A bush Tea Party?

The anti carbon tax rally resembled a Tea Party. AAP

The recent anti-carbon tax rally that took place in front of Parliament House was compared to a US Tea Party rally. It certainly reflected its tone and style. There was the same anti-government, anti-tax rhetoric as well as climate change denial. But does the shrill outburst tell us much about middle Australia’s attitude to a price on pollution or move us closer to resolution?

The Leader of the Opposition had offered a dire prediction that there would be a “people’s revolt” against the Prime Minister’s “great big new tax” and her broken promise. Radio 2GB’s Chris Smith led the cheer squad. Abbott’s strategy seemed to be to stir up trouble in order to unsettle a delicate minority government rather than shed much light on complex policy.

This demonstration looked like many others, though the US spelling of “mom” and “ass” definitely added a curious American layer. Conflict is the nub of politics so it’s important to watch the crowd. It’s not so much what the two major parties are saying or doing, or even the rabble rousers on the parliamentary lawn. The bigger crowd worth watching is the Australian public—just what does it make of this issue? Is Ross Garnaut right when he says that “We’re living through an awful contest between knowledge and ignorance.”

Though the T.E.A. Party (Australian style) declares itself a movement on its website, a declaration does not a movement make. Though Tony Abbott predicts a “people’s revolt”, a prediction does not a revolution make. In truth, politicians bicker, parliamentary committees can’t agree on targets, and the bulk of the Australian public engages in what has been described as “audience democracy”, watching the futile drama unfold.

This seems to confirm legendary American political scientist Elmer Eric Schattschneider’s claim that the reductio ad absurdum of democratic theory is an impossible dilemma. “We cannot get out of the dilemma by (1) making a great effort to educate everyone to the point where they know enough to make these decisions or (2) by restricting participation to the people who do know all about these matters”. I think we can get out of the dilemma.

Tea Party rallies, shock jocks, political parties are hell-bent on simplifying that which cannot be simplified. They create noise, hype, fear, confusion and ignorance. They are the antithesis of democracy. But it’s also true that we cannot educate everyone. We each choose “rational ignorance” at times. We can’t all know everything about everything. We have to trust others to make decisions for us. However, parliamentarians are disappointing voters. This is not only happening in Australia, it’s happening elsewhere. We have systems that attract short-term thinking, career politicians, media that does not give politicians scope to deviate too far from the centre. The media is focused on any stoush and for some reason, we, the audience, seem to be irresistibly attracted to a fight.

If ignorance and over-simplification is the problem, what’s the solution? Well, what if we could gather together a statistically representative sample of the Australian population (not the usual suspects, not the incensed and the articulate)? That sounds like an opinion poll or a focus group, right? Wrong. This is not about public opinion, it’s about public judgement.

Consider bringing this microcosm of the population together—a genuine “snapshot of middle Australia”. Bring in a neutral moderator, wheel all the opinion-laden barrows into the room (sceptics, scientists, economists, environmentalists, and more). Expose all of the biases. Share the knowledge. Having become fully informed about the complexity of carbon pricing, this mini-public then deliberates and makes recommendations, weighing up the strengths and weaknesses of the various arguments. The group uncovers common ground and makes an informed choice. Parliaments were meant to do this collective problem solving, but instead they are seen to argue and to call for a vote, eyeing off the next election.

There are hundreds of successful examples of alternatives forms of public deliberation. British Columbia in Canada convened a citizens’ assembly on electoral reform (160 people meeting together for months making sensible decisions). There are methods like the consensus conferences that the Danish Board of Technology routinely convenes to make recommendations about contentious technological innovations.

Couldn’t happen in Australia? Well there have been hundreds here too. For example, a consensus conference on genetically modified organisms in the food chain (1999), citizens’ summit on climate change (2009), citizens’ juries on climate change (many times), and an Australian citizens’ parliament (2009). They each enabled a very informed, randomly-selected - or extremely diverse - public to have opportunities to deeply deliberate in the company of others, aided by a neutral moderator. Mainstream media rarely covers these events, perhaps because there is too little fighting. Constructive dialogue and deliberation is not news.

It seems that this sort of process is one way of dealing with “the unstable relation of the public to the conflict” that surrounds carbon pricing. Australians may be mostly engaged in audience democracy but I suspect they also want the current fighting to stop.