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How might CAPaD develop?

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The Canberra Alliance for Participatory Democracy (CAPaD) is a couple of months old and 100 members strong. At a recent meeting, members took stock and offered their views on the future role of the new body.

We heard from Ms Cathy McGowan, the independent MHR from Indi in Victoria, about the process in her Federal electorate of Indi, that led to the unseating of a former Liberal shadow minister and a re-energising of participatory democracy across the region. As Cathy tells the story, there is new energy and a new feeling about democracy emerging across the Northern Victorian electorate. She told us that not only is the former member re-contesting the seat in the next election but that the seat is already being sought by other parties, other independents and by Cathy herself next year.

It seems that the Indi phenomenon was precipitated by widespread dissatisfaction in the electorate that the then local member was not representing local concerns and that priorities for change in the electorate were being ignored.

The motivation for establishing CAPaD was a view that the concerns and needs of the community are being ignored or overridden by the special needs of big business and the market and that the democratic process is being debased by party solidarity, the special interests of lobbyists and media farce. Concerns held by huge majorities in the electorate about issues such as coal dependency, marriage equality, end of life options, illicit drug policy are being ignored by our representatives or being lost or constrained by the straitjacket requirements of party politics, the 24 hour media cycle and the 3 or 4 year political cycle.

The Alliance has adopted the discipline of community organising as a central element of our operation, which means respectful listening in pairs and groups to the strengths, concerns and aspirations of large numbers of people in the community. It also means acting to hold decision makers accountable for the public interest and the common good.

After the helpful conversation with Cathy, members were invited to present ideas to the newly elected committee of the Alliance about the role the Alliance should play in enhancing democracy in our region.

In their comments, our members expressed the hope that the organisation would become a strong vehicle for civil society in Canberra and play a new role in political and government decision-making. They emphasised the need to make use of the developing methods of deliberative democracy, including citizen juries, citizen panels and citizen assemblies and parliaments and to envisage substantial changes in the way decisions that affect the common good are made in our federal and state jurisdictions.

One of the issues raised by Ms McGowan was the role that an independent representative can play vis a vis the role of a member of a political party. We should ask ourselves how, in a strengthened Canberra democracy, the wider community can most effectively interact with their political representatives both in the federal and local legislatures. It seems there could be real benefits from an increase in the number of independent representatives in both parliaments, especially where those representatives have continuing and open access to thinking in the community at large.

With important ACT and national elections in 2016, the opportunity to begin to realise some of these aspirations is clear. But if this is to happen the Alliance must dramatically increase the membership of CAPaD, and if this is to happen we must undertake some highly visible activities that reflect both our values and our mission. We also need to lower the median age of our membership by about 25 years.

It will be easier to attract attention to an issue that is controversial and which can be tackled in a different way to “business as usual”. Before CAPaD was launched, the scoping group tried unsuccessfully to encourage the ACT government to use a citizens jury to deliberate on the issue of public transport developments in the ACT. A number of our members are now particularly keen for CAPaD to explore this issue in coming months in a non-partisan way. The issue lends itself especially to deliberative methods whereby a citizen panel of some kind hears all sides of the argument and expresses its views.

Another way in which the Alliance might engage large numbers of the community is to embark on kitchen table conversations about the the changing world and the challenges and opportunities it poses for the coming decade. Australia21 is interested in conducting a pilot in Canberra for a national conversation on this matter. Whatever emerges from the Paris climate summit, issues such as population growth, ecosystem destruction, economic instability and the way the market system operates are matters deserving serious discussion by thoughtful people across the community.

Two weeks ago Fair Go for Canberra (FGFC) held a highly successful summit and in the aftermath of that, it is planning to develop a Charter for Canberra. A number of members of the Alliance committee participated in the Summit and met to discuss a future working relationship with Unions ACT, which is the parent of FGFC and sponsored the summit. The Alliance is encouraging our members to make their inputs into the FGFC survey, which is accessed at this address

if the alliance is to serve a useful purpose in the future it must engage with young people. Plans are well underway for an ACT Youth Parliament on sustainability to be held in 2016. The Parliament will be considering methods for reducing Canberra as ecological footprint. As leader of that project I am hoping to interest a number of the schools that are planning to take part in this event in using kitchen table conversations in the classroom to arrive at each school’s proposal to the Parliament. This is the third such parliament we have run and on the last two occasions about 25 schools and colleges have sent teams of all ages from grades 1 to 12 to the Parliament. By introducing participatory methods into the development of each schools proposal, especially those coming forward from senior students, we can prepare the ground for participatory expectations in future electors.

Another way to engage large numbers of Canberra’s in thinking about participatory democracy and how it can enhance their lives, is a proposed Festival of Participatory Democracy, which a number of committee members are suggesting could be held over the Anzac day long weekend in 2016. This could be held either in the ANU Manning Clark complex or perhaps in a couple of schools. It needs to be a light-hearted affair that nevertheless introduces people to new ways of participating in democracy. A small subgroup of the committee should be given authority to develop a programme and make plans for the event, which will need to engage young people as well as existing members.

The recently introduced “Transition Streets Canberra” program is an opportunity for neighbours to come together and support each other to reduce their ecological footprint, save money and be more vibrant and connected. The ‘street’ can be a group of neighbors along a street, a group of neighbours in an apartment complex, or any other combination of neighborhood groups. Together each street decides what they can do in their own homes and community to move towards a more sustainable lifestyle. This program is a logical way to engage in kitchen table conversations about the future and ways in which the community can take back its role in democracy.

There is much to be done and many exciting opportunities to be seized. Our democracy may be fractured but we can restore it to the point where the power of the people rather than the power of the corporations determines our future and that of our children and theirs.

Bob Douglas

5 December 2015

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