Deliberative democracy ~ Sortition

Andre SilvaNews

What’s the problem?

While 96% of Australians support the transition to renewable energy, we’ve watched the major political parties tear themselves apart over energy policy for over a decade. Around the world, people are growing increasingly dissatisfied with partisan politics. With rising disaffection and public debate, democracies around the world are facing a crisis of confidence. Some people have swapped to minor parties or independents while others have disengaged from politics all together. 

Research reported in The Guardian last year, found that trust in democracy in Australia has plummeted from 86% in 2007 to 41% in 2018. The article questioned whether it was time to reimagine our democracy. We need to re-engage people in democratic decision-making about our common future and re-enfranchise ourselves by truly cultivating democracy.

Is sortition the solution?

Sortition is the random democratic selection of people from a larger group. It has been used to select juries in courts of law (eg. UK and USA); as an alternative to student government elections (Bolivia), and assembling Citizens’ Juries to feedback to policy makers in Canada, Denmark, the USA, among others. 

Citizens’ Climate Conventions – also known as citizens’ assemblies on climate – are based on a principle of sortition: random selection of a group of citizens, who are then given the task to make decisions on behalf of their community. These citizens' assemblies are emerging as the new norm for legitimate and quality decision-making in many democratic forums around the world. 

In Paris this year, the Citizens Convention On Climate saw 150 random French citizens advising their entire country on how it must act on the climate emergency.  The idea has also taken root in the UK with a citizens' assembly showing big support for a green covid-19 recovery. 

For more information, read this post in the Centre for Climate Safety written by GS member, Mik Aidt about how the French have taken the sortition step toward climate justice, and how Geelong could follow their lead. 


Citizens Convention On Climate, Paris

Should Geelong have a Citizen’s Assembly on Climate?

We think we can and we should. This new form of deliberative democracy brings together representative, random samples of citizens to discuss difficult problems, possible approaches and solutions.

Geelong Sustainability has been advocating strongly for a stakeholder advisory group to support the region’s transition to a zero carbon circular economy. At CoGG last meeting before caretaker period commenced, they agreed to form a Sustainability Advisory Committee, made up of community members and industry experts.  Time will tell if this is sufficient but we suspect not.  

Results from the recent Geelong Community Survey highlighted the need for better community engagement and information sharing. We think Deliberative Democracy could have more significant role in our local government decision making.  

In Victoria, the new Local Government Act specifically requests councils to be engaged in 'deliberative democracy' ( s.88).  So in our CoGG Candidate Survey, we asked candidates if they supported using high-level, deliberative community engagement processes. Be sure to check out the survey results being published soon to see who supported the concept!

Six ‘Meet the Candidate’ ward-based forums have been organised, from the 5th to the 9th of October.  Residents can pre-submit questions for candidates to address, and attend the forum of their choice via Zoom.  It may not be deliberative democracy in action, but it will provide candidates with a snapshot of the issues that matter most to residents. 

Geelong has already taken the first step towards Deliberative Democracy when it held a Citizens Jury back in 2017, when Dr Kathy Alexander was the Administrator. The State Government engaged consultants to establish a Citizens’ Jury of 100 people, from around Geelong. More info. We asked GS member, Caroline Danaher, to share her personal account of the 2017 Citizens’ Jury.

Personal reflection on Geelong’s first Citizens’ Jury

A short postcard arrived one morning. Would I like to be part of a Citizens’ Jury? 

I didn’t know what a Citizens’ Jury was, but I still said yes. I was selected to join a hundred other ratepayers or renters to resolve ‘How do we want to be democratically represented by a future council?’ 

The introductory evening was straight forward, though daunting. We were first instructed in skills centred on personal engagement, response and action. We queried our likes and feelings to see where we sat on the character spectrum. Our other instruction was on critical thinking. After some practice we learnt to use our new skills very effectively. Our collaboration on every topic was exhilarating as we teased out its rationale.


For each new topic we would group together to make recommendations.  We were encouraged to be creative, even outrageous with our suggestions. We stuck post-it notes around the walls. Which were the best ideas? Was it a dreadful idea?  I like it. I love it. We came up with over thirty recommendations to improve our local government legislation, which were eventually cut down to eleven. Small groups then met to finalise and refine each recommendation.

One recommendation was dismissed by State Parliament: ‘To prohibit developer financial and in-kind contributions to candidates and council staff, consistent with other states’ legislation.’ This was considered unnecessary and not a problem in local government.

As an ordinary citizen, I found myself proud to be part of this Jury and have my say.
I have three final reflective comments:

  • Several politicians were among the speakers.  It amazed me how easily our jury saw through their ‘sales talk’.
  • The group was even by gender but varied by age. The most uneven aspect was ethnicity; pretty much all were white. (Census data does not give sufficient detail at this level which should be addressed).
  • There was a distinct lack of interest in the Jury. Although visitors were allowed in, State opposition politicians were conspicuous by their absence.