South Australians might not yet know it, but politics as they know it, is slowly, cautiously, haphazardly and imperceptibly being changed around them.
To a room full of ‘leaders’, Premier Jay Weatherill recently launched his new ‘reforming democracy’ agenda. Weatherill has a long-standing interest in democratic renewal. Weatherill’s efforts to move beyond Mike Rann’s ‘announce and defend’ approach to his more consensual ‘debate and decide’ style was a key marker in differentiating from his predecessor. Yet, the ‘reforming democracy’ is more than just short-term political strategy, and offers the promise of a new style of politics. Weatherill explicitly evokes the state’s history in the 1850s, which saw it a leader in democratic innovation. South Australia was the first place to have adult male suffrage, the secret ballot and formally end the link between church and state. Weatherill’s agenda is less radical, but it could, if successful, shift South Australia to a ‘post-parliamentary democracy’. Parliament might be the fulcrum of decision-making, but it becomes substantially reinforced by a new democratic culture The new approach involves the use of citizen juries, e-democracy, greater use of social media and new fora for community engagement. The Premier hopes to showcase these in a week-long celebration of democracy. If anything, South Australia is playing catch-up here, as many of these techniques have been trialled by centre-left governments around the world. The SA Liberals see Weatherill’s agenda as a distraction from the growing jobs crisis. Critics point to deficiencies in recent consultations, such as the decision to close the Repat Hospital. These criticisms, to some extent, rather miss the point. As I outlined in my book, The Search for Democratic Renewal, this can be a problematic agenda. In my research, I examined a range of cases of democratic innovation in Britain and Australia, and in many instances they are to be found wanting. David Beetham, a global expert on democracy, argues that democracy has two main features: political equality and popular control. What this means is that when governments seek to deepen democracy; we need to pay attention to two main elements: The degree of representativeness (the types of people involved), and the degree of responsiveness (what governments actually do once they have run a consultation). On responsiveness, the Premier’s agenda looks well thought-through. The ongoing issue is how to link expert forms of advice with public opinion, and mesh this with the role of MPs and other elected officials. Here, the choice of citizen juries and how they link to policy-making seems clear. The recent jury on feral cats and dogs looks like an important contribution to this problem. More worryingly, the ‘reforming democracy’ agenda seems far weaker in addressing representativeness. A long-standing problem for democratic innovations is ‘inequality of voice’. Low-income groups are consistently excluded and marginalised from decision-making; a phenomena in Australia that is masked by compulsory voting. The politics of ‘nimby-ism’ (‘not in my back-yard’) plays out here. The middle class is more easily able to find the resources and opportunity to engage. Working class people are far more cynical and far less likely to engage. The government’s own research tells us that Burnside parents are 50 percent more likely to engage in their child’s school than parents living in Port Adelaide. My evaluation of the Rann Government’s Have Your Say consultation – then the largest ever held in the state, found inequality of voice to be a key feature. Weatherill’s approach relies heavily on social media and e-forms of democracy, and we know that the middle-class use these technologies far more than working class people. Ultimately, the risk is that the agenda does little to include some of the poorest and most marginal groups in the state. Democracy is an inherently contradictory ideal, which can lead to perverse outcomes. Albert Weale, a noted expert, reminds us of the phenomena of ‘defensive participation’. Here, organised fringe groups (such as the far right) can use new fora to promote an agenda, which forces others to engage; and arguably, it might have been better if no-one turned up at all. A related issue is the capacity of a deepened democracy to counter a growing public cynicism about politics. New democratic sites can inspire new sources of engagement while also creating new sites of frustration. Overall, this is an agenda that deserves support, and is well overdue. The question remains whether this will be democracy for all. Dr Rob Manwaring, Lecturer, School of Social and Policy Studies, Flinders University. His book The Search for Democratic Renewal was published with Manchester University Press in 2014.