Page 2285 - Week 07 - Tuesday, 1 August 2017

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MRS KIKKERT (Ginninderra) (3.52): I am delighted to bring this matter of public importance in my name to the Assembly today. As Australians, we are fortunate to live in one of the world’s most successful democracies. Democracy, of course, means rule by the people. The word comes to us from ancient Greek. The term was coined during the fifth century BC, at a period in Greek history when the city of Athens experimented with a new form of government. In stark contrast to the then prevailing system where one person or a small group of people made all the decisions, in democratic Athens all citizens participated directly in the making of laws and even judgments.

Two conditions were necessary for this kind of direct democracy. First, the population had to be small enough to allow for all citizens to attend debates and votes on issues. Second, these citizens needed to have enough leisure time that they could participate fully in politics. In ancient Athens, this was possible only because non-citizen slaves did most of the work. In our day, we have circumvented these two constraints through the innovation of representative democracy.

Under this system, the people elect representatives to make decisions on their behalf. At its best, representative democracy creates as robust a system of debate as direct democracy. At its worst, representatives lose touch with the people who elected them and arrogantly return to feeling entitled to rule however they see fit. Perhaps because of this tendency, scholars over the past few decades have noted what one leading researcher, John Dryzek, has called “a renewed concern for the authenticity of democracy: the degree to which democratic control is substantive rather than symbolic”.

One of the central ways to make sure that democracy is authentic and substantive is by guaranteeing that government is open and consultative. An open and consultative government is one that listens to the people, not just when they pick their representatives on election day but throughout its entire term of service. We live in a day when most governments want to appear to be open and consultative. Problems arise, however, when listening to the people becomes merely a symbolic exercise.

As Les Robinson explained to a local government public relations conference held in Wollongong in February 2003, “Many public consultations are shams. Many are nothing more than elaborate defence mechanisms designed to protect the decisions of barely accountable power-holders.” When this occurs, Robinson noted, people eventually figure it out, and this results in cynicism towards governments and their hidden agendas.

Damage to public trust in government can also occur when elected representatives openly refuse to listen to certain segments of the public. As Victoria’s Good Governance Guide notes, governments “should always try to serve the needs of the entire community”. This means that those to whom leaders listen should, according to one parliamentary guide on consultation, constitute a “mini public that mirrors the broader society”. Things go wrong, as noted by Huffington Post writer Wendy Bradley, when governments decide that they are only going to listen to those they

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