By KIERAN FINNANE
A little remarked upon decision by the Alice Springs Town Council at the end of 2020 could put the community in the lead when it comes to council decision-making.
In December councillors gave officers the green light to work with a “deliberative democracy” organisation called democracyCo to trial a new “community engagement model.”
Officers had proposed that the trial be limited to Larapinta, choosing this suburb for its diverse population with public and private schools, various places of worship, sporting facilities, public parks and the Desert Park, as well as “a big-ticket consultation item (Albrecht Oval).”
The community engagement would set a strategic direction for the suburb’s future development, laying “the groundwork” to incorporate into future council plans – the Corporate Business Plan, Annual Municipal Plan, Long Term Financial Plan, Asset Management Plan, Risk Management Plan, and Workforce Plan.
Councillors backed the model but rather than limiting the trial to one suburb, preferred it to be conducted across the whole of Alice Springs.
The town has had future planning exercises before – noteworthy for changing nothing much (eg, the very limited implementation that came out of the 2008 planning forum) or for keeping the broader community excluded from the discussion (eg, the current master planning exercise by council and NT Government representatives working behind closed doors).
The difference this time around lies in who would get involved and how.
Deliberative democracy, also known as participatory democracy, relies on randomly selected “mini publics”, also known as “citizens’ assemblies” or “citizens’ juries”, to do the work.
Random selection aims to allow “typically unheard voices to be heard,” says Emma Lawson, one of two principals at democracyCo.
The selection’s yield though is only as good as the database feeding it. Juries in the legal system, for example, are randomly selected from the electoral roll. But in a jurisdiction where an important demographic – Aboriginal people – is not well represented on the roll, it will be necessary to look further afield.
“All databases have their limitations,” says Ms Lawson. “Where these limitations significantly adversely impact on our ability to recruit the desired diversity, we use supplementary recruitment processes.
“For example, in the past recruiting youth has been challenging using standard databases – so we have supplemented our general recruitment approach by distributing some invites at random through universities and TAFE or through youth groups.”
Once assembled, a citizens’ jury is not left to its own devices. An important part of the process is putting before them as much relevant and well-based information as they need for their deliberations.
Council officers described input (for a Larapinta-based trial) as coming “from Elected Members, supported by Council staff, and key stakeholders, including Indigenous Organisations (Congress, Tangentyere, Lhere Artepe), NT Government Departments (Education, Territory Families, DIPL, NT Police etc.), and Albrecht Oval user groups.
One might hope though that the process would also look further afield for information, for example to the experience of similar-sized communities elsewhere dealing with complex issues – so as not to be working off a “same old, same old” base.
democracyCo says that an interesting feature of citizens’ juries is that “they typically result in considered and moderate recommendations that successfully blend competing claims and help reconcile antagonistic groups.”
They are particularly useful when it comes to dealing with “wicked” problems and it’s hard to imagine a more wicked one than the storage of overseas nuclear waste, tackled by democracyCo in South Australia.
They worked first with a jury of 54 people who analysed the Nuclear Fuel Cycle’s Royal Commission Report and then assembled the largest citizens’ jury ever conducted in the world – 350 people, supported by 16 skilled facilitators.
The second jury had to consider “Under what circumstances (if any) could South Australia pursue the opportunity to store and dispose of nuclear waste from other countries?”
They did not achieve a consensus view, but a strong majority – two thirds – did not wish to pursue the opportunity under any circumstances.
What is interesting in their report is to see the extent to which the jury challenged the information coming from the Royal Commission Report, which would generally be perceived as an authoritative source. That would seem to be evidence of the juries engaging in a very active critical thinking process.
Closer to home, an example of a wicked problem would be the challenge the town experiences in turning around some young people’s antisocial and occasionally criminal behaviour.
There was little debate in the chamber about adopting the deliberative democracy approach, but when the old curfew chestnut came up, Councillor Jimmy Cocking mentioned the importance of an “evidence based approach” – lacking in this instance – and the possibility of “using participatory democracy to come up with solution.”
Officers though would seem to have something less specific in mind, providing the examples of vision and strategic direction documents produced by citizens’ juries in Darwin and Palmerston – democracyCo facilitated both.
Reading both, it’s hard to discern where they part ways with other such documents generated from conventional consultation approaches, where an effort has been made to garner a cross-section of views.
When the focus of questions is broad, answers also tend to be broad. The devil will always be in the detail and the implementation.
It will be up to the community to push for this reform to be pursued to its full potential.
Images: Public meetings on hot button issues are a feature of Alice Springs political life, but their passion tends to burn bright and short. Photos from our archive.
Last updated Wednesday, 6 January 2021, 9.16am.