Plans for a Citizens’ Assembly were drawn up in 2010 to consult with citizens on Australia's climate change policy. Designed as a participatory method of policy formulation, the Assembly was abandoned and replaced with a panel of experts.
Problems and Purpose
The Citizens’ Assembly was proposed as a solution to the parliamentary deadlock which had formed over climate change policy after 2009 when Tony Abbott, a conservative opposed to action on climate change, had replaced Malcolm Turnbull, an advocate of action against climate change, as leader of the opposition Liberal Party. The proposal to use a form of participatory democracy as a solution to this problem was met with intense criticism from the Australian media and, following the 2010 Federal election, abandoned as Gillard lost her lower house majority. Following the election, the Citizens’ Assembly was abandoned and replaced with a panel of experts, led by Professor Tim Flannery.
Background History and Context
Participatory democratic processes have a rich history in Australia, and they are spreading from within states to national-level deliberation. In 2009, a year prior to Gillard’s Citizens’ Assembly proposal the Democracy Foundation had run a successful 3-day, national, ‘Citizen’s Parliament’ designed to discuss the state of Australian government and how it could be improved, with a report presented to the Prime Minister’s Office. One of the conveners of the Citizen’s Parliament, Professor Lyn Carson, confirmed that, despite the similarity of the two projects, no representative of the government consulted with the organisers of the Citizen’s Parliament regarding the Citizens’ Assembly proposal; the idea was formulated by one of Gillard’s staff, Tom Bentley, the former director of the Demos think-tank in the UK.
The Rudd-Gillard government had failed in its first term (2007-2010) to pass meaningful climate change legislation, and the Citizens’ Assembly was presented as an alternative solution to include the “ordinary Australian”, allowing the public to offer their opinions of Gillard’s plan for reform in the sector. Gillard’s proposals centred on an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) that would have introduced a cap on the amount of pollution that can be emitted by a participant. If a participant exceeded the set cap, they would be required to purchase an allowance from participants who remained under the cap. Gillard argued that the Citizens’ Assembly would act as “an indicator” as opposed to a “final arbiter” of climate change policy, examining evidence on climate change, and assessing options for reducing pollution, including the proposed Emissions Trading Scheme, before presenting its conclusion to government.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The Assembly would have been run and funded by the Australian government. As the proposal was abandoned, no funding estimate exists.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The proposal would have seen “up to 200 citizens” take part in the Citizens’ Assembly, similar to the 2009 Citizen’s Parliament; which had drawn one person from each of Australia’s 150 electoral districts, but over a year as opposed to three days. With inclusiveness being at the heart of any participatory democratic innovation, serious considerations would have been needed to ensure fairness in selection of participants and an “equality of voice”. Firstly, the logistical impracticability of regularly gathering together Citizens from all districts of Australia would have to have been accounted for, along with the associated costs. Secondly, selection of participants would almost certainly have required some degree of self-selection, as there would have been no way to guarantee the availability for participation of the first 150 people selected from the electoral roll. Finally, it would have needed considering as to whether participants would have represented a representative sample of the Australian people with regards to Age, Gender, Race (especially accounting for Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander populations) and potentially social dynamics or political leanings, so as to avoid any accusation of the government creating a biased or unrepresentative sample.
Methods and Tools Used
The format of the participatory process was to have followed the Citizens Assembly methodology, a democratic innovation in which a randomly selected group of individuals is asked to consider and a topic or issue through the use of various tools of engagement such as surveys, information sessions, question and answer periods, small group deliberation (such as thematic dialogue tables or future workshops), and plenary discussion.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
In so far as what was elucidated with regards to the deliberative processes which would have been utilised had the Citizens’ Assembly been established, there was very little detail supplied. The main purpose of the Assembly was gaining the consent of the public for the government’s plans to establish an ETS in the face of strong opposition from the Liberal-National coalition. It was suggested that the debates between participants would be led by a group of climate change experts, who would present various solutions for the participants to deliberate. This is a standard design feature in deliberative processes, and replicates the way in which the 2009 Citizen’s Parliament was designed. However, given the polarisation of debate in the field of climate change extends to rejection of expertise, it can be seen that introducing experts into the debate would have raised one of the most common criticisms of participatory democracy: that experts selected by the authorities running the mini-public (especially when that authority has a political bias) could be selected to lead the participants into reaching a certain conclusion.
Though the Citizens’ Assembly was eventually abandoned, it provides an example of how elite group interest can play a role in stifling democratic innovation prior to public interaction with the innovation. In this case, the elite group backlash was led by the Australian media, as prominent political journalist Laurie Oakes excoriated the idea in his Herald Sun column calling Gillard a “political pygmie”, deriding the proposal as little more than another cop-out from the government. Oakes’ main criticism was repeated in other media outlets; Gillard was undermining the role of parliament in Australian democracy by instituting this Citizens’ Assembly. Similarly, Nationals Senator Barnaby Joyce criticised the policy on these lines, suggesting that it would start a process that would end with 150 people making defence policy and writing the budget; the people had chosen their representatives to make these decisions via deliberations in parliament, there was therefore no requirement for a further decision-making body that would usurp the power of the parliament.
Other opposition politicians joined the criticism of the policy, citing it as just another electioneering tactic. As Oakes had done, many other voices within the Australian elite derided the policy as a cop-out, the opposition deputy leader Julie Bishop suggested Gillard was merely creating a “smokescreen” to distract the public from the introduction of an ETS, or “carbon tax”, as the Liberals referred to the scheme. The criticism that the Assembly was intended to shift the issue of climate change policy out of the parliamentary sphere and into the public sphere was indeed well-founded, as has been mentioned already, but the elite level opposition to this set the agenda for the debate on the Citizens’ Assembly as being an abrogation of duty for parliamentarians to come to a decision.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The main outcome of the failure to establish the Citizens’ Assembly is that it could serve to prohibit further suggestions of participatory democracy (at the national level) in Australia. The policy was eviscerated by elite group media commentators, with opinion leaders seemingly united in opposition to what a proposal that conservative commentator Miranda Devine colourfully described as, “a melange of bewitching hokery-pokery and beguiling flummery”. The outcome of intense media scrutiny was that elite group actors successfully shut down a process that designed to exclude elite group voices from policy formulation in favour of bringing in the voices of citizen actors. Though the proposal had the effect of introducing the solution of participatory democracy to the forum of policy formulation in Australia, Lyn Carson has argued that one effect was that participatory democracy was damaged as principle in the name of a problem which was too advanced for solution by deliberative process.  The proposal had the significant outcome of solidifying elite group power in Australia by forcing the government to go through parliament to formulate policy on climate change, the opposite effect as was intended.
With the abandonment of the proposal came the requirement that a new solution be required for tackling climate change in Australia. The eventual outcome of this was the creation of the Climate Commission, a group of experts who were to advise the government directly on climate policy solutions, including a Carbon Pricing Mechanism passed in 2011 and introduced in 2012. The Climate Commission produced one report in 2013, The Critical Decade, but was subsequently shut down by following the change of government in 2013, and now exists as the ‘Climate Council’, a donation funded body. The new government similarly scrapped the Carbon Pricing Mechanism upon taking office.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The idea for the Citizens’ Assembly was, in principle, a continuation of the tradition of deliberative governance regimes, and its design as a means by which the climate change debate could be de-toxified by shifting the emphasis onto the lay citizenry was a reasoned response to inaction at the level of elected representation. Indeed, in 2010, Prime Ministerial Candidate Julia Gillard ran on a campaign to convene a Citizens' Assembly as a way to settle the issue of climate change which had deeply divided parliament. However, the reaction of elite group actors, in this case opposition politicians and hostile media voices, to the transfer of power from the elite group to the lay citizen could be formulated not merely as an attack on the principles of the proposal, but an attack on the principles of the proposer. Though there is some criticism of the notion that it is easy to blame the failure of democratic innovations through “concept shifting”, in this case the cause of failure can be placed not with the proposal itself, but with the elite group rejection and the failure of Gillard, as proposer, to stand up for the proposal based on its merits.
The benefit of the proposal being legitimated through debate within elite groups, however dismissive the tone was, is that the proposal will now be a potential solution to further policy problems. If it is understood that there are three ‘streams’ in policy formulation: a problem that must be solved; various potential solutions to that problem, and political will for a chosen solution to be applied to that problem, then it can be seen that the Citizens’ Assembly proposal satisfied the first two criteria, in that it was a solution to the problem of gridlock within the existing policy formulation process. However, the negative elite group reaction to the policy ensured that, in this case, the political will for the solution was not satisfied. Regardless, the first problem, that of gridlock, persists (and will continue to do so given the Australia’s electoral system) and requires solving. The idea of participatory democracy now remains as a viable, if not in this case, solution to the problem of representative gridlock. Indeed, Australia’s ongoing (as of time of writing) postal survey on Same-Sex Marriage has proved to be a more effective demonstration of using a participatory method to gain public consent on an issue which had become another victim of gridlock within the representative body.
Studying failure in democratic innovations is something seemingly too often overlooked in political science. This failed case demonstrates multiple problems that can arise with proposing participatory innovations; the powerful influence of elite group actors to determine the fate of a proposal, the problem with politicising democratic innovation as opposed to building a consensus for it, and the basic problem that if democratic innovations are to be introduced they must be planned thoroughly and backed wholeheartedly by the proposer, not used as a method of last resort to try and overcome political obstacles, as was the case with the Citizens’ Assembly. From this failure, advocates of democratic innovation can learn how to foster a more accommodating political situation in which participatory democracy can thrive, building a consensus towards bringing in citizen participation in the policy formulation process, as opposed to acting in a way that can be construed by opposing elite actors as running roughshod over the established norms of representative democracy.
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