Krystian Seibert. Comment. Sydney Morning Herald, 9 January 2017
The recent release of the Australian National University's election study showed that just under half of respondents were not satisfied with the state of democracy in Australia, the lowest level since the 1970s.
It's not surprising that there's such a level of disillusionment. One explanation may be that most Australians have little or no engagement with the democratic process, and if you're disengaged then you more likely to be disillusioned.
Over Christmas, if you asked any of your family and friends about any submissions they may have made during 2016 in response to Productivity Commission reviews, government policy discussion papers, or Parliamentary inquiries, you would probably have drawn a blank stare.
That's unless one of your family members or friends is like me. My day job is to think about what's happening within government, to lobby and write submissions. Whilst experts and lobbyists are keyed into what's happening in the democratic process, the involvement of most other so called "every day Australians" is limited to turning up to vote every few years. But voting is just one quite limited way of engaging with the democratic process.
I worked as an adviser to two former federal government ministers, and in those jobs it struck me how hard it can be to find out what every day Australians think about particular policies. This was especially the case for more peripheral or niche areas, which aren't front and centre in the public debate.
The focus of my last job as an adviser was establishing the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, Australia's first independent charities regulator. As part of that process, it was hard to find out what very small charities thought, as they are run by those every day Australians who generally aren't engaged with new reform proposals. It would have been even harder to find out what those who aren't running charities think, apart from perhaps commissioning some crude opinion polling.
Having information about the views of a broader section of society can only help improve the quality of public policy, and right now it's hard to come by.
But having that information isn't only positive in terms of the contribution it makes to better public policy, but also because by seeking that information we empower those whom we seek it from. Their engagement with the democratic process becomes about more than just voting, but about shaping the actual policies which could have an impact on their lives and their communities.
If people feel valued and included in the democratic process, then they are less likely to be disillusioned by it. They are less likely to just be frustrated observers as they have an opportunity to be active participants.
What are the different ways we could engage more people in the democratic process, beyond just voting?
Recently, we've seen citizens' juries being used in local and state government in Australia, as a way of involving a wider range of people in the democratic process.
They involve a group of randomly selected people that are representative of the broader community. They come together and are briefed by experts regarding the issue/s in question, and then deliberate and recommend a way forward to government.
In the last couple of years, the South Australian government has been using citizens' juries to consider issues ranging from road safety, cat and dog management and most recently the potential for a nuclear industry.
Citizens juries do represent an innovative way to give every day Australians an opportunity to engage directly in the democratic process, and provide better information to governments about what every day Australians actually think.
But the challenge is, how could we embed them in our democratic system?
When the federal government currently seeks advice on matters of public policy, it has a variety of expert bodies to whom it turns. One of those is the Productivity Commission, which is a body of economists.
If we want to broaden out whom government seeks advice from, beyond experts and lobbyists, then why not consider establishing a "citizens commission" modelled on the Productivity Commission?
It would be a permanent and independent government body, which would convene citizens' juries at the government's request and then report their recommendations. It would be a flexible model, involving both bigger and smaller juries, covering both complex and simple issues, with deliberations sometimes taking many months or just a few weeks or even days.
It would not be a silver bullet, but it would be one step to address what's missing in our democratic process – the voices and views of every day Australians.
Krystian Seibert was an adviser to two former federal government ministers. He now works in a policy advocacy role within the not-for-profit sector.