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Why is government ‘consultation’ so bad in Australia and what can we do about it?


26 April 2021 at 6:22 pm
Neil Pharaoh
Neil Pharaoh compares Australia’s two versions of consultation with the system in New Zealand, and shares some advice on how community organisations can amplify their voice.


Neil Pharaoh | 26 April 2021 at 6:22 pm


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Why is government ‘consultation’ so bad in Australia and what can we do about it?
26 April 2021 at 6:22 pm

Neil Pharaoh compares Australia’s two versions of consultation with the system in New Zealand, and shares some advice on how community organisations can amplify their voice.

I have just come back from a very short trip in New Zealand to see family and friends – full confession, as well as being an Australian citizen, I also carry citizenship with New Zealand (and yes, as a dual citizen you are still allowed to run for state parliament, just not federal). As a citizen, I follow New Zealand politics, as well as get to vote in the New Zealand elections. No surprises who I voted for last time around. 

But what does New Zealand have to do with “consultation”? One of the biggest differences in politics between New Zealand and Australia from a practical perspective is the concept of “consultation” – in short, in New Zealand it means something. Government genuinely consults, they seek out opinions, they come into enquiries without an answer and they are willing to change course based on facts and figures. 

In Australia, we do not really do “consultation” well – governments in Australia typically “consult” when they have an outcome in mind, and need to run a process, ruse, or guise in order to “appear” like they have consultation. The other version of “consultation” we have in Australia is obfuscation, in other words “yachts for lawyers” in the form of royal commissions when we know the answer, but do not have the political courage to go through with it, so call an (expensive) royal commission. 

I have abbreviated the deep, nuanced and legal situation in New Zealand, however the concept of consultation which is genuine and purposeful in New Zealand, owes some of its origins to the Maori fights for justice. The Treaty of Waitangi has consultation provisions within it. The need to consult arises from the principle of partnership in the Treaty of Waitangi which requires the partners to act reasonably and to make informed decisions. Treaty provisions in effect give government consultation a genuine meaning, and consultation which isn’t genuine, reasonable and informed is in breach of the treaty. 

In Australia, we really see two journeys of consultation, both at state and federal levels. 

Version one – government knows the outcome it wants, but needs to make it look as if they have engaged, consulted and sought feedback from the public and others. Social purpose organisations, academics and others spend hundreds of years cumulatively responding to enquiries, commissions and investigations, when too often the answer is predetermined. 

In this instance, the key role for those responding to enquiries is to make it more than an academic exercise – engage social and traditional media, liaise with other political stakeholders, build coalitions, and campaigns – and spend less time focused on the technical and policy response and building momentum behind your cause. The only way non-genuine consultation can be made genuine, is if the media, the public and the broader community raise the stakes – then, and usually only then, does “consultation” become genuine. 

Version two – royal commissions, à la “yachts for lawyers”. We have had dozens of royal commissions in Australia, at state and federal level since federation. Some are inane and small; some mark a watershed moment on an issue. Looking at the frequencies of royal commissions though, you see a pattern – they tend to repeat similar investigative topics every 30 years or so and while doing so they give government a reason to do nothing for extended periods as “we are waiting for the results of <insert> royal commission”. 

Royal commissions have done some epic work, however the political response to them is often less than ideal. A royal commission process can allow up to a decade of “non response” from a government, or inaction on an issue, all so the “recommendations” can be often largely ignored. 

Royal commissions also often form a convenient way of diverting attention from government – and often government inaction. For example, we have had a Royal Inquiry into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Deaths in Custody, and yet have had hundreds of deaths since the inquiry, and the majority of the recommendations have never been implemented. 

So how can you amplify your voice even in the commission process? In the same way as you would for enquiries, make it more than an academic or inquisitorial exercise. Engage social and traditional media, liaise with other political stakeholders, build coalitions, and campaigns. 

While the commissioners in a royal commission are highly competent, capable and brilliant minds, the decision to implement recommendations always falls back to political processes. If you can influence the wider political process, media, public and broader community by raising the stakes, then – and usually only then – do the recommendations become law.

 

About the author: Neil Pharaoh has spent most of his voluntary and professional life in and around social purpose organisations, government, public policy and advocacy. Neil has been behind many leading social policy and advocacy campaigns on gender rights, equality, medical research and education, and ran for Parliament in Victoria in 2014 and 2018. Neil is co-founder and director of Tanck, which focuses on better engagement with government, and regularly runs workshops and advocacy sessions and advises leading social purpose organisations on their government engagement strategy and systems. 

Happenings on the hill is a fortnightly column focusing on all things politics, policy, campaigns and advocacy. Stay tuned for updates around political trends and elections, lobbying and advocacy news, and hints, tips and ideas on government engagement that are specifically written for the social purpose/for purpose sector.

If you have any ideas, suggestions, tips or questions, please feel free to email Neil Pharaoh at neil@neilpharaoh.com.au or reach out to him via social media at LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @neilpharaoh.


Neil Pharaoh  |  @ProBonoNews

Neil Pharaoh has spent most of his voluntary and professional life in and around social purpose organisations, government, public policy and advocacy.

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One comment

  • Avatar Sarina Greco says:

    Very pertinent advice to NGO’s to implement an ‘influencing’ strategy that will help build the imperative to act on the key ideas being submitted to consultations. I would add that the policy thinkers must partner with those who have lived experience of issues under the microscope, and support them to speak directly to decision-makers. Thanks you for practical your article, Neil.

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