Citizens speak out in mock Parliament

By Angela Dorizas

Old Parliament House will come alive again this month, as 150 citizens take the floor to deliberate on ways to improve Australia’s three-tier political system.

Australia’s first Citizen’s Parliament, held in early February, is an initiative of the newDemocracy Foundation to make political processes more accessible outside of the election cycle.

More than 9600 citizens were randomly selected from the federal electoral roll and invited to participate. The Citizens’ Parliament chief investigator and University of Sydney associate professor, Lyn Carson, was surprised by the high response rate.

“When we got a 35 per cent response, we thought there’s something interesting going on here in Australia,” Dr Carson said.

“We’ve got a very robust system of government, there are lots of things that are working well in Australia, people are very well off relative to the rest of the world and yet we detected an incredible interest amongst people to have a say.”

From the respondents, a final 150 people were selected and regional meetings were held in 2008 to prepare them for the February session. During the preliminary meetings Dr Carson detected a level of “distrust and cynicism” amongst participants.

 “We know that there is a democratic deficit,” she said.

“We know that people are becoming estranged from politicians and political institutions even though we have the compulsory vote.

“We genuinely wanted to give people a chance to speak about that.”

The meetings also revealed that there was support amongst constituents to reform federalism. According to Dr Carson, participants believed that they were “over governed” with too many spheres of government.
“There was much stronger interest in local government than state,” Dr Carson said.

“I think they saw local government as being closer to the people. The state tends to be the one that is proving problematic for them.”

Dr Carson said there was also a great deal of cynicism about the two-party political system.

“People really want there to be some serious debate because in an increasingly complex world there are some very serious issues that really do cross party lines and the ideas of dividing along those party lines were seen by a lot of those people as not particularly helpful at a time like this,” she said.

Dr Carson said the introduction of citizen forums initiated and facilitated by government, and held at a local or regional level, would be a desirable outcome of the February meeting.

“They actually want to have some involvement in decision making that affects everyone’s life and they want that shared around a whole lot more,” she said.

For more information on the Citizen’s Parliament click here.

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