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The importance of an open and consultative democracy

Thank you, Madam Speaker. I am delighted to bring this matter of public importance in my name to the Assembly today. As Australians, we are fortunate to live in one of the world’s most successful democracies. ‘Democracy’, of course, means rule by the people. The word comes to us from ancient Greek, and the term was coined during the fifth century BC, at a period in Greek history when the city of Athens experimented with a new form of government. In stark contrast to the then prevailing system, where one person or a small group of people made all the decisions, in democratic Athens, all citizens participated directly in the making of laws and even judgements.

Two conditions were necessary for this kind of direct democracy. First, the population had to be small enough to allow for all citizens to attend debates and vote on issues. Second, these citizens needed to have enough leisure time that they could participate fully in politics. In ancient Athens, this was possible only because non-citizen slaves did most of the work.

In our day, we have circumvented these two constraints through the innovation of representative democracy. Under this system, the people elect representatives to make decisions on their behalf. At its best, representative democracy creates as robust a system of debate as direct democracy. At its worst, representatives lose touch with the people who elected them and arrogantly return to feeling entitled to rule however they see fit.

Perhaps because of this tendency, scholars over the past few decades have noted what one leading researcher, John Dryzek, has called, quote, ‘a renewed concern with the authenticity of democracy: the degree to which democratic control is substantive rather than symbolic’. One of the central ways to make sure that democracy is authentic and substantive is by guaranteeing that government is open and consultative.

An open and consultative government, Madam Speaker, is one that listens to the people not just when they pick their representatives on election day but throughout its entire term of service. We live in a day when most governments want to appear to be open and consultative. Problems arise, however, when listening to the people becomes merely a symbolic exercise. As Les Robinson explained to a local government public relations conference held in Wollongong in February 2003, and I quote, ‘Many public consultations are shams. Many are nothing more than elaborate defence mechanisms designed to protect the decisions of barely accountable power-holders’. When this occurs, Robinson noted, people eventually figure it out, and this results in cynicism towards government and their ‘hidden agendas’.

Damage to public trust in government can also occur, Madam Speaker, when elected representatives openly refuse to listen to certain segments of the public. As Victoria’s Good Governance Guide notes, governments, quote, ‘should always try to serve the needs of the entire community’. This means that those to whom leaders listen should, according to one parliamentary guide on consultation, constitute a, quote, ‘“mini-public” that mirrors the broader society’. Things go wrong, as noted by Huffington Post writer Wendy Bradley, when governments decide that they are only going to listen to those they deem to be ‘sensible’ people’. Unsurprisingly, ‘sensible’ people in such instances nearly always end up being people who conveniently already agree with the government.

This discussion helps to highlight why the Canberra Liberals and so many of our fellow Canberrans were disturbed by the development earlier this year when Chief Minister Andrew Barr decided that Clubs ACT, which represents 70 per cent of the territory’s clubs, is no longer comprised of ‘sensible’ people – though I think his exact words were that it is ‘a wreckage and a joke’. This means that, conveniently, the ACT Government, including Attorney-General Gordon Ramsay, no longer even need to pretend that they are willing to listen to people who disagree with them.

Of course, this is one small part of the entire ACT community, but it personally makes me worried, Madam Speaker. If the Chief Minister is willing to openly write off an entire organisation because its members have dared to disagree with him, what does that suggest about the rest of the consultations that the ACT Government still wishes to engage in?

The government has created a number of consultative bodies that are supposed to represent various segments of the territory’s population, but how are we to know if these hand-picked bodies are the ‘mini-publics’ that they need to be in order to be truly representative? And in fact, in recent weeks I have spoken to members and former members of various consultative bodies in the ACT who have expressed concern to me that, to repeat the very word that one used, they have been ‘shackled’ in their responsibilities to speak out. They know that they, in essence, belong to the government and that there are things that the government simply does not want to hear.

This kind of consultation has been labelled by the Australian Collaboration as mere ‘tokenism’. At a minimum, it decreases community interest in consultation, and it can also result in community anger and frustration.

Madam Speaker, what is necessary for good governance here in the ACT is not ministers refusing to listen to people, and it is not the tokenism of sham consultation with hand-picked ‘representatives’, either. In order to set the stage for the development of this territory over the next several years, all of us, and especially those who form the government’s executive, need to be willing to listen to real people. And by listen, I mean really listen – which means that, through consultation, decisions will be reshaped for the better, not shaped to satisfy or protect the decision-makers. Not one of us in this chamber is an expert at everything, and the best check on our collective lack of expertise is to listen to those who deeply care about this community and have something to say.

Madam Speaker, the Canberra Liberals value the involvement of ordinary people. We encourage the people of this beautiful city to take ownership of it and not let the few make all the decisions for them. And we hope, Madam Speaker, that those who have been elected to lead will act with integrity.

Thank you.

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