Sowing ideas to cultivate democracy

Australian Greens

Held in parallel with the Greens’ National Conference in Canberra last month, the Green Institute conference Cultivating Democracy dug into some big questions and ideas to help guide us into 2020 and beyond.

By Tim Hollo

Are our democratic systems up to the challenges of the 21st century?

From the climate crisis to spiralling inequality to increasingly open racism and hate, can our democratic institutions and norms help us face down and survive what’s coming?

What positive visions can we Greens provide for a better way of doing politics that can help us survive and thrive?

How do we come together to cultivate deeper democratic practices, in our communities, in our workplaces, through parliaments and through our campaigns?

These are some of the questions we dug into at the Green Institute’s conference, Cultivating Democracy, held in parallel with the Greens National Conference in Canberra last month.

The Green Institute

As so often happens, one of the questions I was asked frequently over the weekend was, “what is the Green Institute?”

Answering that was, in fact, one of the reasons for holding our conferences together this time!

For those who don’t know, the Green Institute is the official thinktank of the Australian Greens, established when we achieved party status at a federal level, with a remit to research and educate around Greens politics. We’re an independent body, at arm’s length from the party, which is helpful from both perspectives.

But we’re here because of and for the benefit of the Greens, with a recently updated mission statement of “cultivating ideas for Green politics”. You can stay updated with those ideas, and find out about opportunities to get involved in developing them, by signing up to our e-news here.

The conference

The conference was all about cultivating ideas – sowing seeds and discussing how we can tend them and help them grow into new (and ancient) practices for doing democracy better. On the opening day, we had a series of panel sessions and Q&As, to familiarise everyone with the ideas. Over the weekend, in parallel with the Greens conference, we ran deliberative discussions, digging more deeply into the ideas and nutting through how we can implement them through our roles in every level of governance and through our campaigns in communities.

The first session was a tremendously inspiring and challenging conversation on Indigenous democracy and decolonising our democracy, with Dr Tjanara Goreng Goreng, Dr Paul Collis, James Williams and Lidia Thorpe. Each of them brought fascinating perspectives to the session, from detailed reflections on Indigenous forms and conceptions of governance through making space for Indigenous leadership in our current system to actively constructing sovereign hubs as seeds for a new democracy. This set the scene for the rest of the weekend in a wonderfully constructive and open manner.

We followed this with a panel on deepening democracy, asking us to think beyond how we fix our current systems to how we construct new, deeper democratic institutions and norms. Associate Professor Simon Niemeyer, from the University of Canberra’s Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance, gave us a detailed picture of what deliberative democracy does differently from adversarial democracy, and how experiments around the world, from Canberra to Ireland and Belgium, are demonstrating the capacity to work through extraordinarily complex and fraught questions to find a way to effective solutions.

Dr Amanda Cahill from The Next Economy then outlined her work in regional communities, often with major fossil fuel infrastructure, to bring people together around positive visions for the future. Dr Tim Dunlop asked us to consider the benefits of sortition – random selection of community members – for some democratic tasks. And Nicola Paris, from CounterAct, focused our attention on the vital role of protest and non-violent direct action in democracy, and how all of us have a responsibility to support those taking such action.

After lunch, our session on democratising the economy heard from Clare Ozich on workplace democracy, Dr Elise Klein on how universal basic income can be a democratising force, and Celeste Liddle on the lessons from Indigenous economic organising. And the final session of the first day heard from Nicky Ison on community renewable energy cooperatives as a democratic model, Margaret Blakers on the vital need for national and local leadership on environmental protection, and Dr Natalie Osborne on how urban commons projects can lead the way to new, ecological democracy, reclaiming both space and power – with a warning about the risks of eco-fascism and a deep, powerful call for us to embrace the more-than-human as we imagine the evolution of democracy.

All these sessions were audio recorded and will be available on our website soon. Report-backs from the deliberative sessions will also go up as we complete them.

Thanks to all those who attended the conference. The only way for the Green Institute to be of assistance to the party is if members, elected representatives and office bearers take part in events like this, and it was fantastic to have so many keen on Cultivating Democracy.

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