THE JANUARY FLOODS in Queensland and Victoria were a disaster but also a showcase for civic engagement. Thousands of volunteers – strangers to each other – spontaneously came together, made collective decisions about what to do, and then got on with doing it. The evidence on our TV screens was not just that nature is powerful and unpredictable but that action for the collective good comes naturally to most people.
So why, when Julia Gillard announced a citizens’ assembly on climate change during the 2010 election campaign, were there howls of protest from the media, from opposition parties and from environmental groups? Not from me: I leapt out of bed with excitement at the news. A small band of us – academics, activists and professionals – were thrilled that, at last, a national government would let the people provide advice about how to resolve a wicked problem. We had faith in the process that was proposed. I’d seen it work dozens of times, in my work with deliberative democracy in Australia and around the world.
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