By Siri Gamage –
There are many people around the world who are not satisfied with the existing liberal democratic model of governance and the quality of representation – even though it is better compared to other models of governance and representation available to a community of people e.g. dictatorship, monarchy, corrupt regimes. This is the case in sharply contrasting countries like Australia, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – to name a few.
In Australia, due to the nature of public dissatisfaction about the quality of parliamentary representation, there is a growing but modest movement for identifying various issues affecting the people in electorates, their concerns about the region and country, future of children, climate, corruption, poverty, environment, influence of rich and the powerful plus the corporate sector in governing, and the neglect of regional issues.
Over the years and during last federal parliamentary election, several independent candidates contested federal election in Australia. Two of them who followed Kitchen Table Conversation (KTCs) model and process were successful. In fact one defeated the former Prime Minister Tony Abbot in the seat of Warringah in New South Whales. The other electorate was Indi in Victoria. There the former MP was also an independent but retired before the election.
KTCs are conducted using a guide developed in the above two electorates and others whose independent candidates were unable to win. It includes the protocol for conducting a KTC, values, six Qs to ask and suggestions from participants for solving the problems identified or improving representation. Participants are selected by using existing personal contacts and networks. In each group usually there are eight participants and a facilitator plus a scribe to take notes. Aim of the KTC is ‘to encourage community participation in the democratic process by discovering what matters to the electorate’? Governing values are Community, Accountability, Respect, and empowerment.
One ground rule is that the groups do not aim to arrive at consensus or debate issues. Everyone is entitled to his/her view and others have to listen without interruption. Questions include 1. what you feel are the best things about living in the area? 2. What do you think makes for a vibrant and resilient community? 3. What are some issues that affect your region and the suggestions about these issues 4. What do you think makes for a really good political representative (Sub Qs: Do you feel you are well represented at all levels of government? How can we strengthen the relationship between people and their representative?) 5. What specific things would you like to see addressed in the next term of (federal) parliament? 6. Is there anything else you like to add about making our democracy better? These questions can be adapted to suit the Sri Lankan or any other country context as the case may be.
I participated in one such group discussion last Sunday in a regional town called Tamworth in my electorate – New England, Australia. It was most fascinating as I could witness participatory democracy in action. Each participant was able to express his/her views and suggestions around each question (others are not supposed to criticise, comment or argue when a participant expresses his/her views). Most participants were knowledgeable, educated, had life experiences in a professional field or simply concerned citizen.
Organisers aim to approach about 1000 people in the electorate through this process and collect information systematically and collate. Once collected they will be used to compile a report which becomes a core document for planning, policy convictions/commitments and future strategies. A copy is to be given to the local MP as well for information.
More importantly, it will be used in discussions with potential independent candidates in the electorate who are interested in contesting the forthcoming federal parliamentary election in Australia due within a year. The candidate chosen by the group has to agree to work towards utilising the parliamentary and governance process to seek solutions to the problems identified. The report works almost as a charter or profile for directing future action by the elected parliamentarian from the electorate.
Almost all people who took part in the group meeting are dissatisfied with the level and quality of representation. They felt neglected, their voices not heard by those in power. Established political parties contest the election usually win. The current member is from the National Party with connections to the regions. In the past an independent member who was a former national party member represented the electorate. Having party backing is important for organising campaigns.
In the electorate of New England there are various activist groups campaigning on single issues. E.g. climate, refugees, farmer issues, railways. However, this KTC process has the potential to bring them together and seek collective solutions. Furthermore, the KTC process can bring concerned citizens together to share their views and concerns in a non-threatening environment and empower themselves in the process. Even if a chosen independent candidate may not win in the first test, if continued the process can achieve its aim in the subsequent elections with better awareness of the candidate and his/her supporters motivated by welfare of the community and the progress of the region.
I think those concerned with the parliamentary representation process in Sri Lanka can utilise this model and process to achieve good results. I am happy to elaborate individually or in a Zoom discussion about the model, process and how it works. Likewise, I am happy to share the Handbook/Kit used for KTCs individually provided that I get an email address.