Evidence of the disengagement of civil society is everywhere. Members are fleeing the political parties, leaving control in the hands of careerist insiders. Parliaments are losing respect and politicians are cynically regarded. Corporations are run by unrepresentative boards. The media is probably the greatest institutional failure of our age. With a few notable exceptions, under-resourced journalists are no match for political and corporate media managers. Unable to compete on hard news and analysis, the media has increasingly turned to infotainment, opinion, gossip and snuggling up to power. But the problem goes beyond alienation.
The malaise in our institutions, particularly factionalised political parties and an under-resourced media, has also contributed to a failure of policy innovation. What minimal policy innovation we have from the political parties is often ignored, poorly analysed or trivialised by the media. It is too hard. This is no more obvious than in health policy. There is continual clamour for more hospital beds, yet 30% of patients in hospital wouldn’t be there if better alternatives were available.
Opinion polls have also sucked the oxygen out of public policy debate. We are told there is no point in arguing the case for a humanitarian policy on refugees, when the public has already made up its mind on the basis of a snapshot poll.
If Ben Chifley and Malcolm Fraser had read only early opinion polls we would never have accepted Jewish or Indochinese refugees. The community does respond to a consistently well-argued case. With policy determined largely by insiders and ‘experts’, whose views suit their political mentors, and with spin-doctors commissioned to ‘manufacture our consent’, it is not surprising that we feel manipulated and powerless. Yet I am optimistic that we can address the major democratic deficits in our public institutions and the pervading sense of powerlessness in our society.
Democracy is the compelling ideology of our time. We all have an innate urge for community. As one institution breaks down, resourceful Australians have shown in the past that we can renovate some and build others. I know that many parliamentarians, journalists and ordinary citizens share these concerns. NewMatilda.com will name and analyse these critical issues and debate solutions. How can our political parties really engage with their members and supporters? Will they adapt or go the way of other institutions or species that fail to adapt? Could a primary system, as in the United States, be adapted for Australia’s circumstances? What about party branches in the workplace? The Greens and the Democrats have made progress in involving their members. The public wants change. Peter Beattie overwhelmingly won an election in Queensland by campaigning against the rorts in his own party. There are numerous policy ‘think tanks’ in Australia. None of them seriously attempt to engage a broad group of Australians in a conversation about policy in a meaningful way. None are linked to a network of active citizens, campaigning for change. How then can we democratise our public institutions and involve the community in the process of policy development reform?
How will NewMatilda.com go about it? We will take full advantage of the exciting opportunities the internet presents for citizens to seize the initiative in promoting policies for the common good. The web enables unprecedented public scrutiny, inexpensive publication to audiences and diverse discussion by all citizens on a virtual level playing field. This is in contrast to the tightly controlled nature of top down government and media spin. We aim to create the opportunity for a renewal of citizen driven politics.
In the United States, MoveOn.org, with two million online activists, is one of the most effective outlets for democratic participation available today. Its successful coordination of citizen scrutiny of the Bush administration and a promotion of creative and successful citizen action, shows not just the possibility of the technology, but also the willingness of citizens to use it to reengage with the democratic process. The appeal of the Howard Dean campaign with its local Meet Up shows the potential of the web to link together citizens to organise for a cause.
New Matilda.com will ask professionals in such fields as education, health, security and the environment to draft policy positions to stimulate public discussion. That discussion will engage the wider community in face-to-face deliberation. It is my experience that when the community is involved and well informed to compete with the knowledge base of the insiders and the so-called ‘experts’ it makes, what seems to me, very good judgements. Let me illustrate. The superficial public media debate in health is almost entirely about hospitals. But in every serious community deliberation that I am aware of in Australia, and where there is adequate time for briefing and discussion, the community comes to a very different view from insiders about priorities in health care.
It is community health, mental health, the health of children and women subject to violence and aboriginal health. The techniques of community building and joint decision-making have been validated – citizens’ juries, deliberative polling, consensus conferences, and town meetings, whereby randomly selected citizens participate. Having established the views of the community on a rigorous basis after they have been well informed, it is then possible to construct a program, including focus groups, to link the informed view of a representative group to a wider community. Whilst these techniques have been validated, they have not really moved from the fringes into the mainstream. That is a key challenge for NewMatilda.com.
Why haven’t we made more progress in community participation and sharing and decision-making? It is fairly obvious. It is resisted by those who fear that they could lose control of the agenda or be forced to share power with the community. NewMatilda.com will not succeed if we only have passive readers.
We seek to support and energise a movement of reform that activates and involves civil society. We will not only critique the problem of disengagement and alienation from unrepresentative institutions, but we will develop and promote solutions. Participation must involve more than just voting every three or four years. Our activities will be directed to an intergenerational audience, linking both the older generation of commentators and activists with young activists and new voices.
We aim to attract people who share our values, ideas and importantly, want to be included in the process of policy and decision-making. We have an ambitious agenda. We won’t lie awake at night wondering whether we have been bold enough. Yet, we are realistic in knowing that with limited resources, we must focus on the essentials. The two essentials are policies and participation. NewMatilda.com will facilitate the development of policies for a modern and humane Australia. We will engage and energise a reform movement. This process of engagement will be just as important as the policies we develop. They are different sides of the same coin.
We seek to engage the disengaged and encourage the discouraged, along with the activists who share our concerns. We will give a voice to those concerns. We will be more than a magazine. We intend to create a change constituency of new people and ideas by nurturing their confidence and conviction. We need your support. Please consider joining us and encouraging your friends to do the same. I recall advice my father often gave me. ‘Stop complaining and do something about it.’
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