Can Belgium’s deliberative democracy experiment work in Australia?

By Matt Ryan

April 12, 2019

Whether Australia could successfully replicate the ‘citizens’ council’ system of governance modelled by Belgium is worth the discussion.

In his book on making democracy work, Coming to Public Judgment, the late Daniel Yankelovich argued that “our society is not well-equipped with the institutions or knowledge it needs to expedite working through” difficult public issues. But, as Luca Belgiorno-Nettis has flagged, a small region in Belgium may be the place where that starts to change.

The decision of the east Belgium parliament — set out in document number 284 — commits to the establishment of a “permanent civil dialogue.” This includes a citizens’ council of 25 randomly selected citizens who will decide the topics for up-to three citizen assemblies (of 25-50 people each assembly) per year that will, in turn, make recommendations to the parliament.

The case isn’t remarkable for its application at scale. East Belgium has a population of 77,000 — akin to a middling-sized urban local government area in Australia. Rather, it is an interesting advance in deliberative democracy because of the commitment to a permanent connection to the elected representative house of parliament.

Repeating the feat in Australia would be a tough ask. Recommendations to parliaments from even one-off citizens’ juries have been known to cause much political angst. South Australia’s jury on cycling is a case in point. Despite a randomly selected jury recommending law changes to improve cyclists’ safety, opposition and minor parties sought to disallow them, citing a lack of “proper consultation”. There’s further and clearer evidence of the challenge at the national level. In another example, in rejecting the Uluru Statement’s call for a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous advisory body, the government baulked at what “would inevitably become seen as a third chamber of Parliament”.

So, in the partisan-fuelled parliaments most of us are familiar with, it seems there may not yet be an appetite to replicate east Belgium’s ‘hard-wiring’ of direct and representative forms of democracy.

There are at least two reasons why that might be the case.

Why it would be hard

First, as Luca Belgiorno-Nettis has noted, politics is combative. This makes key actors in the existing system resistant to what they perceive as the uncertain political outcomes of involving random groups of citizens so deeply in decision-making. For governing parties, it can feel like the loss of power and control won through the hard work of campaigning. For opposition and minor parties, handing over the task of considering and mediating alternative points of view – which is exactly the task delegated to a citizens’ jury or assembly – can feel like their role in public debate (and their own pathway to power) is diminished.

A second, related, reason is the difference in Belgium’s political culture, something that has evolved over the past five decades to reach its current state. Previously, Belgium had a single government for the whole country. Now it has “parliaments (and governments) based on geographical regions, as well as parliaments (and governments) based on communities bound together by language and culture,” and has been described as having “government that looks like you” (BBC News). It’s suggestive of an overarching political culture receptive to new ideas that strengthen alignment with citizens’ perspectives. With the 2016 Australian Election Study finding that just 14% of Australians believe that “politicians know what ordinary people think”, our political culture has some way to go for a Belgium-type experiment to be planted in similarly fertile ground.

Such issues are part of the challenge of re-designing our democracy with components of both representative and direct forms of democracy. Melding the two requires them to be mutually reinforcing and for the involvement of randomly selected citizens to be accepted by the wider public as a legitimate complement, if not alternative, to current decision-making structures.

How we might foster the development of a new political structure and culture for Australia, and how we might increase diversity of those making decisions while avoiding risks such as the separatist and divisive qualities some have observed in Belgium’s political devolution, is a conversation worth having.

Whether the Belgian model is right for Australia is yet to be seen, but the provocation it provides should be welcomed.

Matt Ryan is the Principal of Reforming Democracy, a Senior Fellow of The GovLab at New York University, and a former Deputy Chief of Staff to South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill, where he led the development of South Australia’s democratic reform program between 2011-2016. He tweets at @MattRyanAust.

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