Electioneering: Whose “say” is it anyway? by Zach Kitsche

A Citizens' Assembly on Climate Change – Is it power to the people or an attempt by the Government to look like it’s doing something whilst not doing much at all?

When the Government announced it’s renewed position on Climate Change last week, the Opposition derided the idea of a 150-person citizens' assembly as “a carbon copout”. The Greens also thought so, calling it “very fuzzy”.

Although it seems there has been mainly negative things said about Gillard’s “movement forward” on climate change, a new party is looking to platform itself on just this kind of engagement.

Berge Der Sarkissan is the founder of Senator Online; a political party that aims to take democracy one step further by nominating senate candidates, who, if elected would put each senate vote to the public through an online polling website. They would also use focus groups, citizen parliaments and other engagement techniques to develop new policy proposals.

Senator Online did run candidates at the 2007 election however secured just 8000 votes across News South Wales, South Australia, Western Australia, Victoria and Queensland. Der Sarkissan says that they have since developed a greater profile and are hoping for a larger share of the votes this time around. The party plans to run two candidates per state, with the addition of candidates in Tasmania this year.

The question that needs to be asked is whether or not their proposed policy process is likely to be any more representative than that of the current political parties. Aren’t politicians already answerable to their electorates, and thus in Canberra to represent the views of the people? Der Sarkissan says that Senator Online would be different, as his mechanism would take the party politics out of the equation. “Politicans aren’t doing their jobs,” he says, “Are they taking the position of the public or the position of their party?”

It’s questionable how such a process would actually work; presumably we’d see the same politicking by the left and right around issues such as asylum seekers, the climate and industrial relations. We would likely see each side rallying supporters who would just inundate the site with votes for a particular point of view. Would Gillard’s “average Australians” have their say or would it just become another battleground between those at the ends of the political spectrum? Whilst the intent of true democracy is admirable, Der Sarkissan’s vision of success might not follow.

He criticises the way the climate debate has been handled, pointing to a lack of information as being the real issue; “I think people need information that’s as non-biased and as accurate as possible. As we’ve said on the website, we’d be trying to encourage productive discussion on those issues.” He’s also critical of the fact Gillard’s proposed assembly on climate policy will be made up of “ordinary Australians” with “no expertise in the field of Climate Science”. You have to ask how that coalesces with his community engagement platform, but at least it is refreshing to see something a bit different in this campaign.

This cross-post is from Express Media’s Electioneering blog, a regular look at what young people are thinking about the election campaign.