latter.

The challenge that populism poses should be seized as a catalyst to re-think the practice of deliberative democracy in Australia. Mini-publics are one of many worthy options; deliberative democracy is a far broader church – and democratic innovation even more so. Randomly selected mini-publics are not a cure-all. At best, they are an important piece embedded in a broader democratic process. At worst, they are a viable threat to the practice of deliberative democracy itself.

A two-day workshop on democratic innovation in Australia takes place in Adelaide later this month. It will bring together practitioners and scholars to reflect on the field of democratic innovation in Australia. The aim is to build relationships among and between practitioners and researchers; this is essential in order to critically reflect upon and adapt to develop ways to enrich Australian democracy. 

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