Beyond Fear and Loathing – Keynote Address

In August 2013 I gave a keynote address at “Communities Shaping The Future,” the annual conference of the Local Community Services Association,” the peak body for neighbourhood houses and community centres in NSW.

I opened with: “I’m going to tell a story about local democracy and how it relates to community engagement and then try and draw together some threads that might resonate in your work in your centres, and in the broader communities you are part of. The story is in three parts: local resistance; regional activism and collective problem solving.”

The rest of the address follows:

Beyond Fear and Loathing

Graeme Gibson

Keynote Address

Local Community Services Association Annual Conference 2013 “Communities Shaping The Future”


I’m going to tell a story about local democracy and how it relates to community engagement and then try and draw together some threads that might resonate in your work in your centres, and in the broader communities you are part of. The story is in three parts: local resistance; regional activism and collective problem solving.

I see myself as a community development worker by inclination rather than by training, starting from a basic position that people have a right to be meaningfully involved in the decisions that affect them. No-one in this room would think otherwise. Few people, anywhere would openly challenge that, but the devil – as they say – is in the detail. What is meaningful to one person may be something entirely different to another.

Stereotypes are always dangerous, but they have their uses. Here’s a few you may know:

A community services worker, coping with inadequate resources to meet demand and the priorities of “core business”.

A politician, with an agenda drawn from a three or four year worldview, otherwise known as an electoral cycle.

A citizen, struggling with the family budget, kids and work while seeking some of life’s satisfactions in her spare time.

A bureaucrat, ultimately responsible to a political master, with many a box to tick.

In relation to community engagement or public participation, how would these people define meaningful? Hold on to that thought, I’ll return to it.

Part one: Local resistance

In 2006 a number of people from the same community where I live, on the NSW south coast, all members of a local civic group, tried to influence the future of our town, and in particular the local council’s development plans.

These plans were developed without any relevant – or meaningful – community input. Draft plans had been developed eight years earlier, with community input. Although these bore no resemblance to what was now proposed council consistently claimed this to be legitimate and the basis for their new plans.

We recognised the need to learn about planning and development to prepare us to help a broader range of people understand the plans, and to build relationships with both elected council and council staff.

We became a well organised, knowledgeable and credible group – able to argue a case with confidence and broad community support. Small rewards came. A senior council staff member was heard to say “we’re not used to this level of scrutiny.” People who had earlier given up any involvement in civic life rekindled their interest and support.

In a book I wrote about this period of adventure, Beyond Fear and Loathing: Local politics at work, I discuss this phase in a chapter called “Building”.

Our efforts saw our group maintaining community support, and, with increasing confidence, able to expose weaknesses and inconsistencies in council’s position, often through local media. In particular, the efforts which council took to manipulate and misrepresent people, positions and policy.

But everyone has a beating heart and effort went into maintaining a focus on the issue – rather than the individuals involved. This became a key operating principle; advice  that I offered and generally managed to follow.

In my book this phase is covered in a chapter called “Peaking”.

However council weren’t about to lie down, they were accustomed to getting things their way. There’s masses of investment money at stake, personal reputations and long-held ambitions to be honoured.

My book is subtitled Local politics at work, but this is more than the local elected council. It includes the vested interests, power brokers and old boys clubs who believe they know what’s best, and, if they aren’t actually running the show at least like to think they are.

So with support in certain quarters, the elected council toughed it out. Used tried and true political tactics, and waited. For the inevitable. For people to get worn down by the small town conflicts. These were not the sort of fair or civilised conflict that acknowledges the right of those you disagree with to hold their positions. These were rancorous conflicts where opponents were viewed as evil, and characterised by vilification, deception and punishment or its threat.

In research for the book, trying to understand how and why things had happened – or not – I came across the work of Bent Flyvbjerg, a Danish professor of town planning who, when paraphrased, seems to sum up our experience when he said:

“The influential, the dominant, the powerful do not have to be rational. Rather they demand, they expect and they usually get their way.

On the other hand those without influence, dominance or power can rely on little more than rational argument – the argument of the weak”.

Our well researched and widely supported rational arguments were indeed the argument of the weak.

Ultimately council were rewarded for their long-term persistence and faith in the DAD approach to community consultation. This is where a policy or plan is first Decided, then Announced, after which it is Defended – for as long as necessary.

They adopted, with minimal amendment, their preferred plan for development in Huskisson, the town I live in.

This is documented in my book in a chapter called Falling.

Building, Peaking, Falling – Roman empire-ish.

Part two: Regional activism

This whole exercise was, however, much more than character building. A great deal of learning – deliberate and incidental – took place. An inquiring mind goes a long way and the more you look the more you see. Lights in dark places revealed:

  • The extent of developer donations and their perceived connections to decisions and approvals
  • Proposed public land sale at “discounted” prices
  • Creative and selective use of information – which I described as “Avoiding the burden of the full story”
  • Appalling conduct in council meetings, and
  • Poor relationships between elected council and staff

These are the standard hallmarks of dysfunctional local government, where- ever it occurs in Australia, and they were all well in place here.

During this time relationships and networks were formed with groups and individuals in other areas of the city who also struggled for influence over their future. At a key point where it was clear council were determined to hold their course and stare down opposition a new group formed, holding a broader view and with a far more ambitious goal.

Starting from an initial sincere, well informed, well argued attempt to influence development planning in a local area, this project had now snowballed into a goal of changing the council at the elections (of 2008). Or sooner, with ministerial intervention.

The pressure of building this new association was immense with an enormous workload, and as usual, too few people to share the work. Writing back in the 1970s in Rules for Radicals, American community organiser and activist, Saul Alinsky offered sage advice:

“Power is not only what you have, but what an opponent thinks you have. If your organisation is small, hide your numbers in the dark and raise a din that will make everyone think you have many more people than you do.”

Very comforting, from my perspective of where we were.

It may also support my view that sometimes by doing something you can make other things happen – even when you don’t know what they might be. This is an uncomfortable experience for people who need to know not just where they are headed but also how they will get there. Accepting and engaging with those uncertainties is time consuming, but ultimately builds your support base and provides learning opportunities.

Apart from taking time to deal with the sceptical or uncertain, and monitoring the ferociously opposed, the workload included:

  • Supporting the committed
  • Developing submissions to Ministers for Local Government and Planning
  • Organising a public petition (to support the submissions), signed by 6,000 people
  • Maintaining an active media presence
  • Continuing research into questionable council arrangements, many of which were in breach of local government legislation. Much of this was supported by leaking of confidential papers – which provided a morale boost

In my writing I called this phase “Making it up as you go along”.

As the election drew near fund raising and the recruitment and support of volunteers – and candidates – became increasingly important. This required careful scrutiny to weed out the racists, the single issue candidates and the overly self-interested.

All this was in the face of an organised and experienced political party with an advertising budget, and campaign tactics that included bullying, personal intimidation and legal threats.

In the final weeks before the election vast numbers of people became actively involved. Our campaign had momentum and although not uniformly spread throughout the city, wide support. Much of our work provided opportunities for others and the impetus for change. A new mayor and eight new councillors was the outcome. The aim of breaking the previous power bloc was achieved. Our aim of supporting the election of three independent councillors was two thirds met. Overall a satisfying result.

So what was learnt from all this?

Shortly after the election the association held its annual general meeting. So much energy had gone to a single focus, with a satisfying result, but the previous levels of commitment were not sustainable.

Maintaining a less active role and aiming to be better prepared for elections, four years away was an option.

Accepting that the association’s primary goal had been achieved and now closing down was also a legitimate option.

There is however no appeal in either of these options. There is no ongoing learning or continuity, no improvement, no likelihood of sustainable progress as community memory, strengths and skills are lost.

Ultimately (with no disrespect to those involved at that time) inadequate attention was paid to the association’s future or its support base. The association floundered. The support switched off. In the 2012 elections (and admittedly in the face of an enormously popular federal member standing as mayor) it was decimated. No genuinely independent community representatives were elected.

So we celebrate democracy, vote every few years

Then we turn our gaze, live in a haze

And get what we deserve

Taken from Foolproof, unpublished poem by the author

Part three: Collective problem solving

My book is called Beyond Fear and Loathing and I want to focus now on the Beyond part of that – collective problem solving, within a big picture – and return also to the stereotypical people I sketched earlier. These were:

A community services worker, coping with inadequate resources to meet demand and the priorities of “core business”.

A politician, with an agenda drawn from a three or four year worldview, otherwise known as an electoral cycle.

A citizen, struggling with the family budget, kids and work while seeking some of life’s satisfactions in his spare time.

A bureaucrat, ultimately responsible to a political master, with many a box to tick.

How do these people define meaningful?

Taking a big picture view I would say Australia’s system of representative democracy is stable but weak. We aren’t about to have an Arab spring, we can withstand vigorous sometimes violent protest. But when people’s engagement with democracy is limited to voting at elections, often with hostility or resentment, it’s a weak democracy. Think on the number who have not enrolled for this years federal election.

Ignorance, apathy, disillusionment and hostility towards governments and political processes is widespread throughout Australia, as with much of the western democratic world.

Many years ago I was involved in the adult and community education part of a civics and citizenship education program. I learnt much about what people know and don’t know and have been alarmed ever since. A colleague from that time put it this way:

“The problem is not that people don’t know the difference between the Senate and the House of Representatives (in Canberra). The problem is people know they don’t know the difference but they don’t think it matters.”

This ignorance and disillusionment is felt throughout civil society – the sum total of voluntary collective action based on shared interests, purposes and values of groups and associations. We see it in participation levels within clubs and societies, most acutely at the committee or board level where many struggle for membership.

Jim Ife, community development worker and academic, points out that participation in civil society does not sit easily within the “dominant individualist, consumer basis of society, and contradicts the socialisation of many people”.

Ife sees three problems:

1         Finding the balance between rights (to services and support) and responsibilities (to contribute to the community). This is problematic as embedding a responsibility to contribute can not be forced.

2         Co-optation – where those elected to committees or boards lose touch with their base and get swept along with the powerful. This manifests itself as Stockholm syndrome.

3         Tokenism – where people’s participation can’t make any difference, as seen in the DAD approach to consultation.

Hugh Mackay, psychologist, social researcher and author, has noted the number one desire of the Australian people is the desire to be taken seriously. To be acknowledged, recognised, appreciated, valued and remembered sits above a list that includes the desires for control, for love and for something to believe in.

About a year ago a discussion about democracy on ABC Radio National saw a couple of invited program guests (presumably chosen for their interest and knowledge on the subject) expressing their view that, on the whole, Australians are happy to outsource decision making to politicians. There was, they claimed, little appetite for closer engagement.

I suspect this is because most people haven’t experienced engagement that takes them seriously and provides an opportunity to have real influence on a decision. Engagement that provides an opportunity to come to grips with complexity, weigh up diverse viewpoints and options before making a considered decision. These opportunities can be found in deliberative democracy.

Deliberation means careful consideration before decision. For many people this is not the usual experience when making decisions in the public arena.

Deliberative democracy is a proactive process where citizens engage in the policy decision-making process at the earliest stages. In deliberation people take note of and question expert opinion. They share their personal views with the aim of finding common ground, while recognising differences. Decision-making follows reasoned and respectful discussion. Consensus does not become an obsession.

There are three criteria for fully democratic deliberative approaches:

1              The process must have the ability to influence decision making

2              The process should be representative of the population and inclusive of diverse viewpoints and values with equal opportunity for all to participate

3              The process must provide opportunities for deliberation, with access to information, respect, time, and space for understanding issues and moving towards consensus

Deliberative democracy takes many forms. Participatory budgeting, deliberative polls and 21st century town meetings engage large numbers of people. Citizens’ juries, citizens’ panels and consensus conferences engage smaller numbers.

These processes are more about enabling citizens to participate in joint problem solving than merely inviting them to have a say. During deliberation, self-interest is put aside as the consequences of different options are explored. And it works.

A few examples:

In 2010, after it had developed its community strategic plan, Waverley Council carried out an extensive process of consultation about options to overcome financial shortfalls. The outcome of this was community support for a rate increase of 12% each year for the next seven years. Support for that level of rate increase is never going to be found through outsourcing. At Waverley it came by taking people seriously, giving them real choices and opportunities to learn and understand. They also had a variety of ways to participate other than at a public meeting, where there is usually more heat than light.

In 2012 Canada Bay Council formed a citizen’s panel of 32 local residents to help develop a four-year budget. Similar to a jury, the residents were randomly selected and have an age and gender mix that mirrors the census statistics for the area. They look like any 32 people you would see in the street. Not a “usual suspect” in sight, none of them had ever been to a council meeting before joining the panel. None had any interest in standing for election to council. That may change as a result of their involvement in the panel and that may well be a very good thing.

Earlier this year the South Australian government announced a citizens’ panel to address the issue of anti-social behaviour and alcohol related violence in Adelaide. A randomly selected group focused on this issue is far removed from the usual approach to this sort of issue that would see most input restricted to stakeholders and special interest groups. A deliberative democracy approach could be applied in many areas on this issue.

Given the right forum and the opportunity citizens do take the trouble to learn, to struggle with complex issues and make informed decisions.

Unlike elected politicians citizens do not have to worry about their political party, policies or media profile. They just focus on making good decisions.

Lyn Carson, deliberative democracy practitioner, academic and former local councillor says that cynicism and distrust does not equal apathy. Participation, she says, is like an unused muscle, it atrophies and so with adequate exercise it can be strengthened.

While parameters can be applied to deliberative approaches outcomes can not be predicted, which is a major concern for those who need to maintain control and value certainty.=

“The virtue of uncertainty is not a comfortable idea,” Canadian writer John Ralston Saul said, “but then a citizen-based democracy is built upon participation, which is the very expression of permanent discomfort”.

Some critics have claimed that deliberative democracy is an abrogation of leadership responsibilities. After all a leader’s got to lead they say, not look weak or indecisive. Others say it is little more than a talk-fest, the process is biased or that it is overly idealistic.

Increasing participation through deliberative processes provides realistic and meaningful opportunities for relationship building and individual personal development. It’s liberating, it changes people.

It supports civil society, a community of active citizens in asset mode, not deficit mode. Once learned, deliberative habits can be applied broadly, not just held for full deliberative democracy processes.

The ancient wisdom of Tell me I forget, Show me I remember, Involve me I understand remains relevant today.

To be sustainable, collective problem solving needs to involve the range of people affected – not just the self-interested, the self-selected. Deiberative democracy has much to offer, but, as with anything worthwhile, not without its challenges.

So how might these deliberative processes be accepted, adopted and embraced by our (stereotypical) community services worker, our politician, a citizen, and the bureaucrat?

This afternoon’s workshops provide an opportunity to deliberate over this.

Thanks for listening.

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