Tasmania Together: an example of fake consultation

Issue 

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BY ALEX BAINBRIDGE

Statements by Labor Premier Jim Bacon to the effect that his government would not be bound by its decisions if they went against government policy, have shown "Tasmania Together", the government's new effort at "community consultation", to be a complete sham.

On two key issues — woodchipping and expansion of gambling machines in pubs — Bacon has said that government policy would not change if "Tasmania Together" benchmarks called for them to be phased out.

"Tasmania Together" is now good for only one thing: as an illustration of the sorts of diversions used to disguise the fact that governments serve the interests of the corporate rich and not ordinary working people.
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Bacon introduced "Tasmania Together" after he won government in 1998. It was to be a "community-driven" process to create a 20-year "vision" for the state, which would ensure that future governments were accountable to the wishes of the people.

Because it involved extensive "consultation" with the community, Bacon argued that no government could afford to ignore its recommendations and policies.

To bolster his claims, the premier sought and gained support from all three parliamentary parties — although the Liberals and Greens have since withdrawn support as Bacon's manipulation of the process has become more stark.

Despite Bacon's claims to the contrary, this was never going to be an example of grassroots democracy in action.

Governments can "consult" as much as they like — but this does not change the facts that the decisions are still made by unaccountable parliamentary processes.

And when there are numerous filters in place to ensure that the government gets the "right" answers, the meaning of the "consultation" is watered down even further.

The first stage of the process was the selection of a "Community Leaders' Group". While nominations were sought from the public, the decision about who would be on the group was made by the government.

After the hand-picked body was in place, then came the round of consultation, the most visible part of which was a series of 60 public forums held all around the state.

Community Leaders' Group representatives were at each forum and took extensive notes about what the "community" wanted. In some cases, these forums were quite small, prompting worry by the government early on that it might not be as representative as it wished. Many of the later meetings, however, were very well-attended and quite lively.

Anyone was able to make a written submission to the Community Leaders' Group detailing their views, activities for which businesses and well-funded organisations are particularly well equipped.

Every house also received a postcard with some tick-a-box questions. No doubt the opportunity for citizens to detail their ideas for a 20-year vision for the state on the back of a postcard was an empowering experience for the 2500 who filled them in.

Even as artfully constructed as it was, the consultation process had the government in trouble from almost the beginning.

As long ago as the start of 2000, when the consultation period ended, a front-page article in the Sunday Tasmanian was headlined "Timebomb".

Popular sentiment expressed at these community consultations was far to the left of the government on many issues. Specific government policies that registered major opposition included woodchipping, establishment of genetically engineered crops and replacement of farmland by plantations.

"Tasmania Together" went into hibernation after the consultation process as the Community Leaders' Group met privately to draw up a vision statement.

When this vision statement was finally released, it met with almost universal derision. Many saw it as merely a lacklustre list of uncontroversial home truths, including "Ensure all Tasmanians have a reasonable standard of living with regard to food, shelter, transport, justice, education, communications and health services".

At least two Community Leaders' Group members were dissatisfied with the results — they were both expelled after they "broke consensus" by publicly airing their criticisms.

You might well ask how a "vision statement" that has no content could be binding on any government. Cynics might say that that was the point.

However, after release of the "visions and goals" statement, the government duly announced that the "detail" that we were all looking for would come in the next "benchmarking" stage.

The benchmarking stage comprised the appointment by the Community Leaders' Group of six committees to draw up specific targets for each five-year period up to 2020. These are due to be released in July.

The government has for a long time sought to dampen expectations about what the government can do by saying that the "whole community" needs to be responsible for achieving the benchmarks.

Bacon on June 28 said "I have said all along that this is not a government process ... we can't legislate for example to make people fitter so there is less illness."

The premier also tried to use "Tasmania Together" to build a community consensus around policies his government could support. It is quite likely that the "benchmarks" when released will sit quite comfortably with the Bacon government agenda, even if they include the odd headache or two.

Wedded as they are to policies which are against the interests of working-class people, Labor and Liberal governments are not capable of organising genuine consultation programs. Nevertheless, they create programs like "Tasmania Together" (or John Howard's "listening tour") to create the impression that they are responsive to community concerns.

Working-class people need different mechanisms that genuinely increase grassroots democratic control. The inadequacy of "Tasmania Together" underlines the continuing validity of the socialist argument for a working people's government based on workplace and community councils, which would enable ordinary people to directly make the decisions that affect them at the local level.

Management of workplaces, schools and community services could then be democratically elected by and accountable to the people affected. Such an experience of genuine control at the local level would be the basis for empowerment when keeping state, national and eventually international representatives accountable.

Steps could then be taken to ensure than any representatives elected to bodies remain fully, and instantly, accountable to the people who elect them: like making them recallable at any time, rather than only at designated election times, and paying them no more than the average wage.

It is only by instituting such measures that actual policy and government reflects the popular will, rather than the manipulations of a tiny governing elite.

[Alex Bainbridge is the Hobart branch secretary of the Democratic Socialist Party.]