Australia’s First Citizens Parliament – some reflections from the floor

The first Australian Citizens Parliament was held on February 6 to 9, 2009 in Old Parliament House in Canberra. This was citizen democracy in action.

Fast paced, intense, inspiring, deliberative, exhausting, and hot was my experience of being on the facilitation team.

One hundred and fifty randomly sampled people, one from each federal electorate, were invited to Canberra to deliberate on how Australia’s democracy could be improved. This was an initiative of the New Democracy Foundation and a group of academics lead by Lyn Carson, Janette Hartz-Karp and John Dryzek. Fred Chaney and Lowitja O’Donoghue were the co-chairs of the event.

Fast paced and intense:

On the floor of the event, the facilitation team included 23 table facilitators, 2 “floor walkers” and Kath Fisher as the coordinator of facilitators. Out the front were two lead facilitators Janette Hartz Karp and Max Hardy. Our role at the tables was to follow the instructions from the lead facilitators, facilitate the discussion at our tables and ensure that the material generated at our tables was recorded into the computer at our table. The overall process was a 21st century town hall meeting. So as well as the facilitation team, there was also the theme team, about six people who were reading all the material coming in from the tables, summarising the key points and feeding back the information on large screens to the main room. In addition, there were a team of reporters who moved around the tables and recorded information that wasn’t captured on the computers and who had the job of pulling together a written summary report of the outcomes each day. They also had the job of pulling together the final report.

In essence, the four days of deliberation were small group discussions with the Citizen Parliamentarians (CP) spread across 23 tables with the outcomes of the discussions recorded in the table computers. There was also some variety: two sessions where experts provided information on our system of government, an open mike for the Citizen Parliamentarians to ask questions of the experts and a world cafe session.

So it was intense and fast paced for the facilitators – though I think and hope we achieved a sense of calm space for the CPs to hold their conversations. It was very intense for those protecting the rigour of the process and ensuring the integrity of the information from the CPs. A couple of times voting had to be redone to ensure people were voting on the same information.

Inspiring and deliberative

I was inspired by the ability of this group of people to so seriously take up the challenge being offered to them. People did deliberate over the four days with discussions flowing and moving over the four days. It is probably best said by a middle aged vibrant hairdresser at my table on the last day:

I now hold a sense of pride in our citizens, that the one individual can pass it forward (the message o f participation in democracy) in our daily lives. That this collective ordinariness is a very powerful embrace; that evolves and shapes our colourful nation; keeping us in good stead for the future of our country and moreover as an example to the world.”

There were also lighter though significant moments – at one stage the oldest and youngest CP shared the stage – the youngest person (an 18 year old woman) having not spoken for the first couple of days announced she might run for Prime Minister and the oldest woman at 90 offered some great words of advice. Also in celebration in the final session two CPs recited poems they had penned and another sang an Italian aria.

This event was of major importance to people interested in deliberative democracy and there was a very good report of the event from this perspective written by John Warhurst in Canberra Times, however it is no longer on the website. A more recent article is listed below.

Exhausting and hot:

The fires were burning in Victoria while we were in our own world in Canberra. The facilitation team worked from 7.30 am when the bus came to pick us up for a start of the day briefing ready for an 8.30 start and we worked through to 6pm of so followed by an essential debrief. So it was back to the accommodation at the University of Canberra’s new student accommodation by 7pm for dinner and a quiet drink and the continuous debrief of the day’s activities with fellow facilitators and CPs all in temperatures in the low 40s – such bliss when fans were delivered for all the bedrooms.

One highlight for me was getting to know the daughter of the oldest CP who came to assist her 90 year old mother to participate. Wendy was one of the stalwarts of the event. She joined the group of volunteers , another team that made this event work. She dealt with the day to day needs of numerous CPs, drove people to breakfast and dinner, assisted with the procurement of fans to overcome the heat, and was the key liaison person for information about the bushfires. While much had been done to organise for the needs of CPs, an important lesson was the absolute need for people like Wendy, to ensure people’s needs were met during the course of the event. She had not signed up for this job but did it fabulously well.







About Kimbra

Kimbra White is a specialist community engagement adviser and facilitator. To get in touch call 0438 435 939 or via her website.