Facilitating change: consensus, collaboration and participatory politics

It’s now almost two months since I finished life as a senator, after 10 years in the job.

When I was elected, people who knew me as a facilitator, collaborator and consensus builder couldn’t fathom why I’d want to be a politician. How are you going to cope in that bear pit?  Why would you want to do it? To them, being a politician was the polar opposite of being a facilitator.

Now a lot of people say much the same thing: How did you survive? I bet you’re glad you’re out of there!

The response to all of these is a very Janet Yes and No and It’s not black and white!

As a senator I was a lawmaker, contributing to making laws that directly impact people’s lives and our future and the wellbeing of all life on the planet. I was a scholar – learning through parliamentary processes, especially through committee inquiries, and making recommendations about actions required for change. I was an advocate for people and causes, and I was a representative, listening, analysing, synthesising and communicating people’s needs and preferences.

In all of these roles I was a champion for people and the planet, and for participatory democracy  – decision making processes where people can have their say and influence decisions that affect their lives and our shared future. In all of these roles I put considerable facilitation skills to use.

Making the most of a flawed system

Our democracy in Australia is flawed, but it’s considerably more accountable than anything else on offer. I remain convinced even after seeing it up close and ugly for ten years that it’s still likely to result in better outcomes than any non-democratic revolutionary alternative! In particular we have the great advantage of an impartial electoral system: when you cast your vote it gets counted fairly and the people who get the most votes after preferences get elected.

We need to make our democracy work for us. We need to change it so that it is more participatory. So that we make decisions that bring justice and wellbeing to as many people and non human beings as possible, rather than serving the interests of the privileged few.

We need to support and encourage people to get involved in making these decisions. More people will do that if it’s made easier to do (and they aren’t having to work three jobs to make ends meet) and if they feel that getting involved achieves something. Which it will if we get rid of the power of shady vested interests who apply pressure on politicians and political parties to override the interests of the majority of people and the planet.

How do we make these changes? Get good people elected who are committed to making them. Build community support and power so they can get elected. And turf out people who are standing obstinately in the way. And make better decisions in the Parliament, made in a way that draws upon the wisdom of the people and of all representatives.

Change is a slow hard slog

I’ll be honest. Over the ten years in the parliament I didn’t see much progress. Eight years of the Abbot-Turnbull-Morrison government whose policies were diametrically opposed to these outcomes didn’t help. But two years of Albanese has been disappointing as well.

The bear pit is still the bear pit. The climate destroyers are still in charge. Social and economic inequality is increasing  with skyrocketing costs of housing and poverty payments for people trying to survive on income support.

But I still feel that it was an incredibly powerful decade, and that progress is being made. Just because we aren’t there yet doesn’t mean we won’t get there. And that a major part of my contribution to that progress was by bringing my facilitation and collaboration skills to the job.

I did my best to involve people in parliamentary processes. To make them feel welcome and empowered. I was privileged to chair the Senate Community Affairs references committee where in inquiries like my inquiry into the extent and impact of poverty in Australia we sought out and heard from people who were experiencing poverty, to make sure their voices were reflected in the committee’s report.

In committee deliberations I did my best to get all the information on the table and to negotiate with other committee members about the recommendations we would make, to be flexible and open to other ideas and suggestions no matter who proposed them. (I know this doesn’t sound radical, but sadly this is not the way a lot of people in the parliament operate!)

Working together, no matter our differences

I was always open to work with people who were willing to work with me. We would put aside our differences in order to get an outcome where we had common ground. I even got a senate motion up once co-sponsored by the Liberal diehard Eric Abetz, recommending greater oversight when people went overseas for organ transplants to try and stem the demand for organs being harvested from of political prisoners in China.

I chaired the Greens party room for most of my decade in the job. We Greens have a commitment in our constitution to make every effort to make decisions by consensus. You would think that the pressure cooker environment, time pressures (it is incredible what sometimes needs to be decided in half an hour because a vote is coming on in the parliament that day) and the big personalities of many MPs (even Greens ones!) would mean that it would be our federal party room where every effort wouldn’t be enough. But this wasn’t the case. A commitment to consensus and high-level skills across the group meant that people were good at self-facilitation and as a result, we almost always got there.

I’m proud to say that in all my time chairing the party room we made only one decision by voting. There were some decisions where people stood aside because they could see others didn’t agree with them, but they were willing for the decision to be made by consensus rather than going to a vote to record their opposition. And, critically, they didn’t undermine that decision after it was made.

Media pack doesn’t cope with concept of consensus

One of my favourite times as party room chair was when we were making the decision last year on whether to support the Albanese government’s climate safeguard mechanism. It was a really hard decision – on the one hand it was so far from what was needed to safeguard the climate that it felt like a betrayal, on the other it was a step forward.

We had a media conference after one party room meeting with frenzied interest from the press. Because the Coalition had decided not to support the legislation we held the balance of power –  our support in the Senate would determine whether the legislation became law. The only issue was that we hadn’t quite got to a decision. Reaching consensus in such tricky circumstances takes time.

I delighted in telling the assembled crowd of journalists that we made decisions by consensus, that we hadn’t quite got there and that we had scheduled another meeting that evening to keep working through stuff. But who’s against supporting it and who’s for, they wanted to know! They published wild conjectures about who was for and against – they just didn’t get it because it’s not the way politics is done in the other parties.

Welcoming people’s involvement

The other key facilitation skill that I practised over the decade was listening to people, helping people feel welcome and heard, whether that was in parliamentary processes, or meeting groups and delegations.

I’d often hear from grassroots groups that they had difficulties even getting in the door of other MPs. But to me hearing from diverse constituents was at the heart of my job as a representative. How can you make decisions that are in the interests of the broad diversity of people if you aren’t willing to listen, and then to do what you can to act on what you have heard?

In Greens forums, I have tried my best to bring people together, to support groups to work well together, and to be inviting and welcoming of new and diverse folk. We will not grow our strength as a movement for change unless we are good at doing this.

We need more people involved and engaged in political processes. It can so often be a hard slog, and change can be so incremental, as I have experienced over the past ten years. But we have to be there. We have to keep working for change, so we’ve got to make sure that people are supported and have positive experiences, connecting with people and having agency as we do.

Marriage equality and facilitating from the side

The most tangible outcome however over the decade of working together and seeing collaboration shine was the end-game of the process that resulted in marriage equality in 2017. We should never have had to go through a hurtful postal plebiscite to get there, but once that was set in train then there was a job to be done to work out what the legislation would be if the plebiscite was successful.

We set up a Senate committee, chaired by conservative coalition government senator David Fawcett, and with the key players in the room being Dean Smith from the government, Louise Pratt from the ALP and myself. Despite our differences, we negotiated that legislation clause by clause.

I know my facilitation skills helped that to occur, despite not being in the chair. We built trust in each other, and understood the limitations on each of us, knowing the different constituencies that we each had to answer to. We shared sensitive information knowing that that was safe – that we trusted each other enough so that we knew that that information would not go outside the room.

The bill that was subsequently introduced was not the bill the LIberal government would have introduced on its own, it was not the bill that us Greens would have preferred. But we reached consensus on it, and agreed that even though it was a creation of all of us that it would have the best chance of being supported through the parliament if it was Dean’s Private Senators Bill. Louise and I stood back in the interests of a good outcome. The rest is history.

Facilitation at the heart of change

As my teacher, mentor and Groupwork Centre co-founder Glen Ochre used to say, the world needs more good facilitators. And parliamentary politics needs more of them in spades. Good facilitation should be at the heart of our politics for change.

I’ve now passed the baton on – ten years of working in that place of slow progress was enough – but I encourage anyone else who wants to use their facilitation skills for good to give it a go!

What’s next for me? I’m about to throw myself back into the world of facilitating in the community, helping community and social change groups and our Greens branches and groups across the country and in the Asia Pacific build skills in working collaboratively, effectively and happily. Drop me a line if you’d like to stay in touch.

Greens Senator Janet Rice

Janet Rice, a community activist and facilitator, recently retired from the federal parliament. Janet Rice has been a passionate campaigner for justice, people, and the planet for more than 30 years. She took her seat as a Greens Senator for Victoria in 2014. A climate scientist by training, Janet began her working life campaigning to protect forests. She was part of the 1983 Franklin River Blockade and a leader of the campaign that resulted in the creation of the Errinundra National Park in East Gippsland. Within a decade, she was a founding member of the Greens in Victoria. Janet was the party spokesperson for LGBTIQ+ issues, family, ageing and community affairs, forests, foreign affairs, and multiculturalism, serving as the Federal Greens’ Party Room Chair and, in Parliament, Janet as the Chair of the Community Affairs References Committee.

This article was originally published by Groupwork Centre.

Image credit. Waves 3 by Christiane Wilke (2015) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.