Connecting to Parliament

July 13, 2021 Selen A. Ercan
May 11, 2021 Nick Vlahos
May 10, 2021 Nick Vlahos
May 8, 2021 Selen A. Ercan

The purpose of the Connecting to Parliament is to link a representative sample of constituents with their elected official in town hall conversations about the issues that are subject to parliamentary debate in Australia. This one focused on mitochondrial disease/donation.

Problems and Purpose

The purpose of Connecting to Parliament is to augment the democratic functions of existing political institutions like the Australian Parliament, by specifically establishing more direct connections between constituents and their elected representatives. This is done by situating a representative sample of constituents in conversation with elected official about controversial issues that are subject to parliamentary debate.

Background History and Context

Connecting to Parliament is a collaborative experiment between the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the University of Canberra, the Institute for Democratic Engagement and Accountability at Ohio State University, and the Australian federal of Member of Parliament for the District of Fenner, Andrew Leigh. Connecting to Parliament is an iterated version of the American Connecting to Congress model.

Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities

The Office of MP Andrew Leigh, the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance, and the Institute for Democratic Engagement and Accountability.

Participant Recruitment and Selection

Participant selection was based on stratified sortition. Every household in Fenner, Australian Capital Territory received an invitation in the mail (via electoral roll) to participate in a direct conversation with their Member of Parliament on the topic of mitochondrial disease/donation. Interested residents indicated their intention to participate on the Connecting to Parliament landing page, and were then filtered by key demographic indicators using Qualtrics.

Methods and Tools Used

Online and in-person townhalls hosted in alignment with a random control trial. Quantitative surveys pre- and post-forum were administered, in addition to conducting qualitative semi-structured interviews with 35 participants. Participants were given a short video and access to learning material from the National Health and Medical Research Council website. Town hall sessions were facilitated by a neutral third party and were unscripted interactions directly between residents and their MP.

What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation

Two town halls were hosted between residents and their elected representative. On September 20, 2020, an online discussion was hosted on the GoToWebcast platform for 90 minutes. Residents presented questions via chatbox to their MP on the issues surrounding mitochondrial disease/donation. On September 21, 2020, a second town hall was hosted in-person at the University of Canberra following a similar format, with the added feature of roundtable discussions near the end of the session.

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

Connecting to Parliament coincided with a conscience vote set to be held on the subject of mitochondrial donation. This parliamentary procedure allows MPs to vote according to their own conscience rather than based upon party discipline. It provided a unique opening to host discussions with the public. MP Andrew Leigh decided to base his conscience vote on a combination of quantitative and qualitative findings from the research and experience in the two town hall forums. Having constituents directly inform how MPs vote in parliament is a unique aspect of this democratic innovation, and provides further opportunities for addressing democratic deficits as well as enhancing parliamentary engagement procedures.

Analysis and Lessons Learned

We observed a moderate increase towards perceptions of political efficacy, which means that forum participants considered the process favourably, particularly enhancing the MPs image. Simultaneously, participants were likely to be interested in more types of engagement as well to address certain flaws in what they consider to be larger problems with Australian democracy, i.e. party discipline and lack of cross-party collaboration. Furthermore, residents called for a more expansive process that involves further dialogue, the inclusion of experts and stories of those with lived experience.

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