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Public Sector Informant : PSI - September
www.sparke.com.au Tues 28 18 THE PUBLIC SECTOR INFORMANT [SEPTEMBER 2010] [DEMOCRACY:ROBIN BROWN] Power, and policymaking, to the people Citizens' assemblies 150 randomly selected Australians are more likely to be objective than is Parliament It has been said that we don't need such an assembly because we have Federal Parliament. I think Parliament has proved itself over many years now of being incapable of effective deliberation. Direct democracy: The 150 randomly selected members of the 2009 Citizens' Parliament at Old Parliament House. Photo: newdemocracy foundation Australia's first Citizens' Parliament was held over four days in February 2009, that terrible weekend of Black Saturday. I had the privilege of being one of 150 people randomly selected for it; I was the member for the electorate of Canberra. Citizens' assemblies have proven they can contribute to better government in Australia and other countries, notably Canada. An assembly on carbon pollution reduction could make a strong contribution, if conducted properly. If, as now seems likely, prime minister Julia Gillard will not proceed with it, a privately funded assembly is also an option. The 2009 Citizens' Parliament was largely funded by the newdemocracy foun- dation. The Citizens' Parliament was as- ked to deliberate on the way Australia is governed and recommend imp- rovements. It was also itself an experiment in using this kind of deliberative process on a national scale to contribute to governance. I think we all came away thinking it a success; some of us thought it a great success. These 150 people were strangers to each other (apart from meeting at some preliminary regional gatherings), were from all walks of life and came with a range of philosophies, opinions and attitudes. Remarkably, over four days, they came to a high level of agreement on many issues, some of which were quite contentious. Importantly, many, if not most, had never previously needed to come to grips with some fairly sophisticated ideas on national constitutions, voting systems and public administration. And quite a few had little formal education. Even so, after some effective learning sessions, all were able to make strong contributions to the deliberations. Critical to the Parliament's success was that, apart from the broad task of improving governance, the partici- pants set the agenda. A citizens' assembly on carbon pollution must be able to do the same. In any case, 150 ordinary Australians, if I know my fellow citizens at all, would refuse to meekly accept restricted terms of reference. In this, such an exercise is very different from the normal inquiry processes that governments use; processes which are too often carefully designed to tell govern- ments what they want to hear. So what might we expect from a citizens' assembly on carbon pol- lution? I am sure it would not limit itself to simply offering its views on an emissions trading scheme. The group should also be able to decide on the experts, community organis- ations and businesses it wants to hear from. However, since it is likely that few of the assembly members would themselves have scientific, economic and public policy expertise, more than a little guidance on this would be needed. Being randomly selected, which they must be for the exercise to be valid and be seen to be valid, a significant number would be yet to be persuaded that we need to do any- thing about anthropogenic carbon dioxide. Therefore, the assembly would first need to consider the latest science on carbon and climate change. The assembly should, of course, hear both sides of the argu- ment, but I think this must be in proportion in terms of the relative weight of scientific analyses and conclusions. I suggest it likely that most would accept that returning the amount of carbon to the atmosphere that has taken plant life millions and millions of years to store in the Earth's crust over just a century or so is likely to be having an effect to which the biosphere and we won't easily be able to adapt. I think any minority could be persuaded to continue to take part on the assump- tion that anthropogenic CO2 needs mitigation. Of course, this might not be so and the assembly could fail at this point, but I doubt it. Second, they would want to con- sider the full range of options for mitigation and adaptation, which must include possible fiscal measures such as a carbon tax. They would hear that markets are best at allocating resources to achieve efficiency. But they would want to assess all options in terms of simplicity, cost, pos- sibilities for rorting, and predic- tability, and thus conduciveness to investment. And they would see the failings of emissions-trading scheme in Europe, which have been well documented by the Foundation for Effective Markets and Governance in association with the Monash Centre for Regulatory Studies. They would note that many top economists -- such Professor Joseph Stiglitz, Professor Jeffrey Sachs and Sir Nicholas Stern -- believe a carbon tax ticks all the boxes. Of course, governments must be strong enough to set taxes and increase them as necessary to achieve the needed effect. I am confident that whatever scheme such an assembly agreed on, it would be fair to ordinary Aus- tralians and would adequately com- pensate the disadvantaged and help them to reduce their carbon footprint. It would be unlikely to overcompen- sate large corporate polluters, as such companies would have few represen- tatives among the assembly's ran- domly selected members. But, as businessman Dick Smith has pointed out, a citizens' assembly would quickly realise that efforts to cut carbon pollution would be of limited effect if global population growth is uncontained. I think it would be a good idea if the assembly invited Smith to address it. Where might it go on this? Would it not come to the view that the question of what Australia should do about carbon pollution is part of the wider question of how Australia can best and should contribute to bringing the biosphere back to sustainability, or at least reducing the projected trend in unsustainable growth? If so, it would note that the biosphere is under pressure from humanity in many ways: loss of biodiversity, pollution at the regional level of many kinds and degradation of soil and water resources. The need to deal with carbon must not take away from what can be done about these other problems. But we are up against it while coping with the needs and wants of the present global popu- lation of about 6.8 billion. If we cannot slow the growth rate, it's predicted we'll have to cope with the needs and wants of another three billion or so people over the next three to four decades. It is now well established that lifting people out of poverty -- and especially educating young women in developing countries -- reduces popu- lation growth markedly. Maybe the assembly would conclude that besides cutting our carbon pollution, one of the best things Australia could do is to invest a lot more in gender equality in developing countries, especially in education. We can certainly afford this. As a percentage of gross domestic product, we spend much less on development cooper- ation than other rich countries (about 0.3 per cent compared with Sweden's 1 per cent and the United Nations' target of 0.7 per cent). In all of this, the assembly could help the Australian community better understand the problems that the world confronts. This would help Labor MP Kevin Rudd in his work on the UN High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability and contribute to Aus- tralia's preparations for the UN Conference on Sustainable Develop- ment in 2012. It has been said that we don't need such an assembly because we have Federal Parliament. I think Parlia- ment has proved itself over many years now of being incapable of effective deliberation. There is also the view that these matters are best left to experts. We do need experts but, in the end, public policy is for the public and what better way to be sure that it is than to involve 150 members of the public in making it. A parliament is obviously a group of people with political ambitions. A citizens' assembly may have one or two with such ambitions, but gener- ally its members will have no interest beyond getting what they can out of the experience and putting what they can into the task for its duration, and then going home. Also, they are beholden to no one for their tempor- ary position: just the roll of the die. Robin Brown has qualifications in biology and public policy. He has served on the governing bodies of several environmental, consumer and social policy organisations. See citizensparliament.org.au for more information about the Citizens' Parliament.
PSI - October