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Australian Journal of Political Science

Volume 48, Issue 2, 2013

Julia Gillard's Citizens' Assembly Proposal for Australia: A Deliberative Democratic Analysis

Julia Gillard's Citizens' Assembly Proposal for Australia: A Deliberative Democratic Analysis

John Boswella*, Simon Niemeyera & Carolyn M. Hendriksa

pages 164-178

Publishing models and article dates explained
Published online: 25 Jun 2013
Article Views: 113


Many governments have embraced the rhetoric of inclusive citizen engagement. Greater public involvement promises to strengthen democratic institutions and improve the quality of policy decisions and services. How do these aspirations sit alongside the reality of Australian federal politics? This article investigates the responses of elite policy actors to the Gillard government's proposal to conduct a citizens’ assembly on climate change in 2010. Drawing on over 200 media articles, the authors identify a series of procedural, institutional and political objections raised by elite commentators against the citizens’ assembly proposal. Many of these objections have little basis in the experience of deliberative designs in practice. Some, however, reflect the challenge of realising inclusive, deliberative governance in highly politicised contexts.


Many governments have embraced the rhetoric of inclusive citizen engagement. Greater public involvement promises to strengthen democratic institutions and improve the quality of policy decisions and services. How do these aspirations sit alongside the reality of Australian federal politics? This article investigates the responses of elite policy actors to the Gillard government's proposal to conduct a citizens’ assembly on climate change in 2010. Drawing on over 200 media articles, the authors identify a series of procedural, institutional and political objections raised by elite commentators against the citizens’ assembly proposal. Many of these objections have little basis in the experience of deliberative designs in practice. Some, however, reflect the challenge of realising inclusive, deliberative governance in highly politicised contexts.


The Australian public sector is said to be entering an age of ‘citizen-centred’ governance (KPMG 2009, 44). There have been calls for greater citizen engagement at all levels of government (for example, Aulich and Artist 2010; Cuthill 2007; Moran et al. 2010). Notwithstanding these initiatives, experience worldwide suggests that citizen engagement in a form that is inclusive and deliberative – engaging widely and genuinely seeking considered public opinion – is often strongly resisted by political elites in practice. This applies particularly to partisan actors, such as group representatives, who fear losing power and political support (Hendriks 2011). Many experts and public managers also resist inclusive public engagement because they worry about the capacity of citizens to comprehend and contribute to complex policy issues (Baber and Bartlett 2007; Parkinson 2004).
A stark example of such elite resistance to democratic innovation was the proposed, but ultimately abandoned, citizens' assembly (CA) on climate change. Mooted by Prime Minister Julia Gillard in the lead-up to the 2010 federal election, it was proposed that 150 ordinary Australians – one citizen from each of Australia's 150 electorates – would gather periodically over a year to hear from various climate-change experts about different options for dealing with the issue, deliberate on the information and feed their recommendations to the government. This proposal provoked a strongly negative response. Many public commentators dismissed the CA proposal as ‘flawed’, ‘pathetic’ (Canberra Times 2010, 11) or simply a ‘wacky idea’ (Oakes 2010, 30). This reception contributed significantly to the withdrawal of the proposal after the election, leaving in its wake an unpopular prime minister, a damaged Labor Party and a highly fractured debate on climate change. More broadly, it highlighted cynicism about the value of citizen engagement in Australian politics.
Citizens' assemblies belong to a family of deliberative designs1 involving randomly selected citizens coming together to develop recommendations on a public policy issue. At their best, they are an attempt to institutionalise the ideals of deliberative democracy – that legitimate political decision-making requires that all those potentially affected have an opportunity (either directly or through a representative) to raise and discuss issues, support their claims with reasons and consider the reasons of others (Dryzek 2000; Gutmann and Thompson 2004). Internationally, the formal use of deliberative designs has grown considerably over the past two decades, albeit with varying degrees of acceptance in decision-making (Goodin and Dryzek 2006).2
This article investigates the criticisms directed by elite opinion leaders to the CA proposal, and considers what this experience implies for the prospects and difficulties of deepening citizen engagement in Australian politics. It begins with a brief outline of the CA proposal and its coverage in the news media. It then analyses key lines of objections to the CA, concentrating on the main criticisms raised in the media by politicians, interest-group representatives and other opinion leaders. Then, each of these critiques is assessed against insights from the study and practice of deliberative designs. This assessment is not performed to defend the CA proposal per se. In principle, we support the approach, but do find some valid criticisms. The article focuses on exploring the arguments that underpinned the resistance of opinion leaders to the CA, and what this tells us about the future of deliberative citizen engagement in Australia.
Internationally, Australia is often seen as a pioneer in deliberative citizen engagement, with well over a hundred deliberative designs conducted across the country (Carson and Hartz-Karp 2005; Hendriks and Carson 2008). Most have been conducted by local and state governments, however, and many have been initiated by non-state actors for agenda-setting purposes (for example, Hartz-Karp 2007). In other words, they tend to operate in the realm of ‘low politics’, where the stakes are lower, the glare of publicity less pronounced and the local knowledge of citizens more highly prized (see Evans 2010, 266).
The CA proposal presents an interesting case for examining the prospects of deliberative citizen engagement in Australia because it was pitched into the world of what Bulpitt (1986, 21–2) calls ‘high politics’, where elites focus their energy and attention on high-stakes, high-profile issues at the centre of state business. In high politics, institutions and processes of government tend to be top-down. The federal context is especially significant: regardless of which government is in power, its policy style is typically characterised as adversarial, exclusive and dominated by the two-party system, rather than open, participatory and consensual (Castles and Uhr 2005). Consultation at the federal level typically targets key stakeholder elites, such as lobbyists, experts and opinion leaders, rather than citizens (Laffin 1997).
Recently, the idea of opening up federal government to greater citizen engagement has gained momentum. Since the Labor government took office in 2007, there has been some institutional innovation, for example, with the use of ‘community cabinets’ and the 2020 Summit. Nonetheless, studies suggest that these participatory initiatives largely operate in the shadow of hierarchy, consistent with the operation of high politics (Fawcett, Manwaring and Marsh 2011; Lewis and Marsh 2012).
Another important aspect of the CA proposal was the highly politicised context of the debate on climate change. Few issues polarise opinion as much as climate change, with discussion often becoming highly adversarial (Hulme 2008; Woods, Fernandez and Coen 2012). This has been especially evident in Australia, where debate has become polarised into entrenched camps that support or oppose measures to price carbon emissions.
In recent years, climate change has been a particularly contentious issue in Australian politics. The controversy has dominated the political agenda since at least 2007, when the incoming Labor government under Kevin Rudd promised to introduce a market-based mechanism to price carbon. The government subsequently encountered strong opposition in the form of the ‘carbon lobby’ of manufacturers and electricity generators (Pezzey, Mazouz and Jotzo 2010, 186). The conflict has been inflamed by media coverage which devotes more attention to the claims of this lobby than those who support regulatory measures (Bacon 2011). Polarisation has also increased in parliamentary debate, where a short-lived consensus on pricing carbon collapsed when Tony Abbott replaced Malcolm Turnbull as opposition leader in 2009 (see Pearce 2011). The highly charged political atmosphere surrounding the issue is attributed to the replacement of the leaders of both major political parties and, at the time of writing, Julia Gillard and the Labor government's low approval ratings (see Dudley 2012). In this context of an elite-dominated political arena and a strongly polarised issue, the CA was proposed and ultimately discarded. The next section briefly reviews this episode to provide a deeper context for analysis of the elite response.
The idea for the CA began within Gillard's campaign team (Grattan 2010a, 4), promoted by a key advisor who was familiar with the use of deliberative designs in the United Kingdom (Carson 2010). It was announced in a speech by Gillard in the first week of the 2010 election campaign. She described the CA as a mechanism for building ‘community consensus’ on the issue of climate change (Cronin 2010, 1), and in doing so, presented herself as an advocate of greater citizen engagement. She stated: ‘I am a real optimist in the capacities, common sense, decency, ability to work through problems of the Australian people and for my evidence I point to history’ (Farr and Keene 2010, 5).
Most of Australia's opinion leaders, however, condemned the idea. Politicians, lobbyists, experts and commentators from across the political spectrum condemned it. Its most outspoken critics described the proposal variously as a ‘gabfest’ (Kennedy 2010), a ‘gimmick’ (Grattan 2010b, 6), ‘a proposition so inherently absurd and ridiculous as to defy caricature’ (Sheridan 2010, 23), and perhaps most colourfully, ‘a melange of bewitching hokery-pokery and beguiling flummery’ (Devine 2010, 7). Many viewed it as a weak and cynical ploy from a Labor Party ‘obsessed with spin’ (Steketee 2010, 10) and ‘incapable of taking a political position’ (Aly 2010, 9). A small minority outside the Labor Party defended the CA proposal, some as a shrewd political manoeuvre (Burchell 2010; P. Martin 2010b), and others as a welcome addition to a difficult debate (AAP 2010c, 2010d; Arup 2010; Barlow 2010; Harmer 2010; Hendriks 2010; Warhurst 2010). Yet, this minority was overwhelmed by the opposition to the CA.
Faced with increasingly adverse polling and internal party discord concerning the proposal, Gillard and her allies changed approach. They stopped defending the CA on substantive grounds and downplayed its significance, describing it as only an ‘advisory body’ among a raft of climate change initiatives (AAP 2010d). By then, however, the CA had become a symbol of Gillard and Labor's perceived ‘failure of leadership’ (Colebatch 2010, 15). Indeed, it was described by some as ‘the biggest political miscalculation’ of the year (Gordon and Wright 2010, 11). Following the election, the CA proposal was quietly dropped and the minority Gillard government forged ahead with a similarly controversial carbon tax proposal. The CA has been overshadowed by the ensuing debate over the carbon tax, but it lingers in public memory as an unpopular strategy that backfired badly.
What were the key objections to the CA proposal held by opinion leaders such as politicians, commentators, think-tank representatives and other experts? To answer this question, we examined the specific objections raised by these actors in the mass media. Our analysis incorporates over 200 newspaper articles on the CA sourced from the Factiva database, dating from the day before its announcement, 22 July 2010, to the end of that calendar year. Almost half of the publications (N = 87) came within a week of the announcement. The sample draws from national, metropolitan and regional outlets, broadsheet and tabloid publications, and those with conservative and progressive editorial reputations. The articles we analysed took four basic forms: first, news updates, which reported factually on the announcement and subsequent information released about the proposal; second, viewpoint summaries, which reproduced quotes and reported views of elites; third, opinion pieces; and finally, meta-coverage,3 which focused on the proposal as a strategic manoeuvre. News updates and meta-coverage were important in crafting the story outlined in the previous section. We placed particular emphasis, however, on viewpoint summaries and opinion pieces (just over 130 articles) to discern the response to the proposal because they best conveyed the substantive views of various opinion leaders.
Our analysis focuses on the views of opinion leaders regarding the CA. In this sense, it is not a proxy for public opinion (see Druckman and Nelson 2003). Although we focus on the objections raised by opinion leaders against the proposal, we acknowledge that some citizens also publicly opposed the idea, as demonstrated by letters to the editor, radio talk-back programs and so on (for example, Don 2010, 7). Moreover, the sampling is not exhaustive of all media commentary. Newspapers are only one of many sources of information on current events. We argue, however, that our approach remains legitimate and useful because newspapers, despite declining revenues and loss of audience share to social media, are still widely perceived as leading the news agenda in Australia (see Manne 2011). Newspapers also permit lengthy examination and debate from a diversity of viewpoints. As such, this method of sampling provides a rich and detailed set of data on the opinions of a broad range of political elites. From these data, we can gain insights into how Australia's opinion leaders received the CA proposal.
Our analysis identifies three key lines of critique of the CA:
procedural objections about the way the CA would work;
institutional objections concerning its place in our democratic system; and
political objections about its role in the debate on climate change.
The following sections examine these critiques and consider their validity against observations from deliberative practice. Finally, we consider what the CA proposal reveals about the prospect of deepening citizen engagement in Australian federal politics.

Procedural Objections: ‘This Process Will Never Work’

The first avenue of critique that we examine pertains to procedural concerns. These objections included the design of the process, the capacity of citizens to deal with the issue and the emphasis on consensus as a goal. A central concern about the procedure of the CA related to the information that would have been disseminated to participants, in terms of both source and content. Climate sceptic Piers Akerman (2010, 108) asserted that the expert advisors would doubtless ‘point the people's assembly in the politically correct Green Left direction’. Similar objections extended to the mechanism for selecting participants. Critics challenged the ‘mysterious authority’ responsible for recruitment. They questioned whether the 150 participants could adequately and fairly represent all sides of the debate (The Age 2010; Oakes 2010). Some feared that the CA would be loaded with ‘beardy types’ already committed on the issue:
it's supposed to feature ‘a representative range of ordinary Australians’. Really? How many ordinary Australians are able to take an entire year off to talk about carbon dioxide levels and emissions trading fantasies? This is usually something only idiots do (Blair 2010, 22).
Critics across the political spectrum also doubted the competence of randomly selected citizens to deal with an issue as complex and uncertain as climate change. For example, an editorial in the Australian Financial Review (2010, 62) stated that: ‘Julia Gillard's “citizens’ assembly” is unlikely to provide more expertise than the Department of Climate Change.’
Another procedural objection surrounded the stated pursuit of consensus, which seemed impossible in view of the polarised nature of the issue. As Kelly (2010, 1, 6) put it: ‘In truth, there will be no consensus on climate change. It is an issue of clashing ideology and interests. Waiting for this consensus is like waiting for Godot.’ Related to this was an oft-repeated slogan that ‘endless talking rarely changes people's minds’ (Newcastle Herald 2010, 18). The CA was framed as yet another combative talk-fest between polarised groups, and its deliberative possibilities were summarily dismissed, which is discussed further below.

Institutional Objections: ‘It's a Threat to Democracy’

The second line of critique framed the proposal as a threat to the established Madisonian norms4 of legitimate, democratic decision-making by elected representatives. At best, the proposal was considered to be a duplication of established politics. Actors as diverse as Richard Denniss, Senator Christine Milne and Tony Abbott followed the argument that: ‘We already have a Citizens’ Assembly – it's called Parliament.’ As such, the CA was widely deemed a ‘waste of time’ (AAP 2010b).
At worst, though, the CA was seen as a threat to the time-honoured traditions and institutions of Australia's parliamentary democracy. Critics expressed concern that the CA could undermine democratic principles such as accountability. Nationals Senate leader, Barnaby Joyce, colourfully described the proposal:
What are you going to say? ‘Come on down... you've won a prize, you get to select Australia's climate change policy’. What happens the next week? They select the defence policy, and the week after that the foreign affairs policy and the week after that another 150 people to balance the books (L. Martin 2010).
Henry Ergas (2010, 14) of the conservative think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs, argued:
[Democracy] has worked best when it is based on political parties that have distinct, coherent and clearly articulated positions, such that the electorate can identify party agenda and actions, and sanction them in the voting booth. And that is what is fundamentally wrong in Gillard's proposal.
Environmental groups saw the CA proposal as a threat to democracy for a different reason. The classic tension between a commitment to democracy and environmental outcomes (Goodin 1992), which is particularly strong with respect to climate change (Giddens 2009; Shearman and Smith 2007), manifested as fear of the overwhelming power of the mining lobby to influence public opinion (Hartcher 2010; Lazarus 2010). For these critics, the issue of climate change requires a more technocratic approach in which qualified experts advise decision-makers. These critics dismissed the proposal as a ‘populist strategy’ that inappropriately emphasised lay opinions and emotions that could easily be manipulated, at the expense of more authoritative scientific expertise (Boyd 2010, 64).

Political Objections: ‘It's an Abrogation of Duty’

The third and most prevalent line of critique centred on the use of the CA as a political tactic. At the heart of this objection was a question about the timing of the CA in the context of a protracted policy battle over climate change in Australia. The CA was almost universally viewed as a ‘cop out’ or ‘gimmick’ that was cynically designed to ‘neutralise’ this controversial issue (Herald Sun 2010, 30; Kelly 2010, 6). Many conservatives saw the CA as a ‘smokescreen’ to conceal a carbon tax for which the Labor Party was afraid to seek a mandate. The Liberal Party's deputy leader, Julie Bishop, argued that: ‘I think this distraction of a committee of 150 people is designed as a smokescreen to avoid having to admit she will be introducing an emissions trading scheme, a carbon tax, a tax on everything’ (AAP 2010e). For these critics, the move was indicative of Labor's lack of integrity in general and its devious intentions on this important issue in particular.
In contrast, many others considered the proposal a ‘cop out’ because the government was delaying or avoiding a difficult decision. Those from the green left viewed this attempt to ‘handball’ a challenging and controversial issue as ‘a complete abrogation of responsibility’ by ‘a government driven more by public relations than a concern for the environment’ (Stuart 2010, 11). Surprisingly, some conservatives made the same point (AAP 2010a; Bolt 2010). The CA proposal was almost universally seen as ‘a failure of leadership’, regardless of political orientation (Colebatch 2010, 15).
This section turns to the literature on deliberative democracy to assess the objections to the CA against current scholarship, based mainly on studies involving exemplary deliberative designs. Overall, we find that most criticisms have little basis in evidence. Some criticisms, however, raise serious challenges for deliberative democrats, particularly those concerns pertaining to the political motivations behind the proposal and the manner in which the CA itself might have been implemented. These are discussed below.

Procedural Objections and the Importance of Design

The procedural objections identified above strongly conflict, for the most part, with the available evidence. We examine this briefly since many of these procedural concerns have been rebutted elsewhere (see Carson 2010). Contrary to the criticisms about bias, in practice deliberative designs have typically proven to be robust and non-partisan. Ideally, they involve a diverse sample of citizens,5 combined with presentation sessions in which various actors present their perspectives and respond to citizens' questions. Balance is often achieved by consulting with the relevant groups and experts associated with the issue, under the oversight of a steering committee composed of key stakeholders and consultation experts (Hendriks 2011, ch. 10).
The criticism that doubts whether ordinary citizens would be capable of contributing meaningfully to climate-change policy echoes the classic objection to popular participation in democracy (for example, Schumpeter [1943] 1976). It has also been raised in the ranks of deliberative democrats (Rosenberg 2002, 2007). Most of the evidence for these concerns, however, has been gathered by observing citizens in non-deliberative settings. By contrast, there is strong empirical evidence that when given the opportunity and the appropriate deliberative setting, citizens do offer informed and considered policy advice on complex issues (Gastil and Levine 2005; Ryfe 2005), including climate change (Hendriks 2012).6
On the matter of consensus, the proponents of the CA were in a weaker position if they were aiming for complete agreement on the outcome. Most contemporary deliberative democrats would acknowledge that complete agreement is unrealistic, if not undesirable, in modern, complex and pluralistic societies, particularly on divisive issues such as climate change. Indeed, most would be concerned that such an outcome is likely to be the product of non-deliberative dynamics (Femia 1996; van Mill 1996). Instead, deliberative democrats are turning toward more creative forms of workable agreement (Moore and O'Doherty 2012; Sunstein 1997) or the pursuit of ‘metaconsensus’, in which agreement is sought on the important issue dimensions at play, not on a single outcome (Dryzek and Niemeyer 2006).

The Institutional Role of Deliberative Designs

The Madisonian critique of the CA presumes that deliberative designs are a substitute for representative government, when ideally they are a complement. Healthy democratic debate takes place across a range of venues involving different actors and communicative norms (Dryzek 2009). In Australia, the debate on climate change has tended to be exclusive in the scientific community, simplistic in the media and antagonistic in parliamentary venues (Tranter 2011). Deliberative democrats would claim that the CA could have augmented the debate with a venue for inclusive deliberation.
In relation to accountability, deliberative democrats would argue that it is intended that citizens in a CA lack the kind of accountability associated with elected representatives, who are bound to their constituents and parties. The role of these citizens, as ‘descriptive’ rather than elected representatives (Mansbridge 2000) – to the extent that they reflect the characteristics of the larger group to which they belong (Birch 1971, 1) – is to engage with open preferences in deliberations with a microcosm of their community. Evidence suggests that inputs from deliberative designs can enhance, rather than undermine, representative democracy by giving elected members a clearer picture of their constituents' views on specific issues and reform proposals. Indeed, elected representatives are often keen to receive, and act on, citizens' recommendations, an observation also made in Australian non-federal examples. As one councillor explained in relation to two citizens' juries on climate change conducted in 2009 in North East Victoria: ‘Council has been looking for guidance on how to tackle this issue and the process has given Council the confidence to proceed’ (Fisher and Kinnen 2010, 39).
Deliberative democrats would also argue that concerns about accountability are based on a naïve view of contemporary politics and policymaking. Decision-making requires multiple inputs from political parties, advisers, committees, constituents and so on. The accountability objections raised by critics of the CA could equally be applied to most other forms of input. We note that while the CA proposal was heavily criticised, the equally ‘unelected’ and ‘unaccountable’ Climate Commission of experts (mooted at the same time and later established) attracted few such concerns. We are not questioning the value of such bodies, but reiterating that the CA could have provided equally valid input. After all, climate change is not just a technical issue; the question of how to respond is deeply normative, and there is evidence that if the public is properly engaged (including via deliberation), there is likely to be an improved outcome (Hobson and Niemeyer 2011).

The Real World of Australian Politics

The critique that claimed that the CA was not well suited to the politics of climate change at the time raises important challenges for deliberative democrats. Deliberative designs strive to create ideal communicative norms for debate, but they operate within a broader political context. Deliberative democrats have begun to recognise that there are limits to such innovations (Chambers 2009), especially in relation to high-profile and highly politicised issues (Hendriks 2011). Indeed, many influential thinkers now concede that in highly partisan circumstances, genuine deliberation may be unachievable, making non-deliberative mechanisms, such as voting or bargaining, necessary to achieve legitimate outcomes (Mansbridge et al. 2010). Less legitimate approaches include politically managing the value conflicts at the heart of polarised issues by, for example, creating institutional firewalls or using delaying tactics (Thacher and Rein 2004). As explored in more detail below, our analysis suggests that deliberative designs, such as the CA, can be construed in these terms when tensions are high and trust is low.
Empirical research suggests that deliberative designs are best suited to political contexts with neither too little nor too much antagonism. When a policy issue is not sufficiently politicised, deliberative designs risk being deemed irrelevant by those with the power to effect change. At the other extreme, where an issue is highly politicised, deliberative designs tend to be torn down by opponents, as evidenced in the CA proposal. Between these extremes is a ‘zone of productive tension’ where deliberative designs have the potential to make valued contributions (Hendriks 2011, 16). How to identify and take advantage of these conditions will be a crucial element for future research and the practice of deliberative designs.
As discussed, there were concerns about the CA being a ‘smokescreen’ for unpopular policies. We have argued that deliberative designs should empower citizens to challenge and subvert such aims, but we also recognise the argument that forms of public participation might placate or manipulate citizens, or exercise social control (Hindess 2002; Ryfe 2003). It is unclear, though, if deliberative designs can be readily controlled in practice. There are numerous cases of powerful interest and advocacy groups unsuccessfully attempting to manipulate deliberative designs (Dodge 2009; Hendriks 2002). Other scholars, however, have found some processes to be constraining (Pollack 2003) or politically inappropriate (Lehman and Cavanagh 2005).
Finally, the accusation that the CA proposal marked a shirking of responsibility on an important issue presents a difficult challenge in any context. On the one hand, a genuine attempt to use the CA to enhance public debate could be seen as a very brave move (Hendriks 2010); on the other, it may well have been a stalling tactic. The answer lies with the specific motivations of its proponents, and the evidence here is mixed.
Regardless of leadership intentions, this case shows the importance of gauging how a given deliberative design might be perceived by opinion leaders. Had the proposal come from an independent body as part of a broader process of inquiry, it might have survived a different fate in the media. Indeed, the positive commentary received in the press by subsequent deliberative designs (at local and state-government levels) suggests that they are perceived as having greater validity when they are conducted by an independent body at a distance from partisan politics (Campion 2012; Whitbourn 2012). The next section considers what the CA episode reveals about the prospects for deliberative forms of engagement in Australia.
Collectively, the objections lodged against the CA reveal strong resistance among Australia's opinion elite about the value of deliberative citizen engagement. The response to the CA proposal was largely reactive, rather than reflective. Critics do not appear to have investigated how the process might have worked in Australia's political landscape.7 The dismissive tone of the objections and the political response of Gillard and her allies reinforce this point. For some, the episode bodes poorly for the prospects of making Australian politics more deliberative (for example, Carson 2010).
Nonetheless, we argue that there is some hope. Beyond the federal level, there are more positive accounts of deliberative forms of citizen engagement. Local and state politics in Australia provide evidence that many public officials, advocacy groups, decision-makers and elected representatives are actively seeking new ways to hear from ‘hard to reach’ publics (Brackertz and Meredyth 2008, 14). Indeed, there has been a significant uptake of more inclusive and deliberative forms of public participation across state and local governments in Australia since the mid-1990s (Carson 2007). A number of non-state actors, such as advocacy groups and the business sector, have also instigated deliberative designs to better understand the needs of their constituents and clients (Carson 2008).
All this suggests that the appetite for deliberative citizen engagement is greater than our opinion leaders assert. As deliberative designs become embedded in the practice of governing at lower levels, perhaps their use at the federal level will seem less threatening, and they may become part of the machinery of governing, as they have in places such as Denmark (Dryzek and Hendriks 2012). Notwithstanding our optimism, we acknowledge that the dismissive and largely ill-informed attitude of Australia's opinion leaders towards the proposal reflects the strongly elitist tradition of Australian federal politics, and highlights the challenge facing proponents of deliberative democracy. Here, the fate of the CA proposal offers some insightful lessons.
First, the CA demonstrates that the legitimacy of deliberative designs hinges on a host of policy actors, including the media. Deliberative designs might principally be centred on involving citizens, but their fate relies on the support of key elites and organised interests. Second, the CA highlights that deliberative designs are highly sensitive to their policy and political context. The challenge is even greater when the issue is polarised and has had a turbulent political history, and trust in decision-makers to take action is low. Deliberative designs are more likely to find a legitimate place for policy issues that are relatively new on the public agenda and ripe for debate, but not yet at the stage of decisive action. Ideally, they are non-partisan and have no place in party politics and electioneering.
Third, the case of the CA demonstrates what can happen when the purpose and features of deliberative designs are ill-considered and poorly communicated. Processes such as the CA need to be designed, understood and communicated as part of a broader consultation program. This enables key actors, including the media, to make sense of the deliberative design in the context of other formal and informal sources of policy input. Successful experiences with high-profile deliberative designs throughout Australia and abroad reveal that constructive involvement of the media is not only possible, but crucial. Instructive is the way that the newDemocracy Foundation has worked with the Daily Telegraph, resulting in positive coverage of a deliberative design in Sydney (Campion 2012).
Improving public deliberation in Australia will demand far more than ad-hoc deliberative designs. A new research agenda is emerging around building deliberative capacity in existing institutions and settings, such as legislatures and the media, as well as across the community (Dryzek 2009). A more deliberative media and parliament, as well as a more engaged citizenry, would likely be more welcoming of deliberative designs. Nevertheless, given the prevalence of misunderstanding among critics of the CA proposal regarding the nature and purpose of deliberative designs, it is incumbent on deliberative democrats to take a more active role in communicating their findings to decision-makers and the public alike.8
This article has analysed the interface between federal climate-change politics and the aspirations of inclusive and deliberative citizen engagement. The Gillard government's proposal for a CA was criticised by opinion leaders on procedural, institutional and political grounds. Many arguments against the CA are revealed as unfounded or misplaced when examined against evidence from deliberative practice. Nonetheless, a few of the political objections identify weaknesses in deliberative democratic theory and its potential for institutionalisation. The politics around the CA provoked considerable scepticism, perhaps rightly. But the content of the specific objections and the rhetoric deployed suggest that there are pervasive and strongly felt assumptions about how politics ought to be conducted. The case demonstrates a resistance to democratic innovation at the federal level of government in Australia, and a commitment to limiting democracy to electoral representation. It also illustrates that in bitter, high-profile political contests such as that over climate change – where, arguably, deliberation is most necessary – achieving legitimacy for deliberative designs is especially difficult.
Despite the experience of the CA proposal, we argue that the broader aims of deepening citizen engagement and improving public deliberation on matters of common concern are not entirely problematic. Evidence shows that deliberative designs such as the CA can, and do, make valued contributions to decision-making by representative government. Deliberative democrats can build on democratic innovation at the local and state levels of government in Australia by finding ways to better articulate how deliberative designs improve both decision-making processes and outcomes. If deliberative democrats meet this challenge and are given the opportunity to highlight the benefits on an equal footing with sceptics, deliberative democratisation might yet have a future in Australian federal politics.


John Boswell is a PhD candidate in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University. Simon Niemeyer is a Senior Research Fellow in the College of Arts and Social Sciences at the Australian National University. Carolyn Hendriks is a Senior Lecturer in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University.
1These bodies have been given a variety of labels, such as ‘democratic innovations’, ‘discursive designs’, ‘citizens’ panels', ‘minipublics’ and so on. For the remainder of the article, we refer to them as ‘deliberative designs’.
2Deliberative designs have been applied to controversial policy issues such as electoral reform, biotechnology and climate change (see Carson 2007; Ryfe 2005). As Ryfe (2005) and Dryzek and Goodin (2006) explain, the degree to which they can be considered to have been successful depends on the definition of success.
3Meta-coverage refers to speculation on, or analysis of, how political events have been or will be covered in the news media (see Gitlin 1991).
4These norms stem from James Madison's influential writing about an appropriate scheme of representation in the new American republic. Most notable in this context is his contention that popularly elected representatives are the only legitimate authority capable of making decisions in the public interest (see Uhr 1998, 85–6).
5For a detailed discussion in relation to the CA model, see Warren and Pearse (2008).
6Although there is difficulty in engaging deep climate sceptics in genuine deliberation (Hobson and Niemeyer 2013). Once engaged in deliberation, individuals become far more sophisticated political citizens capable of articulating what is in their best interests (Niemeyer 2011).
7As Carson (2010) noted, there were rare exceptions in the mass media more broadly, such as ABC Radio's Life Matters program, which ran a considered and lengthy discussion on citizen engagement and the value of the CA proposal.
8We recognise the extensive efforts of Lyn Carson and Janette Hartz-Karp in this respect.


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