Participatory Democracy: Cracks in the Façade

By Johns, Gary | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Participatory Democracy: Cracks in the Façade

Johns, Gary, Review - Institute of Public Affairs

WHY DOES the Trade Minister regularly consult with the head of the Australian tion? Is there some insight that ACF has on the intricacies of the trade agenda that others do not? Is it just to keep a lobby quiescent? Or is it the final acceptance by the Coalition government of the consensus method-tripartism, now multipartism-for which it so admonished Labor?

There are environmental treaties to which Australia is a signatory-and the Minister is best to be well informed on such matters-but should this involve a formal and regular consultation with an environment advocate? Are other views best consulted in such things? Does the formal and ongoing relationship create an opportunity for the values promoted by ACF, or any like organization, to affect the trade agenda, perhaps to the detriment of the welfare of others? These are matters that Ministers must grapple with, but forming permanent policy committees with NGOs begs the question as to the credentials which some bring to the table.

The mechanisms of participatory democracy, in particular the consensus method, confuse the distinction between representation and public recognition as criteria for selection, and between expertise and values in the process of policy formulation.


Consensus may work when there is a strong policy in place. For example, if a government decides that it wants to make the car manufacturing industry more competitive, it does so by imposing the discipline of the market through lowering tariffs. It then uses the consensus of unions and manufacturers to manage the costs and difficulties of the structural adjustment. The norm for many years was not making the adjustment, and the unions and manufacturers used the consensus method to lobby government to impose tariffs and send the bill to the consumer. The consensus rationale for engagement with the community is thus of no assistance unless it is driven for good policy reasons.

The way in which policy communities are formed can make a big difference to policy formulation. In the absence of a sure direction, sitting everyone around the table becomes political management, not policy formulation.

The consensus method becomes even less likely to produce good policy when the participants represent values rather than constituents. This occurs in the newer lobbies, the NGOs. For example, the welfare lobby claims to give a voice to the poor and disadvantaged, the environment lobby to the environment, the human rights lobby to refugees and others, the indigenous lobby to Aborigines and so on.

In reality, the welfare lobby exaggerates the extent of poverty, misrepresents its causes and boosts an egalitarian ideology, none of which help the poor. The environmental lobby exaggerates some harms to the environment, such as greenhouse gases, at the expense of scientific solutions to harm, such as the dependence on chemical sprays and water that GM crops are designed to overcome. The human rights lobby, in the case of refugees, seeks to impose a legal method that weakens the rights of citizens in preference to the rights of non-citizens. The indigenous lobby seeks the collectivization of Aboriginal life that is antithetical to the welfare of Aborigines. Each of these groups is not representative, rather they are a policy community. They approach government with a suite of pre-determined solutions to the things they decide are problems.

Why, then, does so much debate revolve around these voices? The answer lies in the appeal of participatory democracy. A democracy of active citizens is held to be superior to a democracy of politically apathetic citizens. On close reflection, it may not be so. A consensus of activists is a process-oriented policy, it sets a premium on a saleable outcome. It does not ensure a least-cost or public interest outcome. It lends itself to interventionist outcomes because it promises to further involve the participants. …

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