Andrew Barr: we will consult and hear all Canberrans, not just the noisy – The Sydney Morning Herald

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  • Andrew Barr

In October 2016, 250,000 Canberrans over the age of 18 took part in the largest and most comprehensive community engagement process our territory holds. A record number of candidates presented their visions for the city. The community was asked to choose which they preferred. After all the votes were counted, the Labor Party received the highest number of first-preference votes and, together with the Greens, formed government.

Canberrans chose 25 representatives to govern our city for the next four years. These representatives have already made a number of big decisions. Canberrans voted for a vision and my government colleagues have a clear obligation to deliver the promises we made before the election. We won’t waste time re-prosecuting the issues of 2016. We will, however, ask Canberrans to help us make sure our promises work for them.

Andrew Barr votes in last year's election, the "biggest community engagement process our city has". Andrew Barr votes in last year’s election, the “biggest community engagement process our city has”. Photo: Elesa Kurtz

During the election, I made it clear that one thing a re-elected Labor government would deliver was better, more representative consultation.

The forthcoming budget is a chance to really get to work on delivering what we promised. We’ve already told Canberrans it will include building the roads we said we would build, making the arts investments we said we would make and improving public transport as we’d promised. These were all part of the plan we consulted Canberrans on in 2016 – the plan they expect us to deliver.

The budget will also fund new approaches to community engagement, as I promised.

This will be practical engagement. We’ll be very clear on what is up for debate, so Canberrans are in no doubt about what is open to change as a result of community feedback and what is information we’re sharing to keep them up-to-date on the implementation of key policies we took to the election.

We’re already doing this. New public housing will be built on the sites we have identified, but community feedback can, should and will shape the design and style of the homes we build. Light rail is going to Woden once the first stage from Gungahlin to Civic is complete, but we really want to know what the community thinks about how it should get there: community feedback will help decide the route.

I also want to be sure we reach a representative sample of Canberrans so our decisions reflect what the community really thinks. That means someone is not excluded because they are busy with family responsibilities, work or study when public meetings are traditionally held. It means they’re not left out because they find a confrontational town-hall meeting intimidating. It means people who don’t have the time to submit detailed written submissions as part of a formal process can still have their say.

It means we don’t give undue weight to some in the community because their representations are noisy enough to grab media attention. Just because others are too busy to directly engage with the process, put off by the conflict or simply relaxed about what is proposed, their opinion still counts and the government wants to hear it. The silent majority was heard loud and clear in the 2016 election. It needs to be heard in between elections, too. I want more Canberrans to be able to play a role in shaping their city every day.

However, we need to avoid consultation fatigue. In the last two years, the ACT government consulted the community on more than 570 issues or topics: that is almost one government engagement for every business day. Lack of consultation is not the problem, but the way we consult needs to change.

We’ll make this change as part of a process of engagement reform funded in the forthcoming budget.

The first thing we’ll do is involve experts. We will engage a nationally recognised expert in participatory democracy to advise on best-practice engagement in our unique city-state jurisdiction, and we’ll make a commitment to the broader community on when, how and about what they are engaged.

The silent majority was heard loud and clear in the 2016 election.

We’ll make sure major decisions are underpinned by statistically sound and genuinely representative information about what the entire community really thinks. This means seeking the views of thousands of Canberrans, not just those with the loudest voices or the ability to access the media.

We’ll invest in training and new staff to build expertise in community engagement, including a team in the Chief Minister’s Directorate to lead and coordinate better engagement. They’ll set up all the tools we need for the government to be better able than ever before to gauge the opinion of the entire community.

A lot has been said about deliberative democracy and citizens juries: they will have a place in our new engagement toolbox. These processes are expensive and they’re not suited to every decision, but in the next year we’ll identify an issue for a pilot project where citizens shape a complex policy and officials are able to learn new engagement skills to use in the future.

In this budget, we’re keeping the promises Canberrans elected us to deliver. We’ll keep doing this in every budget and we’ll get better at hearing what Canberrans think to make sure we get things right.

In October 2020, Canberrans will make their voices heard again in the biggest community engagement process our city has.

Andrew Barr is Chief Minister of the ACT.

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