Thursday, 26 March 2009

The Citizens' Voice: The Net as the Public Sphere

Numerous publications (such as Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone, John Uhr's Terms of Trust & Colin Hay's Why we Hate Politics) suggest that citizen participation in politics and the public sphere generally has been declining over time.

There are two major views:
(1) Citizens are 'free-riders' who enjoy the benefits of citizenship, but refuse to participate: 'the key problem lies with the citizens, rather than the state; they are apathetic and need to be encouraged to participate' (Li & Marsh 2007).

(2) '[C]itizens are not apathetic; rather, they are alienated from a political system which doesn’t allow them a "real", that is effective, voice' (Henrik Bang cited in Li & Marsh 2007).
The former tends to be the mainstream view, while the latter suggests that citizens are excluded from participation. In my view, Australians are excluded from politics due to a variety of particular legacies of settlement. This is unfortunate as the Australian colonies were among the early adopters of 'responsible government'.

Federal systems, in particular, are well placed to ensure that local issues are not overlooked by an all-powerful central government. Regrettably, the centralisation of political power in Australia, supported by federal-state issues of funding emerging from the implementation of the GST, for example, have weakened the responsiveness of state and local governments to regional and local problems.

If we view citizen participation from the first view, the central government must pick up the slack where citizens are unwilling to participate. If we adopt the second view, citizens are further removed from politics as the centre weilds more power.

In addressing the question: 'Why do we hate politics?", I argue that it is because it is not worth the effort to bang one's head against a system which listens to its own 'expert' opinion, rather than the issues facing citizens. Of course, education plays a major role if citizens are to be capable of participating effectively.

An unfortunate consequence of applying business practices to governance in higher education is that citizens have to rely increasingly on their own resources to study. This leads to many students having neither the time to think about or engage in politics.

Issues of a 'digital divide' aside, the Net provides an opportunity for citizens to have a voice in politics which is generally beyond the means of the typical Aussie battler. The recent focus on censoring the Net is problematic for participation in cyber-politics. Nonetheless, the rising tide of citizen participation online indicates that citizens are willing to participate.

Politicians are increasingly aware of the benefits of Net participation, and I must say it is pleasing to be able to follow Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull as they announce their activities on Twitter and Facebook. It is even better when local politicians are involved. No longer are our political representatives these higher beings who appear on the non-participatory broadcast media, but they are our 'friends' on Facebook and Twitter.

In an age where most of us are starved for time, the Net has the potential to create a quasi-public sphere which has been beyond the realm of ordinary citizens for too long. Obviously face-to-face participation is better than cyber-participation, but is cyber-participation better than none at all? I argue that cyber-participation removes the barriers of time and space, enabling citizens to participate in more forums than ever before. The Net enables the citizens' voice to be heard in the 'global quasi-public cyber-sphere' and citizens are already taking advantage of New Media.

The problem for the 'state', whether we accept the first or second views of citizen participation, will be its ability to cope with citizen participation on such a large scale. Indeed, it is already happening!

Creative Commons License Except where indicated otherwise, Le Flâneur Politique by Michael de Percy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Australia License. Based on a work at politicalscience.com.au. Background image ©Depositphotos.com/ @redshinestudio