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A Citizens Assembly talk fest for Climate Change. What a Croc.

July 24, 2010

A Citizens Assembly talk fest for Climate Change. What a Croc.

My view of some consultative processes is usually cynical. It is not that I do not believe that people should be consulted and have say in issues. It is just that few ever achieve the lofty ideals they claim to be promoting. Instead of a consultation we often have one of two situations dominating: one is that a small minority of agenda driven extremists hijack the forum; the other is that everyone talks and talks and talks but nothing is done. Anyone who has attended enough meetings would be familiar with both cases. This does not even begin to look at those who have hidden agendas or those playing office politics behind the scenes. Nor does it look at whether the agenda was already decided before the people were supposedly consulted, thus making the consultation process a farce and pointless exercise.


When I heard about the announcement of a 150 member Citizens Assembly to discuss climate change my first thought was that of de ja vu. Haven’t we been down this path before? Not so long ago the Rudd Government was fixated upon a 2020 Summit where 1500 odd people (emphasis on the odd) came from around Australia to talk. And they talked and talked and talked. A big fat report was written and presented to government as if it was the Holy Grail. Yet as they were being thanked like a bunch of winners from a high school debating class the whole report was being thrown in the bin. Not one proposal from the 2020 Summit was turned into policy. Still the taxpayers footed the bill for what might best be described as a Love In.


Yet this commitment to wasting taxpayer’s money on useless tokenism is not just aberration of the Australian Labour Party. The Howard Government also offered another the public a great big talk fest in Canberra to decide upon whether Australia should become republic. Despite the monarchist’s being a minority voice at this event they had one clear advantage over all the republicans that rocked up to talk. The republican’s were already divided on what kind of republic they would support. Some wanted an elected president; others wanted a president nominated by winning party. Despite presenting one model to the Australian people in the form of a referendum the question of a referendum has been the motion failed. It failed so badly that neither major political seems to mention the republic question at all. Neither party is willing to turn it into an election issue.


The lesson coming from such talk fests should be clear. If everyone is talking in circles then no one is making the hard decisions. Sometimes in the effort to find a consensus we end up with nothing more than a collection of inoffensive and meaningless affirmations. Hard decisions rarely come from the soft opinion factories.


When Julia Gillard announced the Citizens Assembly the response from the media was almost universally negative. “Labor can’t be serious about citizens plan.” Paul Kelly wrote in his column in The Australian Newspaper. Later he writes, “The proposed Citizens Assembly to assess the case for climate change is an unconscious Labor joke — a grand focus group to conceal its leadership failure.” Peter Hatcher from the Sydney Morning Herald is also scathing in his criticism of the plan in his article titled “Great procrastinator takes reins of inaction on climate change.” Here he writes, “Her climate change policy is an elaborate way of saying that a Labor government will not commit to delivering an emissions trading scheme at any particular time, and perhaps not ever.” Even Laurie Oakes from the Herald Sun Newspaper describes Gillard’s plan in these terms: “Gillard’s proposal for a 150-member citizens’ assembly to try to reach consensus on climate change and the case for a carbon price is the wackiest idea to come along in quite a while.”


It appears that no one outside the small focus group who dream this plan up think that it a real policy. Cynics might suggest that here we have the results of a focus group offering the solution to a serious issue by creating a bigger version of itself. (The focus group monster has had a taste of steroids and now it wants to bulk up with a 150 bonus points.) Yet the serious side of this non solution is that it really only shifts hard policy decisions from 150 elected representatives in the Australian Federal parliament to 150 unelected handpicked elites. The real decision making power and accountability are thrown the red herring of blaming the ‘Citizens Assembly’ if anything goes wrong.


Regardless of which side of the Climate Change debate a person sits it must seem like this is the worst of all possible solutions. Government are elected to make decision and implement policy. Sending major policy decisions off to a great big focus group after the election indicates political cowardice or a lack of any policy. Worse it could indicate unwillingness to the responsibility of making decisions without finding a scapegoat in the form of a 150 Citizens Assembly.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. similimodo permalink
    July 25, 2010 4:34 am

    Dear Damo,

    A very clear, concise and comprehensive summary of the futility of the consulting process.

    Here’s my view on climate change: It gets hot in summer up here. Boy, the climate changes.

    David …


    • July 25, 2010 1:51 pm


      I am just twiddling my thumbs witing for the elction to be over.

      This time I see that we have a stark choice between Bland and Bland.


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