We need a New-Democracy: Australia has one

Have you heard anything about renewing the state of NZ’s democracy, even whispers, from the new Government? How about from other organisations? I’ve been listening but, despite worrying trends in voter turnout, trust and confidence, haven’t heard much at all.

‘Listening is an instrument of power’ [1], so you know something is up when the powerful decide to listen even though there isn’t a crisis.

Late in 2017 in Melbourne, there was an extraordinary gathering of Australia’s elite – state premiers, MPs, mayors, business directors and CEOs, and leaders from the unions, the public service, NGOs, the media and academia. They met over 2 days to address the challenge: What changes can we agree upon to deliver effective long-term decision-making which earns public trust? They listened to testimony about the state of Australia’s democracy and possible improvements, deliberated and found common ground on what should be done.

Here are some of their main recommendations:

  • A citizens’ assembly to advance the Australian constitution
  • Strengthening the consultative skills of the public service
  • Trialling a standing citizens’ chamber
  • Embedding deliberative democracy through citizens’ juries and similar processes
  • Holding a citizens’ convention on improving democracy
  • Civics education for young people and adults.

Note the emphasis: empowering citizen deliberation.

Can you even imagine such a meeting happening here?

Why is so little happening here in Aotearoa New Zealand compared with in Australia?

We seem blind and deaf to the possibilities for empowering citizen deliberation. What do we get? Recent responses are typical: another expert working group, another Royal Commission.

What’s the message? Is it that experts always know best? Is that our people can’t be trusted or are unable to solve issues as New Zealanders? Is it that we are completely satisfied with our usual policy and decision-making processes?

Both the Tax Working Group and the Royal Commission on Child Abuse and Child Rape are part of the new government’s first-100-day plan, which included no initiatives to address the public’s declining trust, confidence and satisfaction in NZ’s democracy. Looking ahead, the signs from our Prime Minister’s recent speech (31 January 2018) indicate our blindness and deafness will continue.

“We have seen increasing signs internationally that people are disengaging with politics, and who feel that politicians aren’t responding to their needs anymore.

We must be a government that is transformative and accessible.”

While Jacinda Arden’s words fail to acknowledge that there are real concerns about NZ’s democracy beyond access, they don’t rule out future action by her government … but what she actually means by transformative and accessible is anyone’s guess.

The speech includes a long list of the Government’s goals and ambitions, such as creating and sharing prosperity; becoming a genuinely clean, green and carbon neutral country; strengthening communities; tackling the growing prison population; and being the best place in the world to be a child. And it reassures us that:

“Under each of these priorities sits a policy plan to back it up”.

However, these are all things that can’t be transformed by government policy and experts alone. Indeed, in our complex, interdependent world, such a top-down approach is unlikely to succeed without the involvement and support of New Zealanders, that is, without also rethinking and re-imagining our democracy.

PEP has teamed up with Jan Rivers (Scoop Foundation, Public Good Aotearoa New Zealand) to meet with MPs to gauge whether they have concerns about New Zealand’s democracy and to provide them with information about how deliberative democracy could help. From our meetings to date, there are concerns. Doing something about them is not, however, on the agenda yet.

Returning to the question of why so little is happening in New Zealand compared with in Australia, part of an answer could be that New Zealand doesn’t have an organisation like the NewDemocracy Foundation.

NewDemocracy is an independent, non-partisan organisation that aims to discover, develop, demonstrate, and disseminate complementary approaches to policy and decision making that will revitalise Australia’s representative democracy and restore trust in public decision-making. It has encouraged and supported democratic innovation that is changing business-as-usual. Take, for example, the adoption of citizens’ juries by local and state governments on issues as diverse and complex as obesity, water pricing and nuclear waste reprocessing. NewDemocracy has been instrumental in the commissioning of at least 20 citizen jury or panel processes over the last 5 years. Over that time, it has developed the sort of reputation that enabled it to invite Australia’s elite to that Melbourne gathering to deliberate on effective, trusted, long-term decision making.

To help revitalise our democracy, whether our politicians start moving in this direction or not, we surely need our own version of the NewDemocracy Foundation here in New Zealand. Our democracy is in dire need of a serious overhaul.

If this is something that interests you, PEP would love to hear from you. Please drop us a line using the contact form below.

[1] Dobson, A. (2014). Listening for Democracy: Recognition, Representation, Reconciliation. Oxford University Press.

Simon Wright and John Pennington are Partners at PEP – Public Engagement Projects. They are leading NZ experts in deliberative processes.

Also published on Medium.