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Same-sex marriage: it's time to ask the jury


With the issue of marriage equality in Australia having now stalled, community engagement expert Emma Lawson suggests that the citizens’ jury process might point to a way forward.

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Now that a plebiscite on same-sex marriage is off the table, it’s time to get serious and genuinely put this issue in the hands of the public, particularly those at the centre of the debate.

If the Federal Government had been prepared to engage the community at the beginning, we could now have reached a consensus and be in a position to pursue a way forward. Instead, we are back at the start – and no more time should be wasted.

On the bright side, this now opens the door for genuine consultation and a conclusion to be reached – one way or another.

It’s time for both the Government and the Opposition to trust the people.

Even democracies formed in Classical times trusted and respected everyday citizens to make decisions in the best interests of society. Ancient Grecians had faith in the collective wisdom of a representative random sample of society to consider facts and evidence, discuss and decide.

However, in the 21st century it appears there is a prevailing view that the public is unable to move beyond self-interest, that their views are fixed and they are generally unable to grasp complex issues – let alone that opposing sides might form a consensus.

Experience shows us this is underestimating Australians.

Of course, harnessing our collective wisdom and skills is not easy and it relies on the appropriate application and choice of democratic processes.

Gay marriage is an ideal place to start.

As a professional who is dedicated to delivering better democratic outcomes, I know from experience that considered decision-making relies on effective public debate about the breadth of perspectives on the issue. It requires a balanced public discussion that explores research and thinking about the issue.

This ensures the public is making informed decisions; that members of the community are coming to true judgments once they are armed with the facts and have had a chance to consider the issues at hand. This is called a deliberative process.

A plebiscite or a free vote in parliament without consultation and engagement is not a coherent balanced discussion about any issue. Apart from the LGBTI community, how many of us genuinely feel impacted directly by a decision to allow – or deny – marriage equality?

A far better option would be to bring together a cross-section of the community, including LGBTI people, with a random sample of the population and representatives from various faiths to build understanding and deliberate on solutions which are acceptable to all and enable each to see where they can find common ground. Such a process – known as a citizens’ jury – is far better than pitting each side against each other.

The struggle that successive Labor and Coalition governments have recently had points to a broader problem in how we make (or fail to make) public decisions today. If we can’t resolve this issue, then how can we resolve welfare spending, surging health costs and other grand challenges?

The failure of the parties to even agree on how to make a decision about marriage equality points to where the real public issue lies.

On our last federal election day, the privately-funded democracy innovator – NewDemocracy Foundation – offered to donate $5 million to the Australian parliament to fund a citizens’ jury process for everyday people to explore how we can do democracy better.

The offer stands. The Government needs to accept it – and trust Australians in the process.

Emma Lawson is CEO of democracyCo, which is delivering the citizens’ jury on the future of the nuclear fuel cycle in South Australia.

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