Thursday, 14 July 2016

The start of democracy

Riddells Creek Landcare is embedded in a mesh of government plans and programs of government as complex as any ecosystem. Consultation mediates differences and connects local communities with government. Consultation is part of our politics, for the old presumption that public servants make decisions for others, independent of the community and politicians, has broken down. With the 24/7 news cycle, politicians have stepped directly into the activities of the agencies in their portfolio. The public narrative must be chivvied to chime with the Minister's, and consultation is the chorus between the verses of Ministerial pronouncement.

As a consequence, our humble Riddells Landcare group now finds itself subject to countless invitations to comment on the strategies of government agencies and programs. On offer are workshops and briefings, carefully engineered to present the options as the professionals understand them, and online surveys that ask yes/no, like/don't like of options that capture just a part of the complexity of living. And there's the emailed comment, where we can let loose with what we think, pent-up frustration spilling out as we hammer away at the smorgasbord of issues or draft recommendations put before us.

Excellent, I think as I hit the 'send' button; I've had my say. A storm of collective opinion is swept by a digital wind into vast strategorium cloudbanks, lining a distant horizon, simmering for months, eventually precipitating glossy brochures that rain down into our in-trays and letter boxes, with assurances that we have indeed been listened to.

Sometimes, but rarely, we are invited to speak directly to those who will make recommendations. The Macedon Ranges Protection Advisory Committee, set up by the Minister for Planning to decide what policy instruments are needed to protect the character of the Macedon Ranges, recently invited community members who had written their views, to come and speak to them. A rudimentary conversation was held.

What is missing in all of this is time where we talk with each other. What do you think? What do I think? What has been our experience around an issue like roads, or health services, or residential development, or recreation? Put those categories aside …. what is it like for you living here in Riddells? What is it like for me? Do we have goals in common?

These are conversations best run by the grassroots. Riddells Neighbourhood House is inviting community groups to hear each others' priorities. At the Forum for Democratic Renewal in Riddells Creek in April, 50 residents put their heads together on what they think needs attention by local government (google it).

These are places when we can talk with our neighbours, and listen, with no public officials or strategy in sight. It's here that we get a sense of who we are as a community, and what we want for our common life. These conversations are the start of democracy.

Ross Colliver, Riddells Creek Landcare

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