In early 1999 Victorian premier Jeff Kennett addressed a conference of the Victorian Council of Social Services. Having made his mark on the slashing of services and privatisation of government owned assets this may seem an odd place to find him. Still, after the Liberal premier set out his government’s achievements in fixing Labor’s economic mess to rescue the state he told the audience of his commitment to social issues. While the budget wasn’t a bottomless pit, he had a long-term objective.
In the audience that day was Mary Crooks of the Victorian Women’s Trust. Crooks had been closely involved with a project, known as Purple Sage, that had sought the views of thousands of people about the current state and future direction of Victoria. This had found people were concerned with issues such as employment and job security, public health, transport and education, gambling, the loss of community services and sale of public assets along with the erosion of democracy. Quite at odds with the economic issues Kennett had noted.
“I thought,” Crooks says, “that if any Purple Sage participants knew that the Victorian Women’s Trust executive director and leader of the Purple Sage project was in the audience and did not challenge the premier they would have every right to be disappointed at their participation in the project.” To be seen as a waste of time would undermine all the work that had gone into the project and have a deep demoralising effect. So she stood and explained the Purple Sage project and the concerns participants had noted. “I’m also a believer in long-term planning,” she added, before asking, “What are your long-term objectives on these issues?”
Crooks recalls Kennett’s body language changed immediately and “he became abusive, accusing me of being very negative, ‘psychologically weird,’ and suggested I would be better off encouraging people to appreciate what they’ve got.” Something of a brawl ensued until a woman in the audience stood and demanded Kennett stop this abuse of a community leader and answer her question. Whereupon Kennett walked out.
A little later this was reported in The Age with Kennett’s leadership questioned.[ii] If grace under pressure were a mark of leadership, the report noted, Kennett had failed. Crooks also recalls that after seven years running the state this was the first time the media had questioned the perception of Kennett as a strong leader. Later that year he lost the election almost everyone had expected him to win.
For some time we have been witnessing a deepening malaise affecting politics and public life in Australia, along with much of the world. One manifestation of this is a growing lack of trust and respect for politicians and democratic institutions creating a broad and deep public disconnect.
This is demonstrated by the number of people who don’t vote and the numbers of young people who don’t bother enrolling to vote or believe that democracy is necessarily the best form of government.[iii] People who don’t engage with politics or parties – disengaged apoliticals – have been noted as a fast growing segment of the population.[iv] When people’s engagement with democracy is limited to voting at elections, often with hostility or resentment, it’s a weak democracy indeed.
So we celebrate democracy, vote every few years
Then we turn our gaze
Live in a haze
And get what we deserve
The causes of this malaise are many and interconnected with a long gestation period to reach the current state. These causes include the 24/7 news cycle and media lust for conflict with a focus on slip-ups or ‘gotcha’ moments, undoubtedly fuelled by politician’s endless capacity to avoid answering questions. Continuous polling and focus group input largely dictates the parties announcements and approach to agenda setting. Issuing members with daily talking points and being ‘on-song’ contributes to the dumbing down of political debate. An inability or unwillingness to explain complexity and justify decisions amounts to a denial of detail. Add to this the disavowal of consensus and opposition for opposition’s sake with endless slanging matches and a loss of basic civility as typified in question time and we see the adversarial nature of our system of representative government has become hyper-adversarial. The occasional call by politicians for a ‘mature national debate’ is not taken seriously amid the toxic and infantile ranting.
With the recent federal leadership change there is a marked and positive shift in the tone of the national political debate. This is evident in Malcolm Turnbull’s expressed desire to be an explainer of complex policy problems. It remains to be seen how this will play out in the medium and longer term and what impact it may have around the nation, on other levels of government, or on public sentiment.
The common practice of consultation adds to the disconnect. Consultation is often entirely meaningless, taking place after major decisions are made, with little opportunity to influence decisions. This is known as the DAD approach – a decision is made, it is announced and then defended. Back in 1969 a classification of levels of citizen participation noted consultation as tokenism, somewhere between placation and informing.[v] Pulling the wool over the public’s eyes in other words. In the decades since little has changed. The wool is still pulled so it’s no wonder many don’t bother. It is, after all, entirely rational to stay out of a discussion where you aren’t taken seriously.
The disconnect is deepened by the influence the rich and powerful have over policy setting. Seventy years ago economic historian Karl Polyani wrote that the public sphere consists of three interconnected elements: the market, government and civil society, and that democracy thrives when all three are in balance.[vi] Since the late 1980s the market has dominated, civil society has shrunk. Government is pliable, always susceptible to advocacy which is now dominated by the elites, the ‘haves.’ Income inequality, meanwhile, is on the rise, disproportionately affecting the ‘have-nots.’ An inadvertent enabling effect is provided by the increasing public disconnect. The more people look away the worse it gets. A cycle without virtue.
So what was it about the Purple Sage project that gave Mary Crooks the confidence and authority to challenge the all-powerful Victorian premier? Quite simply it was the authoritative and commonly repeated responses that had come from 6,000 people throughout Victoria who participated in the project.
These people met in small groups, usually in someone’s home, in a process known as a kitchen table conversation. This was not just the opportunity to talk but to take action such as asking well considered questions of candidates for the state election, sharing concerns with local media and contributing to a state-wide project report. “In the face of several years of grotesque behaviour there had been a retreat from politics and public life,” Crooks says. “Purple Sage turned that retreat.”
Kitchen table conversations are based on ageless ground rules that everyone is entitled to have a say, people listen and respect others opinions while being constructive and staying on track. This is a process of respectful dialogue between equals, not an opportunity for people to try and convince others their opinion is superior. People can disagree without being disagreeable. Civility is the norm. Hearing different perspectives can lead to people changing their opinion. It can also help people better understand the opinion they may have long held, without really knowing why. There is an element of deliberation when people carefully weigh up information and competing views before making a decision.
Before starting as executive director at the Victorian Women’s TrustCrooks had extensive experiences of public forums and consultations. “In many meetings with bureaucrats where consultation strategies were being planned it was taken for granted that these would be public forums. ‘That’s what we do,’ is what they commonly said,” Crooks recalls. She took to asking the bureaucrats how many public forums they had been to as citizens. “The answer was invariably none.” Crooks saw that these forums, where there is often more heat than light, were disempowering to many people. “To attend and claim a voice requires a level of confidence or anger and this doesn’t suit people who may fret on their feet or worry about saying something silly.”
Looking for a different approach to support serious discussion on serious issues she presented a paper to the VWT board proposing Purple Sage and using the kitchen table conversations as the main engagement tool. “People are not averse to chatting about serious issues, they do it every day,” she says. Reflecting on this she says she “had a hunch this suits women’s leadership style.” The issues confronting Victoria at this time – schools closing, people being discharged from hospital early for example – impacted negatively and mainly on women Crooks says. “It was mostly women who had to negotiate the impact of these decisions and most women’s preferred model is to sort things out by talking, by collaborating rather than emulating the bear pit of politics.” In the end around 85 per cent of group leaders were women and Crooks’ hunch was well vindicated. While there is support for group leaders Crooks is adamant there is no need for training in this task.
In 2012 Crooks was approached by Voice 4 Indi, a community group based in the north-east Victorian federal electorate of Indi. The group were concerned about widespread disengagement from politics, particularly by younger people. As Indi was considered a safe Liberal seat there was a perception they had little voice in Canberra. Alana Johnson, a VWT board member and resident of Indi has said “We felt that if we as interested community people didn’t demonstrate that we can do something about this, then we absolutely deserve the leadership we have.”[vii]
Voice 4 Indi were interested to learn about Purple Sage and replicate the kitchen table conversation approach to understand community feelings; what people were pleased by, concerned by. Crooks says this was different in that the kitchen table conversation approach hadn’t been applied to a single electorate before. An outcome of the Voice 4 Indi kitchen table conversations was a decision to support an independent, and ultimately successful candidate to the 2013 election – Cathie McGowan. Around 440 people participated in kitchen table conversations and the reporting of these heavily influenced McGowan’s campaign.
Crooks says the reporting follows three non-negotiable principles.[viii] First is comprehensiveness in that all input from participants must be absorbed, not just the input the organisers like or agree with. Second is traceability meaning that participants who read the report must recognise the sentiments and get the sense that they have been well heard. Third is faithfulness, where input from many groups is distilled with rigour and the essence summarised with meaning in a succinct paragraph that participants can own.
Crooks recalls a train trip to Wangaratta before the 2013 federal election to meet with the Voice 4 Indi group, glancing through a community survey distributed by the sitting Liberal member, Sophie Mirabella. “This was a typical political survey, poorly designed and almost push polling,” she says. “I used it with the Voice 4 Indi group to demonstrate the principles of reporting and show how to not to do it.”
Kitchen table conversations have a trickle down effect, where participants share their experience with others who have not participated. The approach energises people who sense they are being regarded as unique individuals with valuable contributions to make. They are being taken seriously, which social researcher Hugh Mackay has noted as the number one desire of Australians, sitting atop a list that includes the desire for control, for love and for something to believe in.[ix]
“It works to people’s better sides and they rise to the occasion,” Crooks says. “I’m not holding the kitchen table conversation up as a panacea but it is infinitely superior for providing a safe space to anything else traditionally used.” People engage and learn on their terms in their comfort zone.
There may be a weakness in a lack of diversity when a host convenes a conversation from among a group of friends, likely to hold similar worldviews. Some groups have made active attempts to include a wide range of people from different backgrounds.
Since McGowan’s success the role of kitchen table conversations in community engagement has become widely known and a number of groups have adopted this approach in different areas. Voice 4 Indi presented their campaign approach at a forum in June 2014 with around 70 people from Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and Tasmania. A similar forum is planned for late 2015.
Crooks recalls that shortly after Kennett lost office in 1999 she was invited to provide a briefing on the Purple Sage project to a group of Liberal and National women MPs at Parliament House in Melbourne. Crooks recalls this as “a little like entering a lion’s den – it was tense.” She told them in detail the sentiments people had expressed; that public assets were not the governments to sell. And offered another way. “It can’t be proven, but I believe,” Crooks told the group, “that if your government had taken people at trust and mounted the case for the sale of assets, acknowledging the role of the Victorian community in building those assets over the last century, and promised to commit one per cent from the sale to apprenticeship programs over the next ten years, you would still be in power.”
Crooks says that since that foray into ‘the lion’s den’ there have been no other approaches from conservatives. The default position of conservatism is acceptance and preservation of the status quo, rather than questioning or seeking change. The many groups that have adopted and sponsored kitchen table conversations appear to be from the progressive side of the political spectrum. In researching this essay I haven’t found any that are identifiably from the conservative side.
Kitchen table conversations are part of a long tradition of informal adult education, analogous with the consciousness raising groups supporting feminism and other social change movements. There are parallels with the lifelong learning of the study circle method embraced in the Scandinavian countries. These are the countries with the best socio-economic outcomes of any of the rich developed countries. This may be no coincidence. The kitchen table conversation brings an independence of spirit, an inherent decency and a comforting familiarity.
Community wellbeing, a local government community services association has noted, is “built from a foundation of participatory local democracy – good governance and active citizenship – together with a commitment to promoting social justice and the growth of local social capital.”[x]
There is strong anecdotal evidence from kitchen table conversation projects that the process builds relationships and trust – the basis of social capital. This has been outlined in an evaluation of a CSIRO community education program, modelled on the kitchen table conversation approach used by the Victorian Women’s Trust.[xi] In particular this has identified how the deliberation within kitchen table conversations supports the creation of a type of social capital known as bridging, noted for its diversity and inclusivity.[xii]
When people’s engagement with democracy is limited to voting at elections, often with hostility or resentment, it’s a weak democracy. The system needs revitalising and the level closest to the people is an obvious place to start. Applying the kitchen table conversation approach to local issues will add to the comforting familiarity. Local neighbourhood politics, if based on democratic dialogue and inclusive civic engagement, is the basis for a better society and so is well placed to help revive the lucky country’s politics. These local opportunities can provide a springboard and a model for reengagement at the higher levels of government – helping to fix the system.
So while the model of political debate on offer at the Federal level has taken a recent turn for the better, when it heads south again, which it invariably will, stronger local neighbourhood politics might be a buffer against widespread disengagement, a bulwark for democracy.
So how is this to take hold?
Progressive local government seeking genuine engagement is well-placed to take a lead. Unsurprisingly the local level of government is seen as best placed to provide people with a sense of place and belonging, ensuring liveability. Australians feel a strong emotional connection to the place where they live and local government is seen as a place shaper, as confirmed in recent research by the Australian Centre for Excellence in Local Government.[xiii] That research also found that people believe the best outcomes are when government, experts and community work together in decision making on the provision of services. Importantly, over 90 per cent of people want to be involved in making decisions about how and what services are delivered in their local area.
While local government is not immune to the malaise and public disconnect that afflicts the state and federal levels this is generally not to the same extent. Exceptions are often found in those areas where development pressures are high and investment money is at stake and where political ambition among elected councillors is strong. Local government has always been a stepping-stone to higher political office and the public interest is at risk of being swamped. State government agencies charged with oversight of local government are kept busy.
Pockets of well-entrenched resistance to new ways of doing things can be found in some local councils, where the ‘we were elected to make decisions’ strain of representative democracy holds sway. In these instances the door to engagement may be shut, and it is here that organised civil society can play a role sharing the leadership, initiating where necessary or when opportune. Besides, this is too important to be left to local government alone.
This, of course, takes organisation. Community organising has its roots in the United States civil rights movement. It is a noted profession in the US. This is where Barack Obama started. Community organising supports civil society, building capacity and leadership within community organisations. One description of community organising is the power of an organised community versus the power of organised money.
In Australia, the Sydney Alliance, established in 2011, is the most advanced community organising association, while the Queensland Community Alliance was established in 2013.[xiv] Interest is growing in other areas. As the names suggest these are alliances of groups across organisations – faith groups, schools, unions, charities and community service organisations. Alliances are built on personal relations – sharing stories and finding mutual values.
The recent case for a national public interest council supports local communities seeking to have greater influence on decisions that affect them.[xv] This council would counter the influence of well-organised and resourced organisations such as the Business Council of Australia and the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia. It would support a broader view of national wellbeing than economic indicators alone can provide. It would help overcome the disconnect this essay responds to.
Inclusiveness and diversity among participants is a key and organisers must be sensitive to this. Following on from initial privately hosted kitchen table conversations where there may be some limit to group diversity, sponsored public forums might replicate the conversations. Here, an element of random selection of group members could be introduced. Random selection matches gender, age, education and other relevant census statistics to produce a microcosm of the population, known as a mini-public. This would bring together the insistent – those keen to share their well-held views – and the invited, ensuring diversity.
These could be on the same topic as the initial conversation or related topics. Rather than being one off conversations they might build upon each other. These conversations might start with brief, accurate and balanced information or they might start from open questions. What matters to you? How would you like it to be?
Using these approaches large numbers of people can be engaged on a wide range of issues affecting them locally and on a regular basis. Spreading the decision-making, sharing the wisdom and experiences of the many. Making an informed decision on a complex issue is liberating. It changes people. Ancient wisdom from Confucius, 450 BC is still relevant today: tell me I forget, show me I remember, involve me I understand.
Citizens’ juries, policy panels and other deliberative democracy mechanisms, as championed by the newDemocracy Foundation, are gaining a hold in local government and have much to offer.[xvi] Lyn Carson, a deliberative democracy practitioner, academic and former local councillor has said that participation is like an unused muscle, it atrophies, but with adequate exercise it strengthens.[xvii]
Research into the relationship between happiness and both social and political participation suggests that when people are deeply engaged in a challenging activity – where some effort is required to develop a degree of skill – a condition known as flow develops.[xviii] Coming to grips with policy options, developing personal capacity and self-belief can develop flow. Creative opportunities are needed for the development of citizen flow.
These processes enhance the legitimacy of decisions because a range of people have participated, not a single or few decision makers. This provides elected representatives with a level of authority that they are truly expressing the will of the people. Just as Mary Crooks had the confidence and authority to challenge Jeff Kennett.
What sort of reconnection might arise as the head, heart and hands of active citizenship work together, interdependently? And how good would that feel, as individuals, as communities, and as a nation?
[ii] Bone, Pamela, ‘Kennett, a mediocre man without doubt,’ The Age, 22 April 1999
[iii] Lowy Institute for International Policy, ‘Lowy Institute Poll 2014,’ http://www.lowyinstitute.org/files/2014_lowy_institute_poll.pdf
[v] Arnstein, Sherry R., ‘A Ladder of Citizen Participation,’ JAIP, Vol. 35, No. 4 July 1969, pp. 216-224
[vi] I came across this reference to Polanyi’s work in an article by Amanda Tattersall, ‘Community organising aims to win back civil society’s rightful place,’ in Who speaks for and protects the public interest? Australia21, 2015
[vii] Capper, Sarah, ‘Kitchen Table Conversations: 21st Century Politics, Indi Style,’ Sheilas, Victorian Women’s Trust, 20 September 2013
[viii] These principles can be seen in “Voice 4 Indi,” the report of the initial 2013 kitchen table conversations,
[ix] Mackay, Hugh, 2010. ‘What makes us tick? The ten desires that drive us,’ Hatchette
[x] Wills, Jenny, ‘Just Vibrant and Sustainable Communities: A Framework for Progressing and Measuring Community Wellbeing,’ Local Government Community Services Association of Australia Inc., Townsville, 2001
[xi] This was on a water reform project known as WaterMark, that followed on from Purple Sage
[xii] van Kasteren, Yasmin, 2014 ‘How are householders talking about climate change adaptation?’ Journal of Environmental Psychology 40 (2014) 339-350
[xiii] Ryan, R., Hastings, C., Woods., R., Lawrie, A., Grant, B. 2015, ‘Why Local Government Matters: Summary Report 2015’ Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government, University of Technology Sydney Australia
[xv] Douglas, Bob, ‘The case for a national public interest council,’ in Who speaks for and protects the public interest? Australia21, 2015 http://www.australia21.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/ATT00055.pdf
[xviii] Barker, Chris and Martin, Brian (2011) ‘Participation: The Happiness Connection,’ Journal of Public Deliberation: Vol. 7: Iss. 1, Article 9. http://www.publicdeliberation.net/jpd/vol7/iss1/art9
I thank the Victorian Women’s Trust and Voices for Indi for their assistance in researching this essay and provision of images used throughout.
© Graeme Gibson 2015