We need to talk

What does a 'national conversation' involve?

Tom Kompas

Government and governance, Arts, culture & society | Australia

12 June 2015

National conversations will only work if they involve genuine attempts to hear many views.

As anybody who has been unlucky in love knows, the words “we need to talk” are rarely followed by good news.

Public policy has its own equivalent of this ominous term – when politicians or interest groups tell us that there “needs to be a national conversation about…” Cue the awkward silence and long, introspective walks of another policy heartbreak.

In Australia the most recent of these have been calls for a national conversation about the future of the tax system.  This wasn’t even the first time we’ve been asked to have a national conversation about tax – Ken Henry’s tax review was greeted by similar calls. It follows other calls for national conversations about issues as diverse as education funding, social services and science research.

With all these national conversations going on, it’s a wonder we have time to do anything other than talk.

Of course, cynics would suggest the term is really a euphemism, that what politicians actually mean when they call for a national conversation is they want to tell you some bad news and need you to adjust to it quickly so it doesn’t damage their re-election chances.

But even if we put this rational response to one side, what would a national conversation actually look or sound like? After all, it’s not like we can all gather in one room, have a civilised chat where everybody gets to be heard, and then come to some kind of consensus to guide policymakers.

One suspects that for most policymakers the expected path is this: announce the need for a national conversation, generate media coverage, prompt some opinion pieces along the way, encourage discussion on the news and current affairs shows, which in turn encourages the public to chat among themselves. Eventually, the conversation turns 180 degrees, with public sentiment being expressed in a variety of ways – through mainstream media, websites, blogs, protests or at the ballot box.

That process is all well and good if it gets results, but nobody could honestly characterise it as a conversation. A conversation requires giving everybody who wants the chance to have a say.

In policy terms that is much harder to do than to say. It has been tried, of course. Some would argue that  former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s 2020 summit was an attempt at a national conversation. Similarly, the discussion ahead of the referendum on becoming a republic prompted a national conversation of sorts.

Then there are organisations trying to facilitate conversations through deliberative democracy trials or providing platforms for debate and discussion around the big issues of our time; the Asia and the Pacific Policy Society, of which I’m president, was set up for this specific purpose.

When it comes to politicians asking for a national conversation though, what’s really missing is any sense of dialogue with the public. Filtering information down through the media then waiting to see what eventuates by way of public response at the ballot box is not a conversation.

So can we ever truly have a national conversation? No. But we can have more of a voice in the discussion, debate and formulation of public policy.

The first thing we need to do is to make sure that we, as voters, take every opportunity to truly be part of that discussion. For academics like me that means applying our research expertise to respond more rapidly to the public policy challenges posed by societies. For the public, it means getting involved – sharing views and ideas, whether that’s through social media, online websites or good old-fashioned writing to your local MP.

The reality is that the best public policy answers will come only when that policy has truly listened to and responded to needs from every level of society. Big policy decisions are too important to be left in the hands of a single expert or group – whether that’s politicians, academics or special interest groups.

We all need to have a say in coming up with policy solutions, and we all need to find our own preferred way to do that. We can only have a national conversation if it includes your voice.

Otherwise there’s bound to be more heartbreak.

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