When democratic innovation meets realpolitik

By Dr John Boswell, Politics & International Relations

Fresh off the boat from Australia last month to start my new position here at Southampton, I was a little surprised to see domestic Australian politics make international headlines. Predictably, though, it was for all the wrong reasons. Indeed, the culmination of the Kevin-and-Julia saga just exemplifies what a sorry state party politics in Australia is in. Of course, I don’t expect other readers of this blog are avid followers of Australian politics. But the issues on display in this latest crisis, while perhaps more visceral (Aussies call a spade a ‘bloody shovel’, after all) and often more public in the Australian context, are much like the issues in Britain and other advanced industrial democracies. Indeed, almost everywhere there is declining trust in the institutions of representation. And so a study that colleagues (Simon Niemeyer and Carolyn Hendriks) and I published in the latest issue of the Australian Journal of Political Science, might be of interest to those beyond the Lucky Country (click here to view).

In the paper, we examine the reaction to a proposal for a Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change in the lead-up to the 2010 federal election. Citizens’ Assemblies, by way of quick explanation, belong to a family of institutional innovations based on participatory and deliberative democratic ideals. Made up of a cross-section of the lay public, they are designed to foster inclusive, informed and considered discussion. The specific proposal put forward by Julia Gillard was for 150 ordinary Australians to meet regularly over the course of a year, listen to expert advice on climate change, debate the issue, and come up with recommendations for the government. This idea met with such contempt and disapproval that it was later crowned ‘the biggest political miscalculation of the year’. But why was everyone so opposed to it? And what does that say about the prospects of deepening deliberative citizen engagement on critical issues like climate change in Australia and elsewhere?

In this paper, we set about answering these questions by analysing the reaction to the proposal of Australia’s ‘opinion leaders’—politicians, industry and environmental stakeholders, and newspaper columnists. We found that many of their criticisms represented a misunderstanding of how democratic innovations like the Citizens’ Assembly operate (i.e. ‘Citizens can’t understand a complex issue like climate change!’ Actually, they mostly can) and what role they play in representative democracy (i.e. ‘It bypasses the democratic process!’ Actually, it contributes to it). The by-and-large reactionary, ill-informed nature of these criticisms hints at broader problems in the public debate. But the most damaging criticisms of the Citizens’ Assembly proposal related to its deployment in a complex and highly partisan political context. Indeed, many actors saw it as a way of the government appearing to do something on a crucial issue without having to actually do anything at all. We are not interested, in the paper, in deciphering the validity of this perspective (although I suspect all the authors have some sympathy for this criticism of the proposal). Instead, what matters is the perception itself; it speaks volumes about the pervasive cynicism surrounding party politics, and it hints at the difficulty of instigating democratic innovation on such a difficult and controversial issue.

What we ultimately argue, then, is that this backlash vividly shows how innovations like the CA need to be far better integrated into their broader political context. Only then will they have any chance of contributing to deeper, more deliberative citizen engagement.

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