Community must be invited along the path to reform: InDaily

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Reform is hard, and elections aren’t the time to do it – so when is …?

This is hard for me to say as I have always believed that it is important for political parties to stand for something and argue their case… but, the outcome of this election seems to tell us that the Australian public think differently. Labor campaigned openly about their policies and put forward a strong and bold plan ‘for change’. But it seems that being upfront and open about the actions you intend to take isn’t rewarded. Indeed, this approach raised more questions than it answered.

When you stop and think about it, this is completely understandable.

Complex issues take time to understand. They need to be debated and weighed up in the court of public opinion. There is no doubt that reform is hard, and an election campaign is a challenging time to have a detailed nuanced conversation with the public, especially when there are so many important issues to be considered at one time. At election time the ‘grab’ takes on a whole new meaning even in a world that lives by them all the time!

So when should we be having these complex conversations? When should we be talking about those issues that are affecting our social, economic and environmental future?  And more importantly, how should we do it?

It seems lately that reform conversations on any issue are challenging no matter when they occur. Governments haven’t embarked on significant reform at a federal level for some time, and even where they have tried the policies have been quickly overturned where a social licence hasn’t existed. Climate and energy policy is a significant case in point having been plagued by over a decade of action, in action, disagreement, obfuscation and confusion.

We are a polarised community and the space between us seems to be getting ever deeper.

People are increasingly identifying as being from the left or the right of politics and a decreasing number of people identifying as from the centre. However, there is still a significant proportion (some 40%+) of the population that identify as being from the centre, but we aren’t hearing their voices. For obvious reasons it is the loud voices from the margins that make news; making the extent of our polarisation appear even worse, and further pushing our society into its corners.

Until we start working to reconcile our divisions and find a way forward that most of us can ‘live’ with, these divisions and lack of action will remain and worsen.

This would be fine if it wasn’t potentially so disastrous.

We simply must find a way forward on numerous important, complex and polarising issues that our facing us. Our future depends on it in a way we haven’t seen for many decades…. perhaps ever.

We have to find a way forward in how we manage the Murray River – how we reconcile the needs of our farmers, irrigators, how we ensure the longevity of the river for future farmers, how we manage the river in the context of a drying climate, how we ensure there is sufficient water for critical human needs and find ways of ensuring that we don’t decimate flora and fauna populations in the process.

We need to find a way to reduce our impact on the climate, we need to find a way of doing this without hurting those in our country already struggling to live from day to day, and we need to create new job opportunities for those communities who may be impacted by such policies.

This is just to identify two issues … take your pick; from tax reform to supporting the unemployed we are a society divided.

I have been overwhelmed by the number of articles recently but particularly since the election stating the challenge of polarisation and reform, but very few (none!) about how. There seems to be a growing understanding of the problem but little discussion about the solutions.

So, what is a solution?

In our experience the field of enquiry known as deliberative democracy offers a useful way forward and has helped governments here and overseas in developing sustainable solutions to complex problems.

Deliberative democracy empowers and enables diverse communities to develop solutions themselves by working with government, stakeholders and experts. In doing so they bridge the divides that confront us.

Involving diverse groups ensures that all views are heard, and values represented (including those without strong views – Scott Morrison’s “quiet Australians”). As a society we tend to find conversations with those that don’t agree with us hard, it is less upsetting to talk with those of like minds. Involving those without strong opinions helps as they change the tone of the conversation. Deliberative processes create constructive, respectful environments where people can earn each other’s trust, build respect and understanding.

A strong focus of the deliberative approach is on providing information. The approach recognises that not everyone has the same level of information and that sometimes just having all the information helps to resolve many issues.

Respect is shown for people’s ability to critically analyse information; enabling people to consider and weigh up diverse inputs not just hear from experts pushing one point of view. These processes are not about ‘selling’ a point of view.

Deliberative democracy is best known by the process known as a  ‘citizens’ jury’, but in truth there are lots of different methodologies and they tend to work best where multiple methodologies are used or they are ‘mashed up’ in ways that best meet the needs of the communities involved and the challenge being addressed.

Traditionally deliberative democracy has been the domain of governments or academia. However, we see no reason why they can’t be ‘ground up’. Why communities or groups of organisations can’t come together to run such processes with the aim of giving government the solutions that we can all ‘live with’.

We are reaching a point in history where we need to come together to solve some substantial problems facing humanity or risk them not being solved at all. If the last decade of inaction on climate change has taught us anything … it should be that doing things the way, we have always done them isn’t getting the change we so desperately need.

To quote Albert Einstein – “If you always do what you always did you will always get what you got.”  

Now is the time to do things differently.

Community must be invited along path to reform

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