In the USA and beyond, 8 November, 2016, may go down in history as the turning point for a new era. The urge to try and make sense of it all will inevitably lead to thousands of articles, books, and theses and so on for decades to come. Everything is topsy-turvy.
In the same week in South Australia, the experiment with the citizens’ jury did not end well for a ‘high-level nuclear waste repository’ led recovery. The Jury’s report not only found the arguments for the dump unconvincing, it expressed a lack of trust in a SA government (Labor or Liberal) ‘…managing large economic projects and nuclear issues.’
The report cites failures of the government of the day to safeguard community interests in relation to mining, economic and other projects dating back to the 1950’s. It also references the State Bank, sale of ETSA and the Motorola affair.
The key charge is that having failed to protect communities from harm in the past, governments will be unable to do so into the future.
Is this report indicative of broader concerns in relation to government? Is SA heading for its Trump moment too?
Trump supporters believe he can deliver change that they want to see. Even if they feel disenfranchised by the elite, they still cling to the idea that change is possible.
The alternate view is that many of the changes they want to see are outside the influence of government in a global economy, and in the context of the power of major corporations. ‘Reshoring manufacturing’, repatriating billions of dollars that major companies keep offshore, creating mass numbers of jobs seem unlikely.
Trump supporters believe that ‘America can be great again’ – whatever that means.
Trump supporters have some faith in politicians, the electoral process and the potential for change. What if this hope is not fulfilled? What happens next? Where do they go?
The election comes at a time when national governments are arguably less relevant than they used to be. Most people live in cities, cities are powering the world economy, and cities are demonstrating how local leadership can bring about major changes in the lives of their residents.
Climate change is being addressed far more successfully at city levels. Cities are exploring technology and the ‘internet of things’. Cities are improving the conditions for economic growth and leading social innovation.
Cities are where wealth is generated and where most opportunities can be found. But big changes are on the horizon there too.
Driverless vehicles may mean the loss of millions of jobs across the world. Robots may destroy up to 40% of all jobs. Many cities in the west will lose out to those in the east. We don’t really know what our future looks like.
So as these changes play out who will ultimately be held to account? National leaders? City leaders? Neither or both?
The citizens’ jury expressed a lack of trust in any government delivering long-term, successful economic programs for SA. It took more than a 50-year view. Governments rarely do. High-Level Nuclear Waste demands a longer view again.
It’s ironic that SA recently hosted ‘Open State’ a two week festival around democracy and ideas. SA is building a reputation as an ‘engagement state’ – doing interesting things such as holding citizen juries. These innovations can set SA apart and build its ‘brand’.
But the government itself needs to be sophisticated and creative enough to engage at the level demanded of it. And ‘government’ means elected government, opposition, independent members and bureaucrats. If it is to innovate around engagement processes, it needs to transform itself as well. It needs to be capable of engaging in sophisticated conversations. It needs to listen, not just talk. The government might be lagging citizens, its own systems may be falling behind.
One small point. When was the last time a SA minister attended a seminar or talk not just to open it and leave, but to be a quiet member of the audience and listen? Where is the evidence of political leaders interested in ideas and engaging with them?
Citizens have lost trust in government. Governments have lost faith in the long-term as well.
Politicians announce projects they know will never be delivered. They make promises they know they won’t be able to keep. Just remember Hawke’s promise that ‘no Australian child will live in poverty’.
They thoughtlessly promise things and then abandon all commitment once they’re elected. They don’t seem to care that this corrodes democracy.
If anything, the message from the citizens’ jury is a welcome gift to the state. It served its purpose. It gave the community a voice in a way that wasn’t made bland by the typical engagement workshop and ‘sticky note’ approach.
But is the government – and the opposition – capable of hearing that things have got to change in fundamental ways?
The move towards new forms of engagement is the right instinct. The trouble is that governments get paralysed by the way communities contest even the most minor of issues. Such as protected bike lanes. They can tend to pander to interests rather than lead.
Governments need some humility in relation to their capacity to deliver. They need to be able to paint visions of the future. But they need to make serious effort to deliver, even when things get tough. The electorate needs better ways to hold them to account – beyond the electoral cycle which is too blunt an instrument. Fury with one part of their platform may not represent the total story.
We are used to consumer protection laws now, but many years ago they didn’t exist. What’s the equivalent in politics? Can we create an instrument that holds governments to account for their promises? Until we are able to, politicians will feel free to promise the earth, the lives of future generations and all sorts of things they don’t intend to deliver, just because they can. The worst consequence for them is that they lose an election.
The consequences for citizens, now and in the future, are far more significant. Citizens (and citizen juries) know it.