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Janette’s Write-Up on Australia’s First Citizens’ Parliament

Australian dynamo and long-time NCDD member Janette Hartz-Karp, who played a huge part in making this month’s Australian Citizens Parliament happen, sent me a write-up last night for the NCDD blog. The Citizens Parliament was the first of its kind in Australia and is a model for us all.

Here’s a preview (click “more” for the full story if it doesn’t appear below)…

For me, as the key designer of the 4 day deliberation and its co-lead facilitator, it felt like a being on stage in a TV drama where unscripted onstage and offstage dramas had a life of their own, and where the participants stepped up to become extraordinary. If anyone needed convincing that ‘ordinary’ people can create extraordinary outcomes, deliberating wisely and co-intelligently, then this Citizens’ Parliament was exemplary.

Lyn Carson also sent me links to two great articles on the Citizens Parliament:

And you can also download a two-page summary Carson sent me, which goes into a little more detail about the process and the specific outcomes.

Australia’s First Citizens’ Parliament

by Janette Hartz-Karp

Group Shot

Australia’s first Citizens’ Parliament (CP) was held at Old Parliament House in Canberra from February 6th to 9th, 2009. One hundred and fifty randomly selected people from across Australia, spent four days deliberating about how to strengthen our democracy to serve us better.

It was extraordinary – exceeding all expectations. So many participants said participating in the CP was a “life changing experience”; from our youngest participant who said publicly that prior to the Citizens Parliament she had no interest in politics and knew nothing about it, but now – “I can now go home, open the newspaper and turn to the politics page”; to the oldest who said “This was an experience of a lifetime”; from another who said “It has really charged me up after a period of despair and apathy toward the status quo” and another “I had completely dismissed the political system as an area of passion…I will change the way I work”.

Facilitators too expressed exhilaration and hope. Responding to a newspaper article published after the CP, Mark Barnier blogged as follows: “I was lucky enough to experience the Citizens Parliament as a facilitator. The discussion was sophisticated and the parliamentarians smart as whips…even though randomly chosen!!! Politicians have long suspected the electorate is smart…well we saw proof that it is…..real smart…and not fooled by constant spin and political fogging …. The CP representatives want more…more access to the system and democratic processes ….. and more ways to engage in debate and discussion of the country’s direction … A stunning experience/experiment for all involved.

For me, as the key designer of the 4 day deliberation and its co-lead facilitator, it felt like a being on stage in a TV drama where unscripted onstage and offstage dramas had a life of their own, and where the participants stepped up to become extraordinary. If anyone needed convincing that ‘ordinary’ people can create extraordinary outcomes, deliberating wisely and co-intelligently, then this Citizens’ Parliament was exemplary.

From the outset, the Citizens’ parliament demolished our assumptions that Australians are apathetic and disinterested in politics. Of the 8,000 randomly selected citizens who received an invitation to nominate to attend the Citizens’ Parliament to discuss our political system, some 3,000 responded positively (35%) – far exceeding our team’s highest predictions. Moreover, respondents said they ‘were honoured’, ‘felt privileged’ ‘were excited and delighted’ to have received an invitation.

From those respondents, the final 150 were selected, one per electorate – once again through random selection. The cross-section of gender, age, educational level and cultural background amongst participants deliberately reflected the diversity of our population.

The 3,000 who had expressed interest were invited to join an ‘Online Parliament’ to deliberate and develop proposals (using software developed by Brian Sullivan from CivicEvolution) that would form the agenda for the Citizens’ Parliament. Several hundred joined in the online deliberations.

The 150 attended one day regional meetings and received copies of the online proposals before attending the Citizens Parliament in the capital city, Canberra. Most had to fly in; and responding to a question from Senator Faulkner who opened the proceedings, more than half raised their hands to indicate they had never been to Canberra before.

The co-lead facilitator Max Hardy and I made every effort to maximise opportunities for Citizen Parliamentarian dialogue and deliberation. A number of different methods were used to get people thinking, sharing, weighing the pros and cons of the ideas and then prioritising them. These deliberative techniques included 21st Century Dialogue/Town Meeting, World Café, small group dialogue and deliberation, Reflective Panel, Fishbowl, Expert Panels, and a limited version of Open Space.

Throughout the proceedings, random sampling was featured, including computer generated random seating which changed daily; the random selection of tables to report back; and the final random selection from the list of Citizen Parliamentarians who had been recommended by their fellow CPs to present the Final Report to Government.

The CPs discussed and prioritised their values – the fundamental characteristics of a healthy political system they would like to leave to the next generation. Then, from a list of 52 proposal ideas to strengthen our democracy, that had been developed by the CPs during the deliberations, they eventually honed it down to the critical few. At the conclusion, the Citizens’ Parliament Final Report was officially handed to the Government for their consideration, and to the media (see www.citizensparliament.org.au).

The Citizens’ Parliament was funded by an Australian Research Council Linkage Grant in conjunction with an NGO committed to revitalizing our democracy, The new Democracy Foundation.

This CP is undoubtedly the most researched deliberation in the world. All table conversations were recorded and will be transcribed as were all plenary sessions, as well as discussions in the ‘back room’ between theme teamers and several of the facilitator debriefs. This research has been enabled through the help of John Gastil who succeeding in gaining an NSF Grant. In addition, Q Sorts were administered at several points in the process as were surveys. We should soon have some extraordinary new insights into the mechanics of deliberation and its impacts.

For me, it was an opportunity and experience of a lifetime – when one’s trust in the integrity and intelligence of ordinary citizens is affirmed, the synergy that can be attained by committed teams exceeds one’s wildest expectations, and all one’s anxieties are overcome by the overwhelming presence of ‘we the people’.

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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