The Real Challenge of Climate Change

This was published (in Chinese) as an op-ed in the People’s Daily (Beijing) on 25 July 2013, they gave it the title of ‘The Challenge of Climate Change in the Anthropocene’. The authors are John S. Dryzek and David Schlosberg.

The fact that climate change presents a great challenge to the world is widely recognized, but the real depth of the challenge is not. The most profound aspects of the challenge do not lie in the science of climate change, or the technical aspects of policies that might be chosen to confront it (such as a tax on carbon dioxide, or a ‘cap and trade’ scheme to limit greenhouse gas emissions). Rather, they lie in the way the world’s main economic, social, and governance systems operate and how they interact with ecological systems.

These human systems were not designed, and did not evolve, to cope with issues like climate change. National governments in particular were designed or evolved to cope with three broad categories of issues: ensuring economic growth, maintaining security both internally and externally, and providing for social welfare. Of course governments do not always succeed in these three tasks, but they are generally organized to at least try to succeed, and we have some idea about reasons for success and failure.

Climate change is different. It drives home the idea that we are entering a new and unstable era in which human influences are primary drivers of the Earth system – this is what some scientists now call the ‘Anthropocene’. The Earth system may react in potentially catastrophic ways: changing patterns of rainfall, flood and drought, extreme weather events, sea level rise, the movement of climates between regions, and even the creation of new kinds of regional climates, with all kinds of consequences for human wellbeing. Human civilizations evolved in a very different ‘Holocene’ era of the past 10,000 years in which the Earth system was much more stable.

At the global level, twenty years of UN-sponsored negotiations have failed to produce an effective treaty to bring greenhouse gas emissions under control. Global governance mechanisms designed for economic and security issues have not worked when it comes to climate change.

At this global level no less than elsewhere, the dominant response to failure has been for everyone to continue doing more of the same as what they were already doing. So government negotiators still behave as though a comprehensive global treaty is possible. Civil society organizations and lobbyists still focus their efforts on influencing these negotiations.  Scientists continue to conduct more research. Economists continue to produce more estimates of the costs of climate change. Policy makers worry about the design details of emissions trading or offset schemes. Organized climate change deniers financed by powerful fossil fuel interests continue to strive to undermine the science and so block any action (though they are prominent only in the United States, Canada, and Australia).

How then can we begin to think about a more effective response? Responding effectively to climate change will require many linked things, at multiple levels, rather than one big thing (such as a global treaty). Of course societies need to move in the direction of an economy that does not depend on fossil fuels, but that is only part of the story. Such moves need to be made without waiting for an international agreement, and in ways that do not sacrifice development goals; renewable technologies such as solar and wind are already emerging to make this happen, and can be adopted almost anywhere in decentralized ways that suit the local environment.

But then what does development itself mean? We are used to thinking about development in terms of growth in national income. Yet such growth does not necessarily translate directly into growth in human wellbeing. Once basic needs have been satisfied and a decent level of income achieved, more material income does not produce more happiness. New economic thinking should be able to envisage economies that are not geared to unlimited material growth, but rather that serve ourselves and our descendants, while respecting the integrity of social-ecological systems on which human life depends. Material production can be organized such that the sourcing, flow, and disposal of materials do not undermine the functioning of ecological systems. Economies can flourish with more durable products and more sustainable production processes that take into account the crucial role played by the environment in which human beings live, as well as being guided by human values such as equity and justice.

As much as we plan for such a future, climate change is already upon us and is here to stay, so we need to develop thorough and effective adaptation strategies to cope with the impacts of climate change when they do arrive. Again, adaptation planning is not one big thing, and certainly does not require any global agreement. Climate change will hit different communities in different ways at different times – through heat stress, disease, drought and food insecurity, sea rise and storm surges, flooding or fires. Vulnerabilities can be lessened by effective preparation and awareness, especially if communities have the social capacity to prepare and act collectively, and can cultivate constructive relationships with ecological systems. Communities should not see themselves as somehow separate from, or at war with, nature.

Finally, developing a new economy and turning toward effective adaptation to climate change will also require new forms of governance. We noted at the outset that existing forms of government were not designed to cope with a challenge of the sort that climate change presents. So what might effective climate governance look like?

Around the world we see many innovations and experiments, such as local ‘transition towns’, cooperative arrangements to install or transfer clean technologies, or networks to oversee emissions trading schemes. We still lack obvious positive examples of forms of climate governance that are good enough on a scale big enough. Yet we know that some governance arrangements do better than others. We know plenty about the reasons for failure, and in theory quite a bit about arrangements that ought to work better.

What climate governance at all levels really needs is a capacity to deliberate about its own reform. In this light, effective governance is not just a matter of securing cooperation among all those with the capacity to act—it also requires opportunity for contestation in governance systems, to promote social learning about what does and does not work. Nobel prizewinner Elinor Ostrom spoke of a ‘polycentric’ approach to climate governance, involving many different kinds of initiatives at all scales, from the local to the global, but we also need ways to join these forms to common purposes through effective and open communication.

Climate change is now a permanent feature of the human condition, our constant companion as we move into a more unstable environmental era. It is too late to stop it completely, but we can bring it under control, and adapt our social, economic, and governance systems to cope with its effects. Climate change is a mirror in which humanity can see its best and worst sides. If the worst currently seems to dominate, it does not have to stay that way.  This is our challenge.

Professors John Dryzek (Australian National University) and David Schlosberg (University of Sydney) are co-authors, with Professor Richard Norgaard (University of California, Berkeley), of Climate-Challenged Society,  to be published in October 2013 by Oxford University Press.


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Deliberative democracy and the media

Deliberative democracy is based on the principle that politics should be inclusive, deliberative and consequential. This means that there need to be mechanisms to ensure that all those affected by collective decisions should be able to influence the outcome and that this should involve a process of reason and reflection.

Reflection on important issues cannot occur in an information vacuum. We need inputs into our decision making and the better the quality of that information, the better the capacity for us to reflect on what outcomes we think should be aimed for. Certainly there is a tendency to overplay the role of information alone in considering our positions. The common refrain from those concerned about inaction on climate change, for example, is that the public needs to be better informed. But information alone isn’t enough. There is plenty of that out there already. The problem lies in the way that it is put together, the context in which it is presented, and the level of trust in sources of information that reflect the complexity and nuances of the issue, while still being accessible.

In other words, we also need to consider the need for information to be provided in ways that enable us to side-step fallibility in modes of reasoning, such as the tendency to only seek information the reinforces our pre-existing positions (referred to as motivated reasoning, or commitment bias) or to draw intuitive conclusions that sometimes poorly reflect the substance of the issue (referred to as type 1 reasoning, or peripheral processing; as opposed to type 2 reasoning or cognitive processing). These are motivational issues that I’ll write about another time.

But no matter how well intentioned the motivations behind our political reasoning, it will be fallible to the extent that the information available is poor either in the way it is synthesised, balanced or if it attempts to misdirect or deceive. Not all forms of information are equal, nor trustworthy, if the intention of those providing the information is strategic (i.e. seeks to achieve a particular outcome beyond providing information, especially one that is in their direct interest) as opposed to communicative. Indeed, when it comes to climate change there are many sources of information that are provided strategically, but working out who to trust is difficult, especially when the issue, such as climate change, is so complex. Trust in scientists themselves has been undermined from some sectors. Some scholars, such as Ainslie Kellow (a former mentor of mine) argue that, no matter how well founded climate change is per se, the science has been over-egged in some instances — a perception that has not been helped by the famous ‘climate-gate’ emails. In a world where everybody communicates strategically, no matter how well intentioned, the overall effect is a decrease in trust.

So the question becomes, who can we trust to provide trustworthy information? It is well established that the news media (or fourth estate) has traditionally been important to the functioning of a healthy democratic system. Quality journalism (ideally) identifies issues and synthesises information for public consumption, providing a range of views that permit members of the public to develop well-informed positions, which are, in turn, ideally expressed through the political system via formal and informal mechanisms such as voting, public opinion etc. Ideally there is a kind of self-regulation in operation where there is an incentive for news media to provide considered and trustworthy information to consumers, who should be in a position to judge the quality of the information and whether they are willing to pay for it, or simply spend the time to digest it.

However, this assumption appears to be increasingly challenged, with traditional modes of journalism apparently under threat — both for better and for worse. There are a number of reasons why this appears to be happening, not least in the face of technological innovations delivering vast amounts of freely accessible information, undermining the ability of news outlets to fund what we refer to as ‘quality journalism’ — an issue that is identified by Michelle Grattan in her piece in the Conversation. This is a kind of supply side problem where the cost structure is affecting the ability to afford good quality journalism. Another supply side problem involves the concentration of media ownership (partly due to cost pressures) and the potential for the strategic use information going hand in hand with increasing political power, should the motivations of media proprietors switch from mere information provision and profit to activism — a charge that has been levelled a more than one proprietor in recent times.

But there is also related a demand side problem in which information overload and freely available information at that, undermines the appetite of citizens, as consumers of that information, to seek out and fund quality journalism, or to make discerning judgements about what they are reading. And there are longer-term effects that appear to in play as well. The news companies, who are under such tight constraints, need to find ways to attract readers. And in some cases there is a tendency to ‘dumb’ down content, seeking to titillate rather than inform. Or there can be increasing Balkanisation of news outlets who increasingly cater to the specific beliefs of their audience, stroking their sensitivities for profit. The effect is to entrench perspectives even further and produce information enclaves where whole sections of society get their information from entirely different sources, each supporting different conclusions. The result is a spiral into partisanship, and refusal to take into account competing perspectives, with the market catering for the demand for information that provides a firewall against any perspective that doesn’t accord with a consumers’ worldview. The same thing occurs in online groups, who can more easily find others with their own, sometimes extreme views, facilitated by technology.

Good democratic process requires that we, the citizens open our minds to competing perspectives, even if we ultimately reject opposing arguments. We need sources of information that digest these views and present them in ways that are trustworthy. It is the ultimate expression of freedom of choice, to actively choose among alternative, rather than blindly ignore them.

The ideal model of journalism that seeks to illuminate these alternatives seems increasingly under threat. Although there are alternative models to traditional media that do seem to provide ‘quality journalism’, they seem to be outcompeted by fragmented, biased information sources or even outright propaganda.

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Presidential debates – and deliberations

Barack Obama believes in deliberative democracy. As he puts it in his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope:

“What the framework of our constitution can do is organize the way in which we argue about our future. All of its elaborate machinery – its separation of powers and checks and balances and federalist principles and Bill of Rights – are designed to force us into a conversation, a “deliberative democracy” in which all citizens are required to engage in a process of testing their ideas against an external reality, persuading others of their point of view, and building shifting alliances of consent.”

I have no idea what Mitt Romney thinks about deliberative democracy. I doubt that he believes in it, but then he seems not to believe in anything  very strongly.

The  televised presidential debates are the antithesis of deliberation. They feature  personal attacks, cheap point scoring, pandering to the perceived distribution of opinion in the audience, distortions of the truth, coded messages to particular groups of supporters. Obviously the candidates care only about winning, and doing whatever they can to facilitate that.

We have three debates between the two major party candidates: why not a deliberation as well? This could be moderated by a facilitator versed in standard deliberative principles. So it would rule out ad hominem attacks; it would encourage reasoned discussion of the issues, respectful listening, sticking to the point under discussion, an effort at reciprocal understanding, and an attempt to persuade.

Now the very point of an election campaign is to win, so it is hard to imagine a presidential deliberation being accepted by either side in the campaign. There is an obvious solution: hold the deliberation after the election. Aside from its potential contribution to reasonable resolution of issues that gets distorted by the unremittingly adversarial nature of the campaign, it could actually contribute to the legitimacy of what whoever is elected subsequently wants to do – because that program will have been subject to a moment of deliberation by someone representing many of those who did not vote for the winning candidate. As a moment of closure, it would be much better than the simple claim of victory by one candidate, and conceding of defeat by another.

John Dryzek

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Deliberating around the world

From October 5th to 7th 2012 an interesting deliberative event was realized in Italy. The experiment took place in Monteveglio (BO) Emilia Romagna, a region which has had historically a primary role in the political development of modern Italy.  In mid-November, citizens from five different municipalities (a total of about 30,000 people) nearby the city of Bologna will be called to decide whether to proceed with an amalgamation proposal put forward by the local administrations. In occasion of this referendum a three days assembly was realized. The aim was to give to 20 quasi-randomly selected citizens an opportunity to deliberate on the referendum question and share their insight with the broader community. The Iniziativa di Revisione Civica (Civic Revision Initiative) presents the first Italian deliberative event inspired by the seminal model of the Oregon’s Citizens’ Initiative Review although the former did have its own peculiar features. The area where the Iniziativa di Revisione Civica was hosted is a very dynamic political environment and citizens as well as speakers appeared remarkably good in participating to this new type of assembly. The Iniziativa di Revisione Civica is also of particular interest to our D2G2 Centre as we offered scientific advice there and conducted research to understand the quality and the possible impact of this deliberative forum on the wider community. Interesting findings are expected over the next months!

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A deliberative proposal for psychological experimentation

The field of social psychology is dominated by the experimental paradigm. The typical participant in social psychological experiments is an undergraduate that takes part in the experiment either because of course requirements or because there is some reward being offered. Voluntary or non-rewarded participation is rare. One could therefore say that participants are coerced into being researched.  Moreover and typically, experiments use deceptive methods in order to keep participants naive about what is going on.

While this state of affairs is perhaps most typical of psychological science it is not unfamiliar to other social sciences such as sociology or political science. From a deliberative democratic perspective, such an arrangement is anything but democratic or deliberative. Although mandatory ethics require that participants are debriefed after the experiment has taken place and then have an option to have their data withdrawn from the research record if they choose, an irreversible deliberative democratic breach has already taken place. The question is whether psychology departments could  approach the issue of experiment participation differently.

There are several reasons why psychology and other social science departments are dependent on undergraduates and their participation in experiments. One reason is pure pedagogical. Participation in an experiment gives first hand insight into the process. Undergraduates gain an experiential understanding of the process of experimentation and students who later choose a path in science have a better understanding of experimentation from a participant’s point of view. A second reason is more utilitarian in that it simply provides researchers with their object of study. A third reason could be said to be a more altruistic one in that both researcher and participant are contributing to further the understanding of human functioning in the world.

It is perhaps this last reason that social scientists could capitalise on in promoting a more deliberative way of gaining access to research participants. First year undergraduates normally have to participate in a stipulated number of experiments in order to received their grades. Could this be done deliberatively? I believe so. Why not have a lecture where students are informed about science, the way it is conducted and its dependence on people’s willingness to put themselves up as the objects of research? It could be argued that a dependence on willingness only leads to self-selection and, consequently, skewed or biased results. Whereas this could be true, the choice to withdraw one’s data after the fact can also lead to bias, as we don’t know whether there are any specificities to the people that refuse to have their data being used. In fact, the routine use of undergraduates as research participants is most certainly riddled with biases, as university students are anything but representative of the general population.

Perhaps a better way of obtaining the participation of students would be to have undergraduate students, and others, deliberating about the issue and whether they want to participate and therefore contribute to the advancement of scientific understanding of human behaviour. It is difficult to find a way for course credits to still be given for participation under this ‘opt in’ regime, but because the course credits under the existing scheme can be seen as illegitimate they can and should be dispensed with. A practice based on deliberative decision making rather than coercion teaches things about the practice of psychology that our students should be made to consider and although participation may fall in the first instance this should be no reason for continuing a practice that is illegitimate, simply because we haven’t managed to find a more legitimate way to ensure the students are keen to be involved in the advancement of their chosen field.  A non-negligible side-effect of such a procedure is that it would also entail a lesson in deliberative practice.

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Is there a deliberative argument against female genital mutilation?

Elaine Santos has this interesting habit of randomly asking difficult questions over morning tea. This week, her pop quiz question is “Is there a deliberative argument against female genital mutilation?” (Last week it was “What do we do with asylum seekers?”) One of our colleagues who has had this same conversation with Elaine said there is none while I, perhaps worryingly, instinctively thought there is.

Off the bat, I suggested that female genital mutilation is unacceptable under deliberative terms if those who are affected by it (inclusivity) are not given the opportunity to contest the traditional/cultural reasons for such practice (openness).

The openness argument is relatively straightforward. Deliberative democracy opens all principles and practices to challenge including tradition, ideology, expertise and sacred texts. Time-honoured practices, in order to be acceptable and legitimate based on deliberative terms, should be subject to critical tests of reasons. Its advocates as well as its critics should be able to publicly provide other-regarding justifications for supporting or disavowing such practice. A number of ethnographers and anthropologists (e.g. Vicki Kirby, Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf and Janice Boddy) have contributed to the dissemination of alternative discourses on the subject, facilitating greater understanding on female genital mutilation from the point of view of women themselves.

The inclusivity argument – ascertaining those who are “affected by it” – is a more complex one. On its strict definition, we can say that it is young female children who should have a say on the matter or their mothers who usually make the decision for them. It gets trickier, however, when we extend the notion of inclusivity to those who are not directly affected by the practice (in the sense that they are not subjected to it) but consider themselves to have a stake on the issue. This goes right in the heart of the normative dilemma of who should deliberate and decide on the acceptability of this practice. A colleague said that we should only engage with this issue if it occurs within our shores, as in the case of legislative debates on honour killings occurring in immigrant communities in Germany and the UK (our colleague Selen Ayirtman does exemplary work on this subject). Otherwise, we would be meddling in the affairs of other cultures. I questioned the default privilege this argument provides on the nation-state as the primary category for when we should engage in discourse on a particular issue. Global affairs can be viewed using different optics and nation-state or territorial boundary is just one of them. For example, as a woman, I feel that I must be able to contest a practice that systematically perpetuates female sexual oppression and gender asymmetries, even though I live in a western liberal democracy. On the other hand, as someone coming from a post-colonial, neo-liberal cultural background, I feel that I also have something to say about practices that confront the western liberal view of what is good. It is only until this discussion that I realised how tricky the issue of inclusion is in deliberative theory, but perhaps this tension is best left unresolved and contested, maintaining the multiple voices on the subject.

Our morning tea did not end with a consensus or even incompletely theorised agreements. Nevertheless, the discussion on the subject was both productive and engaging, prompting us to think about uncomfortable issues that deliberative democrats needs to face head on.

Nicole Curato is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the ANU. She worked with Prof. John Dryzek and Dr. Simon Niemeyer on an ARC and newDemocracy foundation-funded Project: Creating and Analysing the Australian Citizens’ Parliament. Aside from the theory and practice of deliberative democracy, Nicole’s research interests include fringe forms of political participation and qualitative research methods. Nicole is currently an Assistant Professor of Sociology in the University of the Philippines.

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Good political deliberation involves listening and empathy, a rare beast it seems

There is a good commentary piece in the Age today about the perils of political communication and the tendency for people (and I mean all of us) to interpret what we are reading or listening to from our own particular perspective, rather than trying to understand what it is that the other person is actually trying to communicate. This happens all the time, particularly it seems, when it comes to online interactions, which, according to the American scholar Cass Sunstein, is particularly prone to ‘enclave thinking’. This involves people not only looking at information using a very narrow lens, but also a tendency to seek out information that supports our pre-existing view.

Even more problematic is the tendency for people to harden their positions, particularly as the evidence stacks up against it, particularly where views are relatively extreme. (This particularly seems to be the case for climate change.)

Apart from a few exceptions, our experience with small group deliberation is that these tendencies seem to disspate as the process moves on. But not always. The key seems to be  taking the time to establish relationships within the group so that they see their task as finding a solution to a common problem together, rather than arguing their particular view (this is not to say that they should end up agreeing, but that’s for another post). The American scholar Shaun Rosenberg refers to something similar to this phenomenon in identifying the importance of emotion and empathy in deliberation. Deliberation doesn’t just involve dealing with facts, it also involves dealing with emotions. The ends we should be striving to meet, the impact of our decisions on affected others etc are all important considerations that come to play. And unless there is identification with the needs of others, then there is effectively no deliberation, there is merely a market of ideas.

When this kind of group identity occurs participants usually express considerable satisfaction, if not genuine joy, in respect to their experience. And this is despite the enormous effort that they have put into working through the issue over the space of a number of days. Those who do not engage in this mode tend not express satisfaction — to say the least, in some cases.

Just why, when and how the formation of group identity and willingness to properly engage with other perspectives in deliberation occurs is something we are currently researching. An important question concerns whether it is possible to achieve this kind of outcome in the wider public. That’s something we will be working on over the new few years.

Simon Niemeyer is a research fellow with the Political Science Program, RSSS, with research interests spanning deliberative democracy (preference transformation, institutionalisation), environmental governance, and adaptation to and mitigation of climate change. He was one of the first in the field of deliberative democracy to systematically examine the processes of preference transformation of individuals participating in democratic discourse. His research findings challenge a number of assumptions regarding how deliberation works in practice, which have significantly contributed to deliberative theory.

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“Decisions, Decisions: Why Deliberate if Leaders hold all the Power?” by Jonathan Kuyper

Politics is fundamentally about power. Determining who we are as political animals and how power shapes societal interactions are perhaps the most basic questions in the study of politics. This, at least, is my intuition. For a long time, I will admit that reading the deliberative democracy literature left me wanting. I couldn’t understand how a programme of political theory could ground its ideal in the absence of power.

The more I read, the more problematic this disjuncture appeared. For Habermas, discourse ethics is a case of ideal speech in which deliberators come to an uncoerced understanding of each other’s arguments and position. The only permissible force is that of the ‘better argument’. The ability of actors to hash out reasons and reach decisions without coercion became the touchstone of deliberative theory.

My concern is obvious. The political sphere is characterised by power differences, with actors running amok trying to get their lot in life. So, why establish a deliberative conception of political legitimacy which is not only unattainable, but seemingly contrary to reality?

Over time, I came to realise that the gap between ideal deliberation and political power is ineliminable. Power asymmetries will always exist, some people won’t be included in deliberation, and decisions always require leadership.

It is this last element which has most occupied my recent thought. Leadership is not simply a buzzword used to sell self-help manuals. It is a real phenomenon which exists in all societies at all times. Military units, African tribes, religious congregations, and the workplace all require leadership to make decisions and implement action. So, how can meaningful deliberation occur if, at the end of the day, leaders are required to make the tough decisions?

I am reminded, as so many political scientists seem to be at tough moments, of Alice in Wonderland. On one of her travel, when she comes to a fork in the road, Alice asks the Cheshire cat which road to take. The Cheshire cat asks where Alice wants to go. When Alice replies that she doesn’t know, the Cheshire cat replies that the direction is therefore irrelevant.

In the same way, deliberation requires a purpose. We all require a sense of direction to ground our thought and establish parameters for decisions. If 100 people came together with 100 different agendas, even given eternity, no decision would be reached and we would have no metric to determine whether good or reasonable deliberation had occurred.

It is my feeling that persuasion and deliberation are essential elements of what makes us political animals. However, if discussion is going to bring about democratic outcomes, the role of leaders requires a more detailed treatment. How can leaders be constrained to allow good deliberation between citizens at one moment, but enabled to make deliberative outcomes a reality? If leaders always get the final say, then what good is a reasoned consensus?

The counter-intuitive solution to this problem of leadership might be more leadership. If in deliberative events several leaders play key roles, these leaders can check-and-balance each other, deliberate with each other over issues, and dilute their own coercive power by spreading the load. This minimizes the possibility that any one individual can co-opt a deliberative event and simultaneously reduces the likelihood of leaders coercively framing discussion. Whilst this might not be a perfect solution, it is a step in the right direction.

Deliberative democrats, for the most part, have done a poor job of explaining whether deliberation can be legitimate or meaningful when combined with leadership in the real-world. I am hopeful that a system-wide analysis of deliberation will bring into sharp relief the importance and necessity of leaders. How leaders can form a legitimate part of deliberative democracy is thus up for future discussion…

For a more comprehensive treatment of leadership and deliberative democracy, see

Jonathan Kuyper is a PhD student in the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance interested in developing a working theory of global deliberative democracy that accounts for, and sythesises, ideal theory, non-ideal theory and applied thinking. Jonathan is specifically interested in institutional design and how this limits and creates opportunies for transational deliberative experiments. His PhD project is entitled ‘Institutionalising Deliberative Democracy into Global Institutions: From Theory to Practice’, under the supervision of Professor John Dryzek and Professor Lorraine Elliott as the Chairs, and Dr Terry Macdonald and Dr Chris Reus-Smit as external supervisors.


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You’re feeling very sleepy…now vote for me!

In one of the more creative attacks in contemporary Australian politics, Bob Carr (former NSW premier and newly installed into the Australian Senate) accused the leader of the opposition of hypnotising the electorate, repetitively using sound bites in order to sway public opinion.

The reality is that simple, catchy phrases do have a strong influence with some voters. Why is this so? Well, because the world is complex, but life is short, many of us feel that we have limited time and mental energy to apply to political issues and, well, we’re an impressionable bunch with short attention spans.

Advertisers use some of less sophisticated tendencies to convince us to buy their goods all the time. Make it look appealing and sell it using a simple, catchy message. But if we really reflect on whether we need that particular item, cooler heads sometimes prevail. Psychologists refer to these two different approaches that we have to making decisions as peripheral versus cognitive processing. When we think peripherally, we tend to quickly draw intuitively appealing conclusions, even on potentially complex issues. Cognitive processing involves a deeper, more systematic effort to think through things. The point is that most of us are capable of engaging in both modes of thinking, at least to some extent.

But is this really an issue from a democratic point of view? Well, yes it is. If there is a difference in what we might choose if we engage in peripheral thinking compared to cognitive thinking then there are some important issues at stake. The use catchy sound bites to draw us in using emotionally appealing language can ultimately be manipulative and effectively trick us into making choices that we may not have gone for if we had sat back and had a chance to work through the issues. When this happens in commerce and we buy something through misrepresentation, there are consumer laws to protect us. When this happens in politics it is possible to throw the government out after 4 years, but only after they have implemented a legislative agenda. What’s more, where the electorate is largely switched off, this kind of politics by sound bite can simply go on and on.

So there is a real problem here. And it’s not just politicians’ fault. The way that issues is portrayed in a media geared toward entertainment rather than edification also contributes. But, then again, the response to this criticism usually follows the line that it’s simply a matter of what the public want. But I do rather think that this is a cute way of looking at the problem, because we know it’s quite possible (if not likely) that the public would want something quite different if they were given the chance to reflect on what is going on in politics. If this is true, the question is, how can we find a way out of this vicious circle?

Research that we are doing here in the Centre is trying to address this very question. We are looking at how this deeper form of reflection on political issues can be facilitated among the public, as well as how information that covers all facets of important issues, from all perspectives, can be presented to help make an informed decision. For more information see our website.

Simon Niemeyer is a research fellow with the Political Science Program, RSSS, with research interests spanning deliberative democracy (preference transformation, institutionalisation), environmental governance, and adaptation to and mitigation of climate change. He was one of the first in the field of deliberative democracy to systematically examine the processes of preference transformation of individuals participating in democratic discourse. His research findings challenge a number of assumptions regarding how deliberation works in practice, which have significantly contributed to deliberative theory.

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Billionaires, Politics and Deliberative Democracy: Who should get a say?

The Australian Federal Treasurer has recently identified Australia’s emerging caste of mega rich mining magnates as a threat to Australian democracy. The argument is that they are exerting undue influence on politics because of their ability to mobilise resources to get what they want, which may or may not coincide with the public interest.

From a deliberative democracy point of view there is nothing intrinsically wrong with citizens’ expressing their opinion in the public sphere. In fact, that’s precisely what should be happening in a contestation of ideas. But it’s the disparity in the level of power that certain individuals have to push their point of view that’s the main objection. They reality is that the ability to tailor and widely publicise a message that suits a particular interest is influential (for reasons that I’ll have to explain another time). An important question then concerns whether counterarguments get an equal hearing.

But the question of equality becomes problematic. There’s been a lot of concern raised about the attempt to ‘balance’ arguments highlighting the threat of climate change with arguments from so called climate sceptics, and the potential effect that this has on public opinion where one of these positions is potentially less well founded (which for many, is a matter of opinion anyway).

And then there’s the problem of hypocrisy. There’s been more than a few people highlighting the inconsistency where the treasurer is pointing the finger at mining magnates (who in some respects are soft targets) while ignoring the influence of unions, or even clubs when it comes to the issue of gambling machine reform.

The implicit appeal for wider democratic discourse than sound bites from a few interests is a very worthy from a deliberative democratic point of view. But talk needs to be backed up with action, and consistency. For our part, we as deliberative democrats are working on ways in which the kind of ideals that the treasurer is appealing to should work in practice. There’s a little way to go on this front, but there are some clear approaches that could be adopted. Ironically, approaches such as the proposed Citizens’ Assembly might have helped in the context of the climate change issue might have helped, if conducted many years prior to when it was proposed, and under very different circumstances to an election campaign. Exactly how and why? That’s the subject of the next blog.

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