Power to the people: Restoring Canberrans’ confidence in democracy

We are living at a time when many people are dissatisfied with our democracy and doubt their ability to influence government. Canberrans often say to me that they don’t have the information they need to understand why decisions are made and they don’t know how, or even whether, their feedback influences the government. As an elected representative, I am committed to bringing community voices to the Assembly and advocating for better ways of involving citizens in government decision-making. 

The Greens believe that getting citizens more involved in government decision-making is one way to restore confidence in democracy and deliver outcomes that meet the community’s real needs. That’s why this week I called on the ACT Government to commit to a participatory budgeting pilot. Participatory budgeting is a process through which citizens can be part of informing decisions over at least part of the government budget. It has been used successfully in Australia and overseas and I am pleased that, following the Government’s agreement this week, will now be piloted as part of the 2019-20 ACT Budget cycle.

We all know that budgets, whether at household or government level, involve choices and compromises.  The Greens believe that the people of Canberra can make a very valuable and considered contribution to how the Government prioritises parts of its budget. A participatory budgeting pilot in Canberra will involve the appointment of a randomly selected citizen panel representing all age groups, genders and electorates.  The panel will be provided with comprehensive information about the various spending options and will make recommendations reflecting community priorities. These recommendations will be a key input into budget decisions, but the Government will still have the final say and present the budget to the Assembly for approval.

Unless we want the ACT’s budget to grow from $5 billion to $10 billion, we must make choices—so why not allow the community to have a more direct and considered say? For example, we know that if we spend more money on roads than public transport more people will have to drive and there will be knock-on consequences, including overcrowded and infrequent buses, traffic congestion, a drop in incidental exercise, and increased household expenses from running multiple cars.

Successful participatory budgeting exercises have been established nationally and internationally, providing a wealth of well-studied and effective processes for the ACT to draw upon during our own pilot. The process is gaining a foothold amongst progressive councils in Australia, with at least six recent examples in New South Wales, Victoria, and Western Australia. This is why I suggested that the ACT also conducts its pilot on the same sort of services and considers questions such as should we have new playgrounds or footpaths, or spend more on graffiti removal and rubbish collection? 

In 2014 the City of Melbourne led a participatory budgeting process to determine how the city’s $650 million annual budget should be spent over the next 10 years. It took five months. Firstly there was broad consultation with the community using tools such online polls and traditional workshops.  The second stage was a deliberative process with a random but representative panel looking at a long-term financial plan for the city. The outcome of the panel’s deliberations was 11 recommendations.  The City of Melbourne implemented nine of them, with one (to increase rates) blocked by the Victorian Government and another pursued outside budget processes.

The City of Greater Geraldton has conducted two participatory budgeting processes. The first in 2013 asked a deliberative panel to determine the priorities for the 10-year, $68 million capital works budget. After meeting for four days, the panel presented a list of 138 capital works projects prioritised by both community and city desirability. The second in 2014 involved the deliberative panel recommending the desired level and priority of services for the council’s $70 million annual budget.

Participatory budgeting has been occurring in Porto Alegre, Brazil, since 1989 and has led to much better outcomes for the community. The citizens of Porto Alegre attend public meetings where they make proposals and vote to decide how municipal funding is allocated. The city has decided how to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on capital projects this way. Numerous studies have found that this approach is strongly correlated with reduced poverty, improved access to water and sanitation, increased affordable housing stock and reduced infant mortality rates. Typically, citizens’ decisions have increased the proportion of funding allocated to low income groups and public amenities. This successful process has now spread to over two hundred Brazilian cities.

These are just a few examples of the over 2,000 participatory budgeting exercises that have been conducted world-wide. Participatory budgeting has been used to help combat pork barrelling and corruption and provide a way to manage finite municipal budgets in the face of infinite community demands. The Greens believe that stronger citizen participation in decision-making will lead to better outcomes for all Canberrans.

The Greens are pleased that the Government has committed to its first citizens’ jury trial, and now to improving community input into the budget, both of which were commitments under the Greens-Labor Parliamentary Agreement. We believe that a range of deliberative democracy processes must be used to facilitate engaging and inclusive conversations—and more importantly, influence government actions—which shape the future of our city.