Burning debate: Building consensus from the ashes

Burning debate: Building consensus from the ashes

During the summer that preceded COVID, my family left me home alone and set off on the five-hour annual road trip to Nowa Nowa, not far from Lakes Entrance in East Gippsland. As flames spread across Victoria and New South Wales, my partner, daughter and son were evacuated the next day. When the area was declared safe, they returned home. The area they had evacuated didn’t stay safe long. From the safety of our living room, they spotted their campsite on TV, licked by flames and surrounded by emergency vehicles. I wept as I read about an asthmatic child trapped on the beaches, knowing it could easily have been my own. The horrors of the summer came too close to home for me. It was only luck that kept my family safe, while others were in such danger; other homes and lives were lost.

The whole experience made me angry. Women of my age aren’t really supposed to get angry. But I was angry. While we could not have predicted that there would be a fire on that day in that place, the fires themselves were predictable. They had been predicted in devastating detail over decades, including in the 2008 Garnaut report. We had been told that fires of this magnitude were likely. Fires this big, fires this devastating are caused by human activity. We knew we would enter the Pyrocene because of what we are doing; because of the silent, invisible greenhouse gases we continue to pump into our atmosphere.

So even before the fires, myself and some people who have come to be friends decided to live the belief that catastrophic climate change was not inevitable, that our inaction was not some quirk of the Australian political landscape or something we had to resign ourselves to. We mused what if catastrophic climate change is and was the result of a political system that insulates politicians from the public: a system that creates priorities in Canberra that are not the priorities of the people. The people in whose name the politicians govern. We felt it was time to chart a different journey; a democracy that engages better with people, that removes power from the largest corporations and their fear campaigns. We envision a democracy that decentralises decision-making from a government seen to be increasingly corrupt.

In the remainder of this essay, I’m going to look at why we need to reinvigorate democracy. I draw both from my personal story and from trends that are apparent across the globe. I’m going to talk about the democratic innovations that could help stop a slide into authoritarianism, whether benevolent or otherwise, while examining the results of the February 2020 Coalition of Everyone’s mock citizens’ assembly on fire. Finally I’ll dream a little about alternative future democratic pathways and how we are already starting these journeys.

What’s wrong with voting

If we choose (squint a little, perhaps jump up and down), we could imagine that where we are today is the pinnacle of democratic decision-making. Not only are our political leaders chosen through a process of voting, but voting has infiltrated almost every aspect of life. There are votes for singers, for cheeses, and for agricultural irrigation equipment. Our economic system is based upon the idea that it is somehow more democratic to allow people to make choices, voting with their dollars, rather than ensuring equal provision of services (in education, in health) for all. If we follow the idea that economic power is linked with democracy then we’re avoiding the implicit argument that the rich have, and ideologically seem to deserve, more votes than poorer people.

Yet from our supposed pinnacle of decision making, indicators of democracy, from the health of our media to public faith in our institutions, have been taking a battering across the world of ‘mature’ democracies. Even the nations that offered glimmers of hope, such as my birth-country of Malaysia, are now experiencing a reversal in democratic fortunes. Most concerning for those who believe in democracy was a poll of EU citizens which showed a majority of 16-29 year olds believe that authoritarian countries are better placed to fix the climate crisis than their democratic counterparts.

Initially, I thought that the current malaise indicated an aberration. Electoral democracy may, as Winston Churchill said, be the worst form of government, but was better than all the others – that had been tried. And, again as a Malaysian, I speak from experience – experience of detention without trial of family and friends; of water cannons and tear gas; of a muzzled media and a populace that focused on economic survival because the alternatives had proved, across generations, too traumatic. There have always been problems with Western democracy – not least its smugness. I simplistically thought that perhaps what was needed were tweaks; such as recognition of the huge debts the West and its prosperity owe to Indigenous and colonised populations, or guarantees of diversity of media ownership.

I was wrong.

Electoral democracy was built upon the protection of privilege. Elections were explicitly chosen to insulate (white, land-owning) men from the majority; from the poor, from those who aren’t white, or from the feeble-minded (women). In The Federalist Papers, Madison argued that the Founding Fathers were not in favour of direct democracy, where men govern themselves and are open to faction and dispute. They were instead in favour of a republic, where respectable representatives were elected to make decisions on behalf of the people. The people were to be insulated from the centres of decision-making. And to that end, the system has worked well. Despite the much-resisted extensions of the franchise, we have a political system that works to concentrate power and wealth in the hands of the few. There have, under this system, been substantial gains; shorter working weeks, improved safety conditions in work, domestic violence legislation and access to free, universal health care. These innovations have improved the lives of millions and have provided safety and security. But the gains that working and marginalised people have made are constantly being eroded. In 1930, Keynes predicted a 15-hour working week as we reaped the democratic dividend of increasing mechanisation and ease. Instead we have concentrated the benefits of mechanisation and increased productivity in the hands of a few. Adding insult to injury we saw precarious work and job insecurity at a high in January 2019 and it has gotten worse since.

But I digress.

My main point is that, while elections and democracy have evolved many forms, electoral democracy has served to protect the interests of the few, rather than the many. There is evidence suggesting it was designed, from its origins in documents like the Federalist Papers, to do so.

As it currently stands, voting  is a tick-box exercise for many. Rewards for individual participation are comparatively low for the average voter. With bed sheet size ballots, it’s difficult to invest in learning much about candidates. And most people, quite frankly, have many demands on their time, making it a challenge to be involved and active in a political process that seems to pay little attention to them regardless.

Democratic innovation

I want to argue that Churchill’s pronouncement – that democracy is the best system that has been tried – is no longer valid. There are alternatives, and, as I explore later, we’ve been playing around with some of them. Some alternatives are proving much better than electoral politics at making difficult decisions. They can increase the legitimacy of the process and of the decisions made, even for those who disagree with those decisions. 

For me, the most exciting of these innovations are citizens’ assemblies, though they are by no means the only innovations. They are also known as citizens’ juries or people’s panels, bringing together a randomly selected group of people. These people are then provided with access to experts, which can be the most controversial part of the process. Increasingly, the assembly is being supplied with a list of experts, and they can then choose who to call upon and supplement this list with others of their own choosing, but for the majority of assemblies a convening body elects experts who are then briefed to provide evidence, rather than opinion, on the matter to be decided. The assembly is then given time to make decisions in facilitated groups. Then ideally those decisions are adopted by an implementing body. The most well-known of these are probably the Irish Citizens’ Assemblies on abortion and marriage equality, which laid the ground-work for the constitutional change which followed.

The first step is sortition – randomly selecting a group of people that is representative of the population. In the UK, this is now generally carried out by sending out invitations to a few thousand people to express interest in participating in an assembly. For the UK Climate Assembly 30,000 invitations were sent out to assemble a panel of 110 people (though only 108 participated). Let’s break the process down. Around five percent of the 30,0000 invitees responded giving a pool of approximately 1000 interested people. In such a pool, however, certain demographics would be over-represented. The 1000 people would be on average older, whiter, more male and richer than the general population. The aim of sortition is to find an accurate representative sample. So 110 people were chosen from that 1000 interested to form a ‘mini-public’ representative of the whole of the UK in terms of gender, age, geography, income, ethnic background and possibly other criteria. Generally, it is important to select on criteria that show a skew of inequality in the responses. The result is a mini-public – a room of people that look like the broader public, where every person in the community can feel in some way represented.

The second step is informing the assembly on the question asked. Best practice has evolved, and now has citizens (which often includes non-citizen residents) presented with a list put together by a secretariat and then the assembly members choose their own experts from the list. In other cases, such as the citizens’ assembly on abortion in Ireland, the experts are chosen by a secretariat who are accepted by all involved as being impartial. The selection of experts can be controversial – in the Scottish Climate Assembly, for example – but by devolving the power of selection to the assembly itself, the process increases legitimacy. In the French Climate Convention, experts were also available ‘on tap’ – participants could send a question or clarification to the secretariat who would field it to an academic expert in the field. Responses were returned to the convention within ten minutes. The aim in all scenarios is to provide the assembly with the latest research, key findings and controversies within the field so that the delegates can assess the options and make moral decisions on what should be done.

The third step is a process of deliberation to assess the options. Participants are not asked their opinions but rather why they hold those opinions and what are the outcomes and compromises that they could live with. The process emphasises a ‘yes, and’, rather than a ‘no, but’. The end result is very different from either a public opinion poll, often reflective of the headlines in the media at the moment. It is also different from a focus group, where opinions are often formed in the absence of knowledge and where groupthink is a real hazard. When well facilitated, the assembly comes up with informed public judgements, rather than public opinions. Each person in the room becomes an ambassador for the process and the outcomes.

Lastly, there is the process of finishing; weighing up the options, writing the report and presenting the outcomes to an implementing body. In some instances – such as the citizens’ assembly in Gdansk, Poland, following widespread flooding – this is done through voting and in other instances through consensus decision-making (an option that seems preferred in the US, for example).

Once the assembly is done, the implementing authority – possibly elected officials, sometimes a government body – is given a clear indication of what the public wants as well as the level of support for those options. And, ultimately, the legitimacy to move ahead.

These processes have been trialled and implemented in Australia for over a decade, pioneered primarily by the new Democracy Foundation, based in Sydney. They’ve had  mixed success. There was the Geelong Citizens’ Jury on democratic renewal after the local council was dismissed and the South Australian Citizens’ Jury on nuclear waste, which was largely ignored by the state government. Driven by changes to the Local Government Act in Victoria citizens assemblies (often called community panels) are experiencing a surge in interest at the local council level.

Experimenting with democracy

The trauma of the bushfires of 2019/20 and the desire to bring about a deepened democracy were the driving context for the Coalition of Everyone’s mock citizens’ assembly on fire, part of the Sustainable Living Festival.

The Coalition of Everyone recognises two core acknowledgements as vital to  how we ran the assembly on fire. The first is an acknowledgement that we live on sacred land that was never ceded by Traditional Custodians. We acknowledge that Traditional Custodians have been subject to colonisation which systematically undervalues their knowledge and wisdom. We believe we have a responsibility to ensure that the ways we bring about change do not continue to reinforce or recreate colonising structures and oppression. We, in other words, have a deep commitment toward decolonising how we are, what we think and what we do. The second acknowledgement is that we live in a time of climate crisis. Colonisation has accelerated this crisis through the loss of important knowledge. Holding these two acknowledgements center when organising a mock citizens’ assembly means we prioritise Indigenous knowledges to inform the assembly.

In the case of the mock citizens’ assembly on fire, we attempted to find an Indigenous elder (or apprentice) to discuss traditional burning and land management. We reached out to a few people and then looked for academics working in the field but were unable to find anyone on such short notice. There have been a number of lessons learned, which we have put into practice since these assemblies – the most important being that in order to develop these processes properly, they need to take time. Second, that relationships, and tending to relationships – particularly with traditional owners – is a crucial element  of developing a process that is ethical and truly democratic. Third, we need to ensure  there are the resources to fairly compensate people for their time. Not all of this was in place for the mock assemblies – an important lesson learned. 

A mock citizens’ assembly is a way of demonstrating how a citizens’ assembly works. As each participant registered they provided the organisers with two criteria for selection. We chose two criteria purely for demonstration purposes, to show how each quote would be filled – in this case gender and favourite primary colour. The selection of six participants included three male, three female and two each who preferred red, blue or yellow. Other participants in the overfilled categories (usually blue females being the first to fill!) were discarded.

The rest of the assembly followed a truncated version of the process described above. Given the limited resources that we had to run the assemblies, we were unable to find a speaker on fire – especially as most of those with the expertise were still dealing with the aftermath of the blazes. Instead, we showed a video of Victor Steffenson speaking on Indigenous fire management. We were also running the programme in one evening, so there was about an hour for discussion and deliberation.

Nonetheless, despite these constraints, it was exciting to see where the participants took the ideas in the video. Two key recommendations came up: respect for Indigenous knowledge including, leadership of Indigenous experts in planned and prescribed burning as well as getting communities involved; and stopping deforestation along with regeneration of rainforests and wetlands. Both of these recommendations were supported by all participants.

We are not trying to pretend that this exercise was in any way a representative sample of what the general population would recommend, or that it had great legitimacy – it was really just a meeting of interested people, far from a randomly selected sample. Those who came were interested in events advertised through the Sustainable Living Festival, and had the time and inclination to be involved. It was an engaging exercise in deliberative democracy and part of a larger project of four mock assemblies that involved around 60 people (some came to more than one assembly) on issues of fashion, food and regenerative agriculture and water, as well as fire. For each of the other three, we had experts in the room who could address questions as they arose.

The four evenings were a trial run for us, to see what would happen when strangers met to discuss complex and difficult issues. It was exhilarating to see how seriously all the participants took their task, and how enjoyable and empowering they said the experience was. It’s rare that people take the same keen interest and pride in filling in a ballot paper, and it shows that politics doesn’t have to be distancing or disempowering.

Where next

These four events are just a sample of the more than 25 events that the Coalition of Everyone has held since we started in September 2019. All have centered around  leveraging collective wisdom in service of a just and regenerative future. Our vision is to ignite new possibilities for democracy, enabling people to reimagine our role in democracy and create the systems we need – which could mean achieving the 15 hour week envisaged by Keynes a century ago, or the four day working week.

These are not pipe dreams. In Scotland, more than 40% of Scots back a second chamber comprising randomly selected citizens to scrutinise legislation. Here in Australia, there will be at least ten citizens’ assembly-style processes held by local governments in the first three months of 2021. Some local councils are looking at how to institute standing bodies to advise elected councillors chosen by sortition. An obstacle I see here is that people still see these ideas as radical even though they have been experimented with for over a decade here in Australia and instituted at the national level by governments in the UK, Scotland, Ireland, France and Canada. Likewise, local or municipal assemblies have been held in Poland, the US, Taiwan and Bolivia, among others.

If we are to have the changes we need in policy, at the speed we need for safety, we need to have institutions and processes that bring everyone together, rather than institutions that encourage divisiveness. Citizens’ assemblies are part of the way forward to a socially inclusive future built on respect for each other, for the environment and for future generations.