Why do we need a Canberra Alliance for Participatory Democracy?

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Democracy is in trouble across the Western world. Australia is not alone in experiencing a large fall in political party membership, undue influence of the corporate sector on government thinking; declining public trust in the decisions of political leaders, and cynicism in the electorate about protection of the public interest.

The public interest is here defined as “the welfare and well-being of the whole population.” At its best, a democratic government should have this front and centre of its vision and its operation. Of course views differ about how the welfare and well-being of the population can best be secured. And political parties have made it their business, guided by their values and ideology, to develop policies that in their view will satisfactorily address the community’s long term welfare and wellbeing.

So what, if anything is the problem? With globalisation and progressive digitalisation of the world, many things have changed. The rise of multinational corporations with enormous resources at their disposal and clear ideas about the kinds of policies that will best benefit their business is one factor above all that has helped to cloud the vision of our parliamentary representatives. The decline in political party membership and the growing professionalisation of politicians is another. A third factor is the trivialisation of political campaigning and the costs of getting elected to Parliament. More and more political time and resources are invested in getting elected and re-elected, and it seems that the really serious questions that will determine our long-term welfare and well-being are being scandalously ignored.

And all the time the public policy challenges are multiplying. They include the danger of runaway climate change, massive loss of services from dying ecosystems, growing gaps between the rich and poor, unaffordable housing, the decline in our education and health care systems, underemployment, and the massive flow of displaced people around the world.

There is no lack of people and groups advocating for the public interest and the common good. But they are fragmented and often incoherent in the face of the cashed up and well focussed forces ranged in favour of private interests.

Around the world, the discipline of community organising is taking a a central role in the re-establishing the power of the people and giving them a coherent voice in the development of public policy. Pioneered by the Industrial Areas Foundation in the United States, the community organising movement is spreading rapidly in Canada, Europe and more recently in Australia. The aim of the movement is to build alliances between civil society groups — including faith groups, unions, non-government organisations, environmental and activist groups — and give members of all these groups opportunities to voice their concerns and to take action to remedy them.

In Sydney, Queensland and parts of New Zealand the Alliance movement is well advanced. Here in Canberra we hope it will play an important role in enlivening our democracy.

Bob Douglas

21 August 2015

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