Trust the people

After a recent presentation on community engagement strategies the blog asked what advice could be given to the Prime Minister, assuming he might listen, on the reconciliation referendum. The response: “Trust the people.”

The comment says much about Tony Abbott, much about the dire state of Australian politics and much about the evolving nature of community consultation and engagement.

Community consultation as a major exercise really started in Australia in the Whitlam years when a proliferation of policies and projects were rolled out and people in suburbs and regional cities were engaged in planning and implementing them. It quickly became fashionable and everybody was doing it with the inevitable assistance of consultants (the blog’s firm included). After a decade or so the system started to go off the rails. For a start some consultations became so interminable that people forgot what the consultation was actually about. In other cases consultation was really camouflage for achieving pre-conceived goals, although starting with an end goal was not illegitimate in itself. The blog’s firm helped introduce the first user pays water systems in Australia by using a consultation program which laid out options and gauged responses.

The problem with community consultation was always that it could be hijacked, as the Murray Darling Commission found to its horror when it held a series of meetings about changes in water policies. Irrigators who had probably never read Tom Wolfe’s description of how to Mau Mau the flak catchers were successfully implementing the technique up and down the rivers.

In recent years the emphasis has shifted to community engagement and social media and the internet have opened up new opportunities to consult and communicate. The 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission introduced new ways of enabling traumatised individuals and communities to tell their stories in a skilful balance between its forensic duties and its need to listen to the views of those whose communities and families had been devastated. In stark contrast the Abbott Governments trade union and home insulation Commissions were politically motivated witch hunts which either covered ground already covered or presented an expensive alternative to letting the police get on with their job.

The Royal Commissions into family violence and child abuse have focussed on letting people tell their stories which is an essential response to the cover ups and obstruction victims have encountered. Although one hopes the domestic violence Commission disregards the submission from an academic urging the creation of a graphic advertising campaign based, presumably, on the many graphic drugs, alcohol, road safety campaigns which have been proven failures. Interestingly, in the road safety case, the Victorian Transport Accident Commission appears to be adopting new strategies which focus more on information about safety and messages about the scope and certainty of penalties for drink driving.

But, back to the reconciliation referendum. The Prime Minister’s refusal to support indigenous consultation on the alleged grounds of it creating ‘us’ and ‘them’ situations, and leading to a ‘log of claims, is a combination of his capture by (and probable deep-seated personal support of) the extreme right of the party and the relentless political emphasis on what focus groups tell us about the worst of Australian attitudes. Instead of using focus groups as a means of establishing what’s possible and how to achieve change they are used to establish what can’t be done. Conservatives horror at anything resembling a Bill of Rights is obviously another factor even if the scale of their horror seems incomprehensible to most of us.

But the lessons of the Bushfires Royal Commission on community engagement are a blueprint for how it could be done. Trust the people. Use processes which allow people to be comfortable about giving their views. Respect the need to deal with trauma and devastation. Recognise that it is possible to combine strict legal needs with consideration of human emotions and concerns. Allow for indigenous cultural factors by closing the consultation to the media just as the Bushfires Royal Commission closed the community engagement sessions in which victims told their stories.

Almost six out of 10 of Australians disapprove of Tony Abbott – many of them simply because they don’t trust him, actively dislike him or have discovered the depths of his incompetence. Perhaps if he showed some indication to trust the people he might be able to turn things around – although whether they would trust, or believe, his offer to trust them is another question altogether.