Re-engaging communities


Evidence of our alienation from institutions is everywhere. Yet I am optimistic that we can change this. If our institutions won’t or can’t be reformed, we look for alternate ways of expressing our need for community.

Let us look at some examples of alienation and institutional failure in this country.

The most obvious example is the political parties. After WWII the major parties had about 300 000 members each. The ALP now has about one tenth of that number and still falling. Less than 20 000 voted for the ALP Federal President. It’s a surprise there isn’t more branch stacking with the average number of party members per federal electorate about 200.

Money has replaced membership as the driving force of political campaigns. It is called ‘donocracy’ in the USA. Political parties have effectively corporatised themselves with political managers marketing political products and ignoring their members.

Thanks to Hive

Thanks to Hive

Control is by insiders. For example 87 per cent of ALP federal conference delegates are either MPs, staff of MPs, trade union or party officers. Some rank and file! Candidates are chosen more for how they will support the faction in Caucus than how they will perform in the parliament. Factions are corrupting the ALP from top to bottom.

The Pauline Hanson phenomenon was not at all surprising. In a period of rapid change, many people felt powerless and alienated from party and political processes.

In light of this alienation from political parties, Australians should seriously consider adopting, with improvements, the US primary system. Branches in the workplace might be considered. More important, we need national party organizations with leaders chosen by members across the country and not by state party officials. Politics is too serious a matter to be left to politicians and party officials. They won’t willingly concede power, so we must go beyond them to win the public debate, and so force them to change.

With politicians and parliament, the story is the same. All the surveys show that politicians are at the bottom of almost any trust ranking along with journalists, car salesmen and real estate agents. In the last republic campaign, the rallying call of the monarchists was ‘don’t trust politicians’.

The Westminster system is in serious disrepair with the growing presidential power of the Prime Minister/Premier, the loss of independence in the public service, the domination of parliament by parties and Cabinet and most importantly, the lack of ministerial responsibility. It used to be called the responsible system of government. But is any minister responsible for anything any more?

Probably the greatest institutional failure of our age is the media with its concentration and abuse of power and preoccupation with the bottom line. This has left journalists under-resourced to match the business and political sectors that push out their stories in a very sophisticated and subliminal way. We call it spin. Under-resourced journalists cannot keep up. So the space is filled with celebrity, infotainment and consumerism. Princess Mary rates ahead of important public issues.

The media failure is heightened by the retreat of public intellectuals who were concerned about values and vision. Where have they gone?

This may sound as if I am suggesting that things were better in an earlier and golden age, but that is not so. The difference now is that institutions have not responded to a better-informed community that in many cases wants to be involved. The community is also increasingly sceptical of public discourse that has become corrupted by business and political news management. There is no clearer example of this than the media’s performance over the Iraq War. We had an enquiry about the failure of our intelligence agencies. A far far greater failure was in the media.

The good news is that as institutions fail us, we seek to renovate them or build new ones. We have a basic human instinct to belong and to be part of a group. We don’t like being misled or ignored. Let me illustrate this through my experience in the health sector.

In health the debate is between insiders – doctors and ministers. The media entrenches this debate to the exclusion of the community about what is important. But when there is genuine and informed community involvement, there is a quite remarkable change.

In 1996 in western metropolitan Adelaide there was an extensive and intensive twelve-month consultation about health priorities. The community was informed about the costs of various options. They came up with some very clear views on priorities in health – they were mental health, better information, aboriginal health, home-based care, palliative care and consumer involvement. Asked about those areas that should receive less priority, they listed – life-extending interventions in last stages of terminal illness, some fertility treatments, bureaucracy, and non-essential surgery and hospital super specialties. After reading that report, no-one can ever tell me that the community cannot understand the important issues in health and decide between them. I will back any day the views of an informed community on priorities in health.

The debate about health projected in the media suggests community concern is about hospital waiting lists and pressure on hospital emergency departments. The hospital tail wags the health dog. In every consultation that I have been involved in where the issues are thoroughly addressed, the public nominates two clear priorities in health – mental health and aboriginal health – not hospitals.

In addition to setting priorities, information is also important for informed personal choices in health. The key is clear and accessible information.

There is ample evidence that we want to participate if we feel that our views are valued and will be reasonably acted upon. Polls show that whilst we are disillusioned with politicians we still want to be part of the political process.

People continue to volunteer for good causes – bushfires, the Olympics and one million marched against the Iraq war. As our system of responsible government falls into disrepair, Australians will increasingly favour an elected President. We want an effective say to balance the power of government.

We have seen the remarkable development of online services by small groups of volunteers and activists. in the USA has over two million subscribers. It polls its subscribers about issues that concern them and runs campaigns in response. Increasingly, people are seeking alternatives to established institutions and particularly the mainstream media. That is one reason why we established New Matilda.

My experience, particularly in health, is that when the community is genuinely involved it makes very good judgements. I emphasise ‘genuinely’ because unless the community senses that we want its opinion and will sensibly use it, we are wasting our time. So often public consultation is designed to engineer consent rather than genuinely seeking engagement and input.

There is a whole range of techniques of community engagement – deliberative polling, town meetings, and citizens’ juries. The difficulty is that although these methods have been validated they have not moved far out of the academic stream into the public arena. New Matilda carries two very good articles on the subject by Dr Lyn Carson and Dr Janette Hartz-Karp.

I do not suggest direct democratic decision-making, but public involvement in helping to set goals, principles and priorities. The community can be much more effective in broad-based issues rather than involving it in detail which is often better left to the ‘experts’.

We assume that the community is in need of involvement. We call it out-reach. But as Professor Michael Gibbons said, institutions like universities also need in-reach to challenge their insularity. To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, what do they know of universities, who only universities know?

The process of community involvement is time-consuming and frustrating but in the end rewarding. We can hardly complain that in a democratic society, the community will come up with some useful but sometimes disconcerting advice. Democracy will always be a work in progress, messy but the best we’ve got.

This is an edited version of a speech given at the Community Engagement Workshop, Griffith University, on 4 March 2005

Dr Lyn Carson Building sustainable democracies, New Matilda Policy Portal

Dr Janette Hartz-Karp Sharing decision-making, New Matilda Policy Portal

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