Better democracy: more than just a philosophical pursuit?

Labelled “fluff” and “abstract” by critics when launched in 2015, the practical benefits of the State Government’s Reforming Democracy policy are beginning to bear fruit, according to one of the policy’s key authors.

Talking about a lofty concept like democracy – particularly in the pre-Brexit, pre-Trump and pregay marriage plebiscite days – was always going to seem a little abstract to some.

For others it was even cause for strident criticism, when the South Australian Premier launched the State Government’s Reforming Democracy policy in August 2015. The policy set out 22 initiatives aimed at creating a more stable policy environment and renewing a culture of innovation by involving the public earlier and more deeply in government decision-making.

However, in the context of a challenging economic climate with fears of job losses high, Reforming Democracy was criticised for not overtly addressing these concerns. In fairness to the critics, some of the terms used in the policy were, upon reflection, “highfalutin” (as one commentator put it).

It was understandable, too, that the document drew criticism for being abstract given that there wasn’t a practical project being launched alongside it.

Now that the Reforming Democracy policy is two years old (and Brexit, Trump and the plebiscite have provided much discussed perspectives on our democracy) it’s timely to reflect on the question of whether seeking to improve democracy is a philosophical or practical exercise.

What’s not immediately apparent about the policy from its title is that it was intended as more than an abstract statement of philosophical intent. The initiatives it contains were launched in the context of major issues confronting the state – and were intended to be  applied to them.

Matt Ryan

In 2015, chief among these issues was the need to find a ‘replacement’ for car manufacturer, Holden.

When Holden announced it would close its plant at Elizabeth, the state was in shock. It was the end of a 60-year-old industry that had provided jobs and been an integral part of our identity.

In response, the State Government put forward a number of bold proposals it believed could help to create a new era of prosperity. Becoming the world’s first carbon neutral city, establishing a nuclear waste storage facility, changing our time zone and major tax reform were among them.

Each of those proposals was accompanied by its own experience of engaging a broader public in the decisionmaking process – to greater and lesser levels of success. The nuclear case, though, seems most instructional because it is generally regarded a failure.

Asked to deliberate on whether South Australia should pursue economic opportunities that could arise from storing and disposing of other countries’ nuclear waste, the ultimate answer from the final 328-strong citizens’ jury was a clear “no”.

The conventional logic is that the democratic process failed to deliver support for a lucrative revenue stream that the rational and scientific evidence suggested was safe, possible and just waiting to be taken up.

I suggest a more favourable, ‘glass half-full’ interpretation of the outcome is also reasonable.

This alternative logic is that the democratic process delivered. The nuclear jury educated citizens about the magnitude of ambition the state must have to realise a new era of prosperity.

In saying “no” to nuclear waste storage it documented the importance of renewable energy to the state’s clean and green image. This gave licence to pursue an ambitious renewable energy proposal, which government has now done.

Some significant developments in the context of a challenging economic climate and job losses arguably have been nurtured by the philosophy behind Reforming Democracy.

The outcome of the nuclear citizens’ jury has emboldened the State Government’s commitment to renewables, despite Federal Government resistance, and attracted a partner whose credentials are cementing South Australia’s global leadership in a new energy future.

Describing how Tesla resolved to build the world’s largest battery here as part of securing the state’s energy supply, Elon Musk said: “…the team told me South Australia was up for the challenge … the team asked me if I was willing to take a big risk on this… and I said absolutely, if South Australia is willing to take a big risk then so are we.”

It’s also arguable the government’s focus on opening up decision-making, and being seen to respond to community perspectives, has encouraged others to take up and sustain the work of building a new era of prosperity for their community.

In Port Augusta, the Repower campaign to replace two coal-fired power stations with renewably-generated power has been driven by the local community and has been supported by an alliance comprised of students, doctors, businesses, unions and other community organisations.

As a result, a solar thermal power plant will be built, creating 650 construction jobs and 50 ongoing jobs for the town.

Whether it’s a global tech celebrity ora group of community activists, it seems there’s at least circumstantial evidence to show that improving democracy through a combination of bold ideas and openness creates very practical opportunities.

In fact, that’s the point of Open State – the “festival of innovation and democracy” promised in Reforming Democracy – which takes place, for the second time, from Thursday, September 28.

Open State will bring together the best global and South Australian thinkers who will share and develop ideas for action in areas of importance to the state – the future of food, cities, enterprise, democracy, and even the future of humans and the planet itself.

I encourage you to come along to see the democracy in action – where the philosophical becomes an abundance of practical opportunity.

Matt Ryan is a former Deputy Chief of Staff to Premier Jay Weatherill and a member of the Open State curatorial committee
openstate.com.au

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