Tuesday, April 22, 2008

GetUp, the 2020 summit and the concept of participation

I had not focused on the role of GetUp in Mr Rudd's 2020 summit until I saw a snippet of an interview with its Executive Director Brett Sullivan apparently claiming a degree of success for summit outcomes and especially the push for a republic. This came straight after a news story that in a vote on the republic issue, delegates voted 98 in favour, one against (a Liberal Party parliamentarian) with one abstention (a former Governor General who did not feel it appropriate to vote).

According to the organisation's web site:

GetUp.org.au is a new independent political movement to build a progressive Australia. GetUp! brings together like-minded people who want to bring participation back into our democracy.

When GetUp first formed, I thought that it was a genuine attempt to harness the power of the web to bring a broader degree of popular participation to the democratic process. It is not.

The inherent problem lies in the conjunction of the words "progressive", "like-minded" and "participation".

"Progressive" is code for left of centre. The first time I noticed the use of this particular code word was back in the past when the Communist Party talked about marshaling the progressive forces. "Like- minded" simply means agreeing with each other; there is limited room for difference in an organisation of the "like-minded".

"Participation" is the kicker: it really means providing a vehicle so that "like-minded" "progressive" people can"participate" in an organised way in political activity, ie impose their views on others.

At the risk of greatly upsetting those in GetUp, the underlying rhetoric bears a striking resemblance to that used by another organisation that I once campaigned against, the far right League of Rights. Once strong in country Australia, the League was another strong believer in "participatory" democracy.

There is absolutely nothing wrong in a democracy with groups of like minded people gathering together to argue their views, nor is there anything wrong with that group using modern communications technology to organise and to promote those views. After all, I try to do the same at a personal level. However, GetUp's apparent success at the summit raised a number of issues in my mind that concern me.

Call me dumb or even naive if you like, but the thought that particular groups might organise to try to influence the summit did not occur to me. I simply accepted that there was a selection process and that that process would take place in good faith to try to select delegates that were both broadly representative and capable of making a contribution to the summit's objective in terms of new ideas.

In a sense, Mr Rudd's comment that those supporting the constitutional monarchy had only themselves to blame for not nominating gives the lie to the whole proceedings.

I did not nominate because I did not think that I would be selected in a competitive process. Further, had I nominated, the idea that I should go to a summit on new ideas prepared to defend constitutional monarchy would have been very much a second order issue, given the range of other important issues to be addressed. Had I gone and been part of the governance group, I could well have walked out in protest at the way proceedings appear to have been taken over by a single issue.

These are purely personal reactions. Let me stand back and look at a few broader issues.

There is no doubt of the power of the internet in politics. We can see this in the case of Kevin07, GetUp, as well as in the success of the Obama campaign in the United States. However, this power is unbalanced and, to a degree, unrepresentative. We can see this if we look at two key dimensions, access and interest.

The recent Australian census data showed considerable local variation in the distribution of broadband and, I think, computers themselves. This means that people have differential access to the technology and, hence, different opportunities to access information and to articulate views.

This problem has been recognised for a long time, leading to suggestions that the information age would lead to a new kind of under-privilege.

Interest is the second dimension. Even including social networking tools such as facebook that actually have a wide coverage among the young of all groups, the internet domain tends to be the province of the better educated who simply feel more comfortable with words.

Now here the census data shows considerable geographic variation in education levels across Australia, a variation linking to variations in broadband and compute access.

I recognise that I am not saying anything especially profound here. All I am saying is that there is a significant group of Australians, probably well over a third, who are essentially outside the on-line environment in terms of access and interest.

The problem that this group (and I think our society) faces it that the rise of the internet has indeed encouraged more participation among those willing and and able to participate, marginalising those unable or unwilling to access the technology.

This does not stop this group having views. My concern is that the gap between their views and those I see espoused on-line may well be widening again as it did during the Keating years. If so, we may well be building a later problem.

In all this, my argument about participation is that we have to be clear who is participating and for what purpose. We also need to understand who is not participating and why.


Anonymous said...

On my own connection with GetUp Australia, of which I am not a member though a sympathiser, see Old Lines from a Floating Life, with the warning that at least one of the links in those leads to a post I have since deleted. I wouldn't get paranoid about them, Jim. What they have done anyone else could also do, or could have done, and probably will. Access to such things will no doubt widen rapidly.

Jim Belshaw said...

Not paranoid, Neil, simply somewhat startled, leading to a new chain of thought.