EDUCATION BEFORE LEGISLATION – THE NEW DEMOCRACY FOUNDATION By Rod Matthews I firmly believe that the biggest problem we face today is lazy thinking. All problems are solvable – it just takes access to the vast amounts of information and experience that are readily available to us, combined with some creative and rigorous thinking. With this in mind, how often have you been in conversation with people that you know and love, only to hear someone regurgitate an opinion that they heard on the TV news as if it was their own and, even worse, as if it was undeniable? What do you do? Do you: a) run the risk of getting into trouble from your partner and ruining the vibe of the afternoon by challenging your friend’s lazy thinking? b) take another sip of your drink and let it slide because life is too short to upset friends? c) say something like ‘I’ve looked into that and I still don’t know enough to make an opinion’? Fortunately there is another alternative – education before legislation – and this is why I volunteer my services to The New Democracy Foundation.i The New Democracy Foundation seeks to work with citizens and governments to reduce the adversarial approach and increase the collaborative approach to policy formulation. Currently we are running a series of community consultation workshops to develop a recommendation to NSW State Parliament on the economics and security of energy generation in NSW. This is done by inviting a random sample of registered voters to attend the workshops and provide them with access to the world’s leading experts on various energy generation options. After listening to one expert and asking a series of questions, participants are taken through a facilitated process before listening to the next expert.
The result is intended to be an educated group of concerned citizens making a well thoughtout recommendation that will then be tabled in parliament. The process is, of course, not perfect; there are a couple of drawbacks. First, a group of about 100 voters is not a representative sample, and second, just because the report is tabled doesn’t mean it will be approved. One thing, however, is certain: As a result of the work done there will be more people at barbecues and dinner parties who, when someone says something vacuous, will be able to respond confidently, ‘I think you’ll find it is a little more complex than that.’
The New Democracy Foundation One of the main reference points for the wellbeing of a nation is the state of it’s democracy. When faith in the political systems in undermined, when the population becomes cynical or weary of its political system, the wellbeing of the nation suffers. Most politicians enter public life with strong ideals and intentions of improving things for their electorate and for the population in general. Unfortunately what often happens is the reality of needing to win office sets in and this results in some behaviours that are highlighted by the drama seeking press to an increasingly sensationalist public. In 2005 a group of academics, ex-politicians and business people started a conversation about alternatives that increased collaboration and reduced the adversarial approach to policy making. The high profile group includes: • • • • • • • •
Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, The Founder Iain Walker, Executive Director Prof. Lyn Carson, Director Kathy Jones, Director The Hon Geoff Gallop AC, Chair, Research Committee The Hon Nick Greiner AC, Member, Research Committee Prof. Martin Krygier, Member, Research Committee Cheryl Kernot, Supporter
Community Consultation When a politician tries to table a report that they have commissioned it has a markedly improved chance of being acknowledged and supported if it has been completed by an independent expert. A recent example is ‘The Griffin Report’ into education. The New Democracy Foundation takes this one step further. They use the electoral role to invite a group of randomly sampled citizens to become a citizen’s jury on a particular issue that the government faces. The citizen’s jury then meets and asks to hear from experts in the field that they are asked to address. They listen to the experts present and ask them questions. The jury is then facilitated through a consensus process until a report is produced and tabled on the floor of parliament. The parliament must respond within a given time frame. In this way the report is compiled by a random sample of the voting public who have been educated in issues around a certain area and make a clear recommendation. This makes it much easier for both parties to agree and support the report. How I became involved
For a number of years I have become increasingly cynical about the system in which our politicians and public servants operate. While I strongly believe that democracy is the best type of government, I also strongly believe that our version of democracy could do with a make over. The two party preferred system, political donations, 7 second news grabs, the adversarial embarrassing question times, entrenched public service some of who have a vested interest in not changing, an unthinking public who don’t go beyond the sensationalist rating seeking press all conspire to weaken our political system. One afternoon I heard Nick Greiner and Geoff Gallup on ABC radio national talking about the New Democracy Foundation. I was so enthused by what they said as they talked about the issues I have outlined above, that I went straight to the website and volunteered. As it turns out, facilitation of community consensus is one of the foundations most expensive and difficult roles to fill. As a result, I’m now one of the facilitators working with the New Democracy Foundations involvement with the NSW Parliaments Public Accounts Committees’ investigation into energy economics and security in NSW. (Wow! That is a mouthful). My role is to facilitate the citizen’s jury inSydneythrough an education and consensus process to help deliver a report with recommendations to the NSW Parliament on energy generation options for the future. We gathered over a period of 3 months to meet, listen to experts, and prepare a report and handover the report to the Public Accounts Committee. At This Stage So far with this enquiry we have:
Invited and received RSVP’s from around 80 citizens who will form the jury. Invited and received around 30 submissions on energy economics and security from a broad range of experts and interested parties. All of these have been made available to the jury members. Gained volunteer support from Cisco Systems to run the technology to link the jury in Sydney with the jury in Tamworth with the experts who are presenting from all over Australia. Gained volunteer support from The Apex organisation in helping us set up, cater and provide meeting support for the day. Gained the volunteer support of two professional facilitators. Deb Cameron to facilitate the jury in Tamworth and my self to facilitate the jury in Sydney. Run four days where we examined the submissions, discussed the current situation of energy generation in NSW and in Australia with a range of experts including Dr Ian McGill from the UNSW and discussed the economics of energy with Dr Paul Graham from the CSIRO. The report has been written and tabled in the NSW Parliament. The report can be read in full here: http://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/prod/parlment/committee.nsf/0/6E0C25BF50C6AA0DCA25 7ABD00196735
I love it because …
As I have mentioned in the past I firmly believe that the biggest problem we face is lazy thinking. All the problems that we face are solvable with the access to the information and experience that we have combined with some creative and rigorous thinking. With this in mind, how often have you been in conversation with people that you know and love only to hear someone regurgitate an opinion that they heard on the TV news as if it was their own and, even worse, as if it was undeniable? What do you do? Do you: a) Run the risk of getting into trouble from your partner and ruining the vibe of the afternoon by challenging your friend’s lazy thinking? b) Take another sip of your drink and let it slide because life is too short to upset friends? c) Say something like ‘I’ve looked into that and I still don’t know enough to make an opinion?’ Fortunately there is an alternative. Education before legislation. This is why I volunteer my services to The New Democracy Foundation. The consensus takes Joe Public and educates them in the making of policy. As a result several things happen:
People are educated There is less lazy thinking Good policy is tabled on the floor of Parliament Politicians find it slightly easier to gain support for legislation There are more people at BBQ’s who, when someone regurgitates a sensationalist viewpoint, can say “I think you’ll find it’s a little more complex than that.”
For more information please visit www.newdemocracy.com.au .