How can we foster honest, respectful, and constructive national discussion and debate?

What’s the problem?

Alt text We often hear the call for a “national conversation” on one policy issue or other. But what this means isn’t always clear. To clarify, what we are talking about here is honest, respectful and constructive national discussion and debate. Usually, this needs to be for a sustained (months and years, not days or weeks) period of time, and with room for a diversity of voices and opinions to be heard.

A constructive national conversation is seen as important for good policy development. This is because good policy takes time to design, advocate for, legislate, and implement. If the electorate doesn’t understand what is happening and why, the mandate for reform can quickly be lost. In a democracy, mandate is everything. If the mandate from the community is only to maximise the living standards of individuals today, rather than consider the long-term public interest of the nation, then it is very hard to govern any differently.

Reform is more effective when the government has sufficient information and evidence – much of which can come from the community. But it is a feature of democracy that those who are more adversely affected by a reform will tend to shout loudest. Which makes some sense - if you aren’t affected, why would you put time in to saying so? But this means that the voice of special interest groups can quickly drown out the message of those who might benefit. And the 24-hour news cycle can make it even harder to mount a sustained, reasoned public campaign for change.

Seven things you need to know

  • ABS research found that Australians want “public debate that allows for a diversity of voices and views to be heard and considered, and that information should be reported accurately, clearly and not be biased by conflicts of interest. They saw public debate as occurring in many places, for example, through the media and electronic information sharing channels, as well as parliamentary and political debating platforms”.

  • According to the Grattan Institute, Australia has only introduced nine big economic policy reforms in the past 40 years, including Medicare, floating the dollar, tariff reduction, government enterprise privatisation, setting interest rates independently through the Reserve Bank, national competition policy, superannuation, broadening the income tax base, the GST, and changes to the structure and funding of the higher education sector.

  • According to data compiled by Streem on the volume of online and TV news reporting, from January to April of this year, the issues of a GST increase, negative gearing and capital gains tax changes all lasted only two to four weeks before electronic media interest declined. This is despite real-time audience data showing that the public remained engaged on two of those issues (GST and negative gearing) long after the media interest ended.

  • On the topic of sustained debate, the Bills debated in the Senate for longest period of time since 1990 were: Native Title Amendment Bill 1997 (105 hrs); A New Tax System (Goods and Services Tax) Bill 1998 (68 hrs); Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme Bill 2009 (63 hrs).

  • The longest speech in the Australian Parliament was given by Senator Albert Gardiner (ALP, NSW) in 1918. He spoke for 12 hours and 40 minutes on the Commonwealth Electoral Bill. The transcript took up 79 pages of Hansard (parliamentary debates).

  • Almost every major reform in 1980s “reform era” was preceded by public review processes that were commissioned by - but conducted at arms length from government. This included in-depth research and extensive public consultation.

  • To have a public debate requires an audience. But content on-demand is changing the media landscape. For example, 1 in 7 Australians now watch no commercial television on a normal weekday. This is double the number compared to 2008. 40% of Australians (7.7 million aged 14+) now stream or download video, TV or movies in an average four weeks. Still, commercial TV reaches 85% of us—more than any other medium. On an average weekday we watch a combined 39 million hours of Commercial TV. In comparison, approximately 10.3 million people listen to commercial radio in our capital cities each week.

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