Citizens assemblies & Julia Gillard PM

By Andrew L. Urban

When Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced during the 2010 election campaign that she would establish a Citizens’ Assembly to deliberate on and find consensus for climate change policies, the idea was derided and ridiculed. It was duly abandoned. Yet the notion of a Citizens’ Assembly has a respectable record as a potential tool for better and more deliberative democratic policy making.

The newDemocracy movement has been an advocate of this concept for some time. Has Gillard’s clumsy incursion done irreparable damage to the idea of Citizens’ Assemblies in Australia?

Professor Lyn Carson * who helped to establish NewDemocracy with founder Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, hopes not, but she writes: “ .. the introduction of public engagement into the politically charged arena of climate change policy could not have been done more poorly … the adverse media commentary that ensued was caused by several key miscalculations or confusions in its introduction…”

The sad reality is that Australians in general are not engaged with the political process and have little knowledge of the concept of a Citizens Assembly (CA). Given that Australia is going through an era of global upheavals and domestic political ructions (including an unstable minority Government), it is surprising that there is so little public discussion about democracy and how it can best be adapted to changing needs. Well, not only public discussion but public interest is lacking.

The political class (politicians, their minders, bureaucrats, the media) talk a lot amongst themselves, but the conversations are hardly ever taken beyond the immediate and obvious. There seems little interest in the political media to explore democracy itself.

This is symptomatic of a general ignorance about democracy, which contributed to the Prime Minister’s clumsy toe stubbing on the subject.

Carson: “No information package was distributed to describe the CA to the media. Commentators were left to make incorrect and damaging presumptions based on poor engagement practices in the past, thus misinforming the public. So a CA was repeatedly discounted on false premises.

“Gillard inappropriately set the agenda while omitting details about how the CA would actually work. Climate Change Minister, Penny Wong, added to the confusion, never explaining a CA but stating: “It’s a way in which we ensure that we give a voice to ordinary Australians.

“Wong undermined the promise of “a wide range of advocates” to inform the CA. Asked… whether the assembly would be addressed by climate sceptics, Climate Change Minister Penny Wong said: “If they’re credible scientists.”

“The CA was described variously as a national focus group or a committee or a deliberative poll. This led to knee-jerk reaction like that of the Food and Grocery Council demanding that the CA “include industry representatives.” The Executive Director of the conservative think-tank Australia Institute, Richard Denniss, who in his position might be expected to elicit more thoughtful remarks, suggested that “we’ll be doing climate policy on Facebook next.” He exclaimed that it was possibly “the single worst idea that has ever been floated by an elected government in a federal election”.

“The media canvassed criticisms of it almost exclusively. This happened through their choice of opinion pieces, news coverage, letters to editors and television panellists and news interviewees. Damning the CA became a blood sport. Glenn Milne called it “risible” and “pathetic” and tabloid slogans dominated, predicting “squabbling and seething” and that “only idiots” would dedicate a year to a CA. The Opposition’s spokesperson Greg Hunt thought it “farcical”, “national policy by lottery”, with participants “chosen from the phone book” adding that it was “2020 Summit meets Copenhagen conference”. Michelle Grattan reported that people consider it “a bit of nonsense”. Headlines described it as a “gab-fest”. Paul Kelly accused Gillard of engaging in “gimmicks” and claimed “consensus is the great hoax”.

These are the unfortunate consequences of Gillard’s poorly judged and poorly introduced notion of a CA; the damage was maximised by the response to it.

newDemocracy is concerned that there is a serious disconnect between people and politics – and a large part of the reason is party political strictures.

As the newDemocracy website states, “Australia’s first Citizens Parliament was held at Old Parliament House in Canberra from 6th to 9th February 2009.  The project contributed to public understanding of Australia’s institutions of government and to debates about possibilities for their reform. The project reflected more effective citizen participation and public consultation in Australia’s democracy.

“The Foundation is exploring ways of engaging large numbers of people via electronic polling and online deliberative platforms to provide opportunities for typical citizens across Australia to become involved in deliberative processes.  Innovative interactive programs have been tested and evaluated.”


* September 2010, Australian Policy Online Lyn Carson argues that citizen assemblies have a lot to offer if they are done the right way
Extracts quoted with permission

Lyn Carson

Professor Carson is on the executive board of the International Association for Public Participation and on the editorial board of the Journal of Public Deliberation and a director of the newdemocracy Foundation. She is a former elected representative in local government. She is currently a professorial fellow with the Centre for Citizenship and Public Policy at the University of Western Sydney and an adjunct professor with the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

She publishes online at Active Democracy

Comments and discussion are welcome. We do not publish anonymous comments (full name required) but will withhold names from publication when requested to do so for legitimate reasons. All comments will be moderated before publication.

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