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To Rebuild Trust in Politics, we Need to Place Trust in Citizens

Jonathan Pickering

Jonathan Pickering is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Canberra, based in the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance

Simon Niemeyer

Associate Professor at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra.

Australians will vote in the 2019 federal election at a time when public trust in politics has fallen dramatically. Public satisfaction with democracy in Australia has declined by almost half from 78% in 1996 to 41% in 2018. Many of the suggested remedies - such as combating corruption and tightening rules on political donations - are important steps in the reform journey. But they do not address deeper currents of mistrust flowing from the way in which the Australian political system treats relationships between citizens and politics.

The treatment of citizens as mere spectators and votes to be harvested is a persistent flaw in our political system. This kind of treatment is evident in the strategic manipulation of language by politicians and in political parties’ fixation on polling results. When the government doesn’t trust citizens to engage meaningfully in politics, it’s hardly surprising when that lack of trust is reciprocated.

Blockages on issues that deeply affect the lives of Australians - ranging from climate change and water policy to homelessness and the recognition of Indigenous Australians - are symptomatic of this broader dysfunction in public debate. Instead, what is fundamentally required is mechanisms to listen to and engage genuinely with Australians. That means ceasing to see citizens as pawns in a winner-takes-all power game and recognising them instead as participants in the democratic conversation. Our own research on deliberative democracy, particularly in respect to climate change, demonstrates how meaningful citizen participation in the democratic process can rebuild trust in politics and yield better decisions. Interventions to improve citizen deliberation takes many forms. The best-known approach involves ‘mini-publics’ such as 12-25 member citizens’ juries or larger citizens’ assemblies that bring together a randomly selected group of citizens to discuss a policy issue. There is great potential here, but care needs to be taken in implementation. It is vital that practitioners draw on a growing body of knowledge about how to design and run such processes, and to build connections between mini-publics and the wider community.

Australia has seen a range of promising experiments in participatory or deliberative democracy. Citizens’ juries have been held in most states and territories on issues ranging from road safety to nuclear waste, obesity policy and infrastructure. Beyond mini-publics, there are many other avenues that together can build meaningful participation across the political system. Some innovations are already taking place, including movements such as Voices4Indi that have reconfigured relationships between communities and parliamentary representatives, and participatory democracy initiatives such as Deliberate ACT and the People In project in Canberra. These forms of participation are not a substitute for representative democracy but an essential complement, particularly because representatives frequently report struggling to stay in touch with citizens’ everyday concerns.

Much of this progress has taken place at the level of state and territory governments and local councils. The federal government has been far less keen to engage citizens on matters of national importance. The exceptions are piecemeal, such as Kevin Rudd’s 2020 summit, which mainly included elite voices. Julia Gillard’s unsuccessful proposal to hold a citizens’ assembly on climate change appeared to be informed by the very logic of overly clever political strategy that exacerbates mistrust. These examples show that there’s still a way to go until there is widespread, well-conceived support for stronger citizen engagement at the national level.

Critics may object that citizens are generally more interested in local issues like building roads and sporting facilities, and that ‘big-picture’ national issues like foreign policy and defence should be left to the experts. But this sets up a false dichotomy. VoteCompass results show that citizens take a strong interest in national issues like climate change, the economy and immigration. Experience in other countries shows that citizens are willing and able to deliberate about issues of national significance. Ireland’s national citizens’ assembly, for example, brings together 99 randomly selected citizens who have produced thoughtful and influential reports on contentious issues such as abortion and climate change. A new report on reforming Australia’s democracy recommends that the government should trial a citizens’ jury on a key national issue such as welfare, tax reform or health funding.

There are glimmers of hope that the ground may shift in federal politics. In 2015, Australia signed up to the Open Government Partnership, a multilateral initiative that aims to ‘promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption and harness new technologies to strengthen governance’. The Coalition government’s performance on key commitments since joining the partnership has been lacklustre, particularly on freedom of information. Reviewing progress to date, the Civil Society Open Government Network cites a lack of political leadership and investment in public engagement. However, under a new government the Partnership could serve as a more powerful lever to call for stronger public engagement. The Australian Labor Party’s national platform, for example, commits to active engagement in the Partnership.

The policies that the Liberal and Labor parties are bringing to the 2019 federal election say little about boosting citizen participation in politics. However, a number of minor party candidates have adopted the Canberra Alliance Charter of Democratic Commitments, which includes a pledge to ‘promote and support participatory and deliberative methods for policy, planning and legislative decisions’. The Greens’ platform also contains commitments to expand participatory democracy, including setting up citizens’ assemblies and juries to inform Parliamentary decisions, and running participatory budgeting initiatives.

Considering how far public trust in politics has fallen, restoring that trust can’t happen overnight. But Australia’s political parties need to begin the rebuilding process now, starting with meaningful promises on citizen participation that Australians can decide on at the ballot box on 18 May.

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