South Australia will celebrate its bicentenary next decade. In the third of a series of articles on democracy, Alan Reid says that much has changed since the centenary and future celebrations are an opportunity for reflection and renewal.
In 2036 – just 13 years away – South Australia will celebrate its bicentenary. It presents an opportunity to establish a bicentennial project involving community discussion and debate about possible changes to the structures, processes and practices of the state’s democracy.
Some changes could be trialled and implemented along the way. Others – such as the possible unveiling of a new State Constitution to take us into the next 100 years – could become the jewels in the crown of our bicentenary celebrations in 2036.
At first glance it may seem counter-intuitive to identify the bicentenary as a motivation for democratic renewal over the next decade, given the points made in the previous article about the consequences of European invasion in 1836. However, perhaps the reason for its apparent inappropriateness is the key to its eminent suitability.
1836 was the year in which a system of (colonial) government was imposed on First Peoples without their consent or involvement. It was that system of government which presided over the dispossession of their land and the near-destruction of their way of life.
When South Australia celebrated its centenary in 1936, the focus was on the 100 years of European settlement and its achievements with a strong emphasis on its connection with the British Isles. Conferences, church services, cultural and sporting events across the State dominated the year.
The centenary celebrations culminated in a Pageant of Progress comprising floats depicting the State’s history and achievements spread over three kilometres in length as it wound its way through Adelaide in late December. During the centenary year there was little or no reflection on the damage the previous 100 years had done to the original inhabitants.
By the time of South Australia’s bicentenary in 2036, so much will have changed. For a start, the waves of immigrants since World War Two mean that South Australia has a far more culturally diverse population, with an increasing percentage of South Australians from Asia and parts of Europe other than the British Isles. In addition, First Peoples have a constitutionally recognised Voice to State Parliament.
These two developments alone suggest that the nature of the bicentenary celebrations in 2036 should be very different from the centenary celebrations 100 years before.
An ‘Empire Builders’ float in the 1936 Pageant of Progress on King William Street. Photo: History SA. South Australian Government Photographic Collection, GN09907
This does not mean repudiating our British heritage. But it does suggest the need for composing and celebrating a new narrative which binds together and nurtures the three parts of what George Megalogenis calls Australia’s family tree: the heritage of its First Peoples (the roots); its British heritage (the trunk): and its multicultural migration heritage (the branches). Each must be recognised.
In the context of South Australia’s bicentenary, it means celebrating the ways in which South Australia has become a mostly peaceful and cohesive multicultural community combining many strands along its historical journey.
From this perspective, making democracy a bicentennial project offers an opportunity, for the first time, for the whole community to work together on key aspects of our democratic life.
During the centenary year there was little or no reflection on the damage the previous 100 years had done to the original inhabitants. By the time of South Australia’s bicentenary in 2036, so much will have changed
After almost two centuries of resistance and conflict in the face of aggression, paternalism, and benign neglect, what more important practical and symbolic action could there be, than have First Peoples engaged in co-reviewing and co-redesigning the democratic machinery that was originally imposed on them?
After decades of immigration from all parts of the globe, what more important community activity could there be than to engage citizens with diverse cultural backgrounds in the common experience of exploring the system of government that was already there when they arrived?
In short, what more fundamental statement could be made than for the bicentenary to represent the start of a new democratic life as South Australia moves into its third century, rather than a remembrance of the victory of one group over another?
The lead up to South Australia’s bicentenary in 2036 presents an ideal opportunity to break the traditional mould of such celebratory events, by establishing a project that focuses on democratic renewal. Such a project would have an impact well beyond the bicentenary year, and would not only benefit the State, but could also assist discussion about democracy in the rest of Australia and other parts of the world.
What might a bicentennial project on democracy look like?
2036 might seem a long way off, but given the size of the task a democratic renewal project would need to start in the near future. It would be premature to suggest a detailed outline for a possible project, but some initial suggestions might help to ground and clarify the idea.
There are any number of approaches that could be taken. For the purposes of this article, it will be assumed that it is a community-wide project which is sponsored by the State Parliament. After all, just as there is a state supported technology innovation hub at Lot 14, why could there not be a state-supported democracy innovation hub?
If it was to be a state-sponsored bicentennial project on democratic renewal, it must be independent of government and have the support of all political parties and groups from across the political spectrum. That is, it should be seen as a project of the Parliament, not the Government. If politicians raise party-based drawbridges rather than seriously consider alternatives to the ways in which our democracy operates, the project would be stillborn.
Given the many different aspects of democracy, there would be need for a broadly based community group – let’s call it the Democracy Advisory Council (DAC) – to coordinate the project activities and provide continuity and connection between them. In keeping with the principle of independence from government, the DAC could be appointed by and report to the Parliament, not the Government. It would oversee a number of strands.
An important initial task for the DAC would be to consult with the community, using such means as workshops, citizens’ assemblies, information sessions, and research projects, to arrive at a broadly agreed framework for understanding democracy including definition, purposes, principles, and values. This framework would become the touchstone for the Bicentennial Project suggesting what might be explored and the criteria against which to make judgements about democratic structures and practices.
The DAC would need to agree on some principles upon which to base a Bicentennial Project to review and revitalise democracy in South Australia. One principle might be that the project should model democratic practice by enabling all citizens, including those whose voices are often not heard, to participate actively in the process.
For example, young people who are typically marginalized in public debates should be key participants, helping to shape – and so gain some ownership of – the democratic system they will enjoy for many decades for come. In other words, the process should embody the democratic values and practices to which the project aspires.
Another principle might be that the process should be ongoing, allowing fresh ideas and new approaches to be discussed, developed, trialled and evaluated over a number of years.
This means more than involving citizens in a one-off Constitutional Convention, as happened in 2003 in South Australia. Rather, stitching the process into community life for over a decade would allow for a gradual expansion of the number of people involved, enable various strategies and mechanisms to be used in different contexts and for different purposes, and foster understanding and community ownership of possible changes.
Areas of investigation
The problems with democracy that were identified in the first article (3/5/2023) suggest at least four broad lines of investigation, each of which could be overseen by a committee reporting to the DAC.
1. There might be a focus on institutions asking questions about how our Parliament can be reformed to win back the trust of citizens. This could include consideration of such issues as how Parliament can reassert its control over the executive; how the membership of Parliament can be more diverse; how Parliamentary culture and procedures can be improved to better serve its purpose in a representative democracy; whether or not existing conventions need to be codified; or how the public service can be depoliticised.
2. There might be a focus on citizen participation, asking questions about ways by which citizens can be more actively engaged in democracy. This might include consideration of such issues as how to make our electoral laws and processes more democratic; how citizens can become more involved in deliberation about key policy issues; how to improve the nature of democratic discourse in such arenas as social media; and how to improve civics education in schools to better prepare young people for active citizenship.
3. There might be a focus on accountability, asking questions about the structures and procedures that will ensure that our elected representatives are held to account. This might include consideration of such issues as how decision-making processes can become more transparent; how to ensure that representatives are monitored in order to eliminate corruption, rorts, and conflicts of interest; how to ensure that various levels of scrutiny – such as independent commissions against corruption, royal commissions, parliamentary select committees, ombuds, audits, codes of conduct – are as constructive and as transparent as possible.
4. There might be a focus on rights and freedoms, asking questions about how to preserve and extend the rights and freedoms central to democratic life. This might include consideration of how human rights can be recognised and respected in the polity; how the tension between the rights and responsibilities associated with freedom of speech can be accommodated; how to promote a culture of civil and respectful exchange in the public sphere and public institutions; and how inclusion and diversity can be built into our democratic structures and processes.
Each committee could establish sub-groups to explore specific aspects of its area of investigation. For example, the committee on citizen participation might have a number of sub-groups covering such areas as school education, electoral laws, social media, mechanisms for deliberative democracy, and community education.
The committees (and their sub-groups) would operate independently from, but be coordinated by, the DAC. They would consult widely, using such established mechanisms as citizens’ assemblies or citizens’ juries, and trialling new ones. In addition, each of these committees would connect with established bodies representing key constituencies, such as the Voice to Parliament, Youth Parliament and the Multicultural Communities Council.
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The DAC would keep track of what is happening through documentation and coordination. At regular intervals it would present reports about its findings and recommendations to Parliament.
It is important to emphasise again that the skeleton structure suggested above is an example only, offered for the purpose of grounding the idea. There are any number of approaches that are possible.
In the final article next week, some of the benefits and outcomes of a bicentennial project to renew democracy will be explored.
Alan Reid is Professor Emeritus, Centre for Research in Educational and Social Inclusion, University of South Australia.
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