To achieve genuine consensus and national unity on the type of republican model will require a sense of public ownership. If a plebiscite setting out various options for the election or selection of an Australian Head of State is to be put to the Australian people, as the 2020 Summit proposes, then it must be one that emerges after a community, rather than government driven, process.
A deliberative democracy process - where ordinary citizens meet and deliberate over a period - should be utilised to maximise interest in the plebiscite and to ensure an informed vote on it. Deliberative democracy informs, breaks down myths and fears and prejudices. It brings a community together. It ensures that it is not only the representatives of our democracy who decide the process and substantive questions pertaining to an Australian republic. It empowers the essence of the Australian democracy - the people themselves. It is bottom up, not top down.
The rise of deliberative democracy in its country of origin, the US, has been phenomenal. According to one analysis, about 50 million Americans say that they are involved in some form of deliberative democracy project each year. In British Columbia a 2003 citizens’ assembly helped to devise that Canadian province’s new electoral system. And in emerging economies such as Brazil and India deliberative democracy experiments in cities and regions is proving high successful.
We should not be surprised, given the level of mistrust and cynicism about the partisanship and dissembling that is a hallmark of modern political practice, that deliberative democracy is proving so successful.
Perhaps the most relevant example for the purposes of a deliberative democracy approach to the Australian republic is that of British Columbia in 2003. The BC government established a citizen’s assembly consisting of one man and one woman drawn from each electoral district, and two Aboriginal members, to examine and recommend a new electoral system for the province. The Assembly participants were chosen at random through a process designed to ensure that they were truly representative of the Province. The citizens’ assembly reached a consensus on a new electoral system after months of hearings, meetings and deliberations.
As John Gastil and Ned Crosby noted, the BC experiment demonstrated that a “seemingly apathetic public can come alive when presented with a real opportunity for civic action. Though the assembly members had their expenses covered, they attended many meetings at considerable inconvenience. Attendance was nearly perfect.”
And the Assembly showed that “ordinary citizens are capable of careful deliberation and sound policy judgments. Whereas we often go to the polls lacking important information about the initiatives we're voting on, the assembly members became knowledgeable on the world's different voting systems, and they developed a nuanced understanding of their province,” Gastil and Crosby observed.
The BC electoral reform referendum, held in May 2005, did not succeed. It failed to achieve the required 60 per cent province wide support but achieved almost 58 per cent of the vote. But the success of the deliberative democracy process used is undoubted.
Such a process could easily be adopted by Australia to further the republic debate. It could, for example, be an initiative of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). Having the states and territories involved in the republican debate in a formal way is important because each jurisdiction’s constitutional arrangements are altered by the move to a republic.
A random selection process along the lines of the BC citizens assembly process of say 300 Australians - a man and a woman from each electorate - and Aboriginal representatives a and co-chairs appointed by COAG - would provide for a truly representative democratic exercise.
No doubt, in that group of 300 or more there would be monarchists, direct electionists, minimalists and those who were undecided on the question of a republic.
The role of a Republic Deliberative Assembly would be to deal with what options for a Republic should be put in a plebiscite. This Republic Deliberative Assembly would hold hearings, listen to constitutional experts, lobby groups and political parties. The voice of Australian citizens would be heard directly by the Republic Deliberative Assembly.
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