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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

talk fest or deliberative democracy? « Previous | |Next »
February 4, 2008

There is going to be a national public conversation in a Canberra Summit in April on 10 areas: directions for the economy; infrastructure; environmental issues including population, sustainability, climate change and water; rural Australia; national health strategy; strengthening communities; indigenous Australia; the arts; the future of government; and Australia's security and international relations. Those invited will be the best and brightest. Rudd puts it this:

The Government's interest is in harnessing and harvesting ideas … that are capable of being shaped into concrete policy options. What we want is for this gathering of the nation's brightest and best to put forward options for the nation's future, to produce summary documents which we will then consider in the second half of the year.

Those invited would be drawn from business, universities, community groups and unions, and would include several eminent Australians. People would not be invited to attend as representatives of organisations or interest groups but in their own capacity as individuals selected on the basis of merit and achievement.

The idea is a good one. It shifts the focus from three-year electoral cycle, which has meant that policymaking is usually focused too much on the short term, to the longer term; This is necessary as it will take much more than a three year term to solve the complex problems Australia faces. It also brings in people from outside politics and government into national planning and policy formulation. Ideas about policy in the above areas are not the exclusive property of the bureaucracy, the special interest groups or the think tanks. Democracy no longer takes a back seat to economic growth and strong leadership.

However, the foregrounding of democracy suggests that it is not just a case of harnessing and harvesting ideas by the executive arm of government, or fostering the image of the Rudd Government looking good-- new leadership with fresh ideas-- through media management and publicity spin. What is needed in liberal democracy is a public conversation about the ideas, and if there is going to be such a public conversation, then then these ideas need to be winnowed, evaluated, and debated in the public sphere. Only then do we have a fostering of deliberative democracy as distinct from a public relations talk fest.

What is needed to some mechanisms to be put in place to overcome the lack of and ongoing public conversation that kicks around ideas. The public bit is currently limited to the few op-eds in the mainstream press that deal with policy as the Canberra Press Gallery journalists, by and large, are interested in politics, not policy. many have little idea about policy--that's for policy wonks. So some new spaces need to be created.

What we have so far is a 1000 people being chosen to take part, with them be being separated into 10 groups of 100 each. This takes policy deliberation outside the space of Parliament which is a good thing. Do we just a summit? Or will these groups be working before they go to Canberra in April? If it is the latter, will their discussions be made public and placed online so that journalists, bloggers, lobbyists and interested citizens can see what is being discussed. Or will the free and open debate be confined to the Canberra forum?

If the Rudd Government reserves the right to pick and choose and embrace the ideas thrown up by the Summit forum, then we citizens reserve the right to contest liberal democracy as a form of governmentality that constitutes us subjects as democratic citizens to make us amenable to government control within a liberal constitutional order.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 5:56 AM | | Comments (8)


Paying your own way has a different meaning for those who live in remote Australia. Hope there is some chance for interaction for the online community.

This sounds like a great idea to me. Wish I was going to be able to follow discussion of it around the blogosphere, but my computer is going to the doctor for a couple of days.

The Rudd government cannot be seen to be too much of a spendthrift when it is obliged to cut back on its expenditure by billions to fight the war on inflation. I suspect that the ideas summit will be like the Davos forums. Or rather, Davos provides the working model. It is held by our shakers and movers that significant outcomes are achieved at Davos.

sorry to hear about the computer. It sounds as if you need a new one.

Do you think that bloggers along with journalists will be invited to the Summit? Or more radically, will there be live blogging from the Ideas Summit? Now there's a thought.

in the Ian McAuley article Gary linked to, we these comments on the constraints on democracy.

First there is:

the network of lobbyists, ministerial staff and public servants. In the inner circle is a Praetorian Guard of advisers protecting the Prime Minister and the Executive from the outside world and its bad news.

And then there is the bureaucracy:
...there is the strong influence of the public service, whose competence lies in its handling of continuity. The public service is adept at resisting fundamental change, not because of any inherent conservatism, but because fundamental change is painful. Its response to an incoming government's reform agenda is often to recast difficult adaptive issues into simple technical problems requiring no more than an incremental change in direction....Public bureaucracies are good at handling technical issues - building new roads, enacting consumer protection laws, and collecting taxes.

The ideas summit needs to discuss ideas about adaptive change which often involves significant loss, and not the sort of loss that can be covered with a tax break or financial compensation. Those losses can involve a change in lifestyle (e.g. adapting to a low carbon economy), or the loss of a way of life (as is confronting many farmers and foresters).

there's no real need for the Ideas Summit according to the Australian, as it will be preceded by its own high-level New Agenda for Prosperity conference to be held at Melbourne University on March 27 and 28. Its editorial says that this:

will be the fifth in a series of Opportunity and Prosperity conferences jointly hosted by The Australian and the Melbourne Institute. Since April 2002, these have been held every 18 months and have developed into Australia's premier public policy forums. The agenda for the coming New Agenda conference includes such major economic and social policy issues as managing the resources boom, the education revolution, federal-state relations, the performance and funding of hospitals, skills shortages, housing costs, innovation, infrastructure (including broadband), regulation, indigenous disadvantage, social inclusion and climate change.

It then adds:
Given its scope and timing, less than a month before Mr Rudd's summit, the New Agenda conference is likely to produce important consensus and ideas that will feed into the Prime Minister's summit. This is no idle hope, given the track record of past Opportunity and Prosperity conferences in shaping long-range economic policy. From the outset, the conferences were developed around the sound notion that vigorous economic reform can boost national prosperity while providing opportunities for all Australians.

So we can all rest assured. Even though there is a new political order in Canberra, the Australian is still running the nation for us. There is no need for us citizens to do anything.

the ideas conference is good politics. It suggests a helpful air of inclusiveness, a government listening and in touch as it outlines its policy vision.

Last time it went to the doctor because it was sick. This is just an upgrade.

I would rather see bloggers live blogging from the thing than any number of journalists.

Slip over to the ABC and see what commenters are saying about it. They're split between seeing it as inclusive and exclusive. People are making suggestions. It's not just good politics - people are wanting to be involved. Whatever happened to the notion that we're all disengaged?

Wow. That's such a relief, isn't it? I hate to think where we'd be if we didn't have The Australian steering the ship.