Iain Walker

The people of Geelong will have the opportunity to design a new governance structure for their local council through a citizens’ jury – in what is being hailed as a ground-breaking, internationally significant approach to democracy.

Iain Walker, executive director of the independent newDemocracy Foundation, which will select the jurors and oversee the process, said the foundation had convened many citizens’ juries across Australia for state and local governments on topics are varied as alcohol reform, the nuclear fuel cycle and infrastructure but never like this one.

“Absolutely, this is a bold project,” he said. “This is a pure democracy project so it is a first.

“I dare say there haven’t been that many of these done around the world. It’s not often something that gets put on the table.

“There are people working in this field all around the world; what Geelong is doing will turn heads.”

The Victorian government dismissed the Greater Geelong City Council in April this year after a Commission of Inquiry found it was dysfunctional, unable to provide long-term vision for the city, and riddled with internal conflict and a culture of bullying. The government committed to consulting the community about its local governance model before the next council election in October 2017.

Mr Walker said the foundation was approached in May to oversee a citizens’ jury for Geelong. newDemocracy will select a random sample of 100 citizens to recommend a future representative structure for the council. The jurors will be selected in September with the process taking place in November.

“There is a recognition among people who are in government, who are in politics, that if it’s not sailing sweetly along there is a need to innovate in how we make trusted public decisions,” Mr Walker said. “The Geelong project is why we exist.”

The Minister for Local Government Natalie Hutchins will be asking the citizens’ jury to make two recommendations. One needs to comply with the existing local government legislative framework – a practical solution that the government can act on before the next council election.

The citizens’ jury will be asked to consider:

  • how the mayor is elected
  • if a deputy mayor is needed and how they are elected
  • the number of councillors required
  • representative structures (such as whether the municipality is unsubdivided or divided into wards and if they are multi-member wards)

Interestingly, the second recommendation is free to draw on all new ideas in representation and public decision-making emerging around the world. The minister cannot grant authority to act on this – it’s a matter for cabinet and ultimately state parliament – but she will take this aspirational recommendation to the parliament for consideration.

“That for me is the amazing part of this project,” Mr Walker said. “Everyone who just watched a federal election that wasn’t particularly compelling in places … a lot of people would have thought we must be able to do it better. This is the first attempt to say, ‘Let’s take all the rules away. What does better look like?’

“This project is very much a ‘what?’ and a ‘how?’ We say, ‘What does your representative body look like?’ The interesting starting point is to get people to think about what a community looks like that they can trust even though the temptation is to jump straight to the ‘how’ of voting structures and number of wards. We’ll do both pieces but it’s the fact that the ‘what’ is on the table, which is what makes this potentially really interesting.

“You have to appreciate the wonderful risk in this. That blank sheet of paper the minister is going to have to respond to – no one knows what that will look like.”

Ms Hutchins said the new approach would strike a balance between experts and the views of the community in recommending a future representative structure for the council.

“The last council failed to deliver good governance – and a citizens’ jury will help ensure that does not happen again,” she said.

“The Andrews Labor Government wants to know what the people of Geelong think is best for their future council and to help design it.”

The process will give all members of the Geelong community the opportunity to have their say so that the jury is fully informed about community views when it deliberates.

Vicky Gower, secretary of the Geelong One Fire Reconciliation Group, attended the launch of the citizens’ jury along with a number of other community organisation representatives this week.

“We all agreed that it sounds so exciting because for the first time we’re actually going to be ourselves, like our community, deciding what our future governance is about,” she said.

“We’re all aware that things have not been good here for quite a while and we want to be able to do something that supports the community, that creates a stronger governance process and that also includes things like training for staff on how to engage more with the community, how to work more with us and be more open to partnerships.”

Ms Gower said there were a lot of questions about how the process could be more diverse and inclusive to consider people whose first language is not English, those with literacy issues, and young people.

“There was quite a lot (of talk) about young adults and how they and even people younger than voting age could be part of the process, which is very exciting. And certainly there was interest too in making sure that the local Aboriginal community is a part of the process and representation is there for the local Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative.”

Ms Gower said there were many people in the Geelong community with strong skills and awareness who want to support a good outcome for all.

“Generally everyone sounded very pleased that there is something like this happening that could be quite a model for the rest of Victoria on reviewing our political processes,” she said. “We feel this is giving us a real chance of being part of political change.”

The jury will produce a publicly available report in November with recommendations for the government to consider. The minister will report back to the jury in person once the government has considered their ideas.

The Victorian government is currently reviewing the Local Government Act 1989, which governs the state’s 79 councils. This review covers governance processes, council structures and electoral procedures.

According to Local Government Victoria, the government intends to require councils to routinely employ deliberative engagement methods as a means of informing council plans. Citizens’ juries are seen as a way of achieving greater community ownership of and support for councils’ priorities and strategic direction. Citizens’ juries could be applied to all aspects of council engagement not simply to dealing with governance failures.

An independent evaluation of the Geelong citizens’ jury process will identify what worked well and what didn’t, said Local Government Victoria. This will provide more clarity about the value and impact of citizens’ juries in designing council electoral structures.

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