Participatory politics and the political landscape in Australia

I put this up over at the Z School PP2 page where I hope to workshop it. I thought I’d post it here too, any comments, feedback etc would be great. If you have access to the school page, it might be easier to discuss things there. While the focus is quite specific and some of the points are broad ( I do recognise the difficulty in organizing in the USA), it’d be great to get feedback on the underlying ideas/theme.


The Australian political landscape is one that has been dominated by traditional parliamentary politics. While there has been social movements and protest efforts, the underlying character of Australian civil society, or its social characteristics are very different to those found in the United States and elsewhere. Recognising these differences in shape and background of civil and political organizing and action is extremely important for it realizes that while the lessons and efforts of radicals in the USA can inform, such efforts need to be tailored or reconceptualized to address the Australian context. While the USA has a history of community based activism, along with a population and political system that supports and encourages a healthy civil society, the Australian context has much different terrain to address. Australia’s history of unionism is a source of strength and also a key element to the absence of a more active civil society. The entrenchment of the unions and of the Labor party over the last 100 years has seen the institutionalization of the main methods Australians have addressed social issues and concerns. An element of dependency and expectation on these institutions and on the Westminster system of government has seen little need for concerted community action in addressing fundamental issues. While local campaigns and single issue groups come and go, their emphasis remains on pressuring government or affiliated institutions (unions, agencies etc) in to recognizing and addressing their concerns. While the success of such actions should not be dismissed, it differs greatly from local and grassroots movements established to meet their demands themselves. Instead the pressure and aims rest of established, powerful institutional responses, in the end creating a lack of agency within civil society. A sense of dependency is quite prevalent, which then limits vision of aims and vision of action/approaches to achieving aims. While Australian trade-unions have had somewhat of a revival over the last year or so due to the previous governments industrial relation reforms, the overall staleness of the radical and progressive movement is in part to its dependency and ties to institutions of power.

Hence there is a need to take new ideas and approaches and see how they can fit in such a context. While the notions of participatory democracy and organization are universal, they also rely on elements of American civil action, of a basis of set individual rights and a very different experience and understanding of government. The need to expand participatory ideals in Australia is vital, the question is, does Australian society have existing or potential actors and political geography able to effectively spread such ideas? At the moment I think the answer is no. Again this is not to say that participatory organizations don’t exist in Australia, but they are (often deliberately) on the margins, even of other leftist efforts. There is thus a need for either the creation of a more accommodating environment or the adoption of participatory ideals and structures by those established institutions that are heavily relied upon by the people-trade unions etc.

I see a combination of both as the best means, each informing the other. The next question then becomes how do you shape the civil or political terrain to be more accommodating to participatory ideals? Answering this question is much harder and requires more input than my own, but I think it starts with changing people’s perceptions of what constitutes ‘social change’ and activist success. Seeking institutional change is something we do very well. Creating our own solutions independent of those avenues while remaining accessible to the wider public is something we have not done so well. So seeking to find our own answers while remaining inclusive of the wider population is one means of creating a more active and engaged civil society.

Making participation engaging and worthwhile is another. Australian cynicism and political and cultural structures and traditions have encouraged having others do the job for them. Without a political upbringing that fosters a sense of one’s rights, of the individual being the agent of political change, Australian politics and civil society needs to feel that participation is enjoyable, honourable and beneficial. Again, how to achieve such an aim is harder to determine. Clearly outlining our goals is one way, so people know what success looks like, realizing that participation is another burden on people’s full and busy lives-this requires ways of allowing people to engage without feeling guilty or worried that they need to give 100% of their time. This involves how groups and actions are structured, allowing people to get a taste, to feel connected and learn. To do this, aims and actions need to have small aims, new methods and see results on the ground for people. Otherwise we as a movement seem ineffectual and people will return to political process. Which while corrupt and disconnected has the ability to respond to their needs occasionally.

These are some ways that activist groups in Australia need to start thinking about their efforts and organizing. At the moment its either disconnected or so entrenched that both fail to reflect genuine change that people relate to.

By creating a more embracing environment, wider and more elaborate participatory projects have a greater chance of being accepted and of being successful. The situation highlights that Australia is starting from scratch in efforts to create a participatory society, that ready made populations and groups are not able to be brought under the participatory banner.

Leave a comment