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  • Writer's pictureBronwyn Kelly

We the people can set the national agenda

The major parties will not offer big agendas in this year’s federal election. But Australians can start to build the agenda they want.

In the lead-up to the federal election this year Australians will be assailed with political advertising, most of which is likely to be about which of the major parties is the most capable on the economy and security, and which of the two contenders for the position of prime minister is most or least worthy of that office.

If there is room on the agenda for any more than this, it will be piled on by politicians, journalists and lobbyists who will be pushing what matters most to them. Little if any prominence will be given to what we the people might actually want for our future. As such, the federal election agenda will have no relationship with the genuine aspirations of Australians. It will offer us no great chance to build the future we prefer as a nation. And when state elections come around it will be the same disappointing story.

But there is one level of government that, for the last decade, has been obliged by legislation to ask what we the people want. That level is local government and in asking us what we want it has been obliged to follow a specified process of community engagement variously called “community strategic planning” or “community futures planning” or, as the legislation would have it, “Integrated Planning and Reporting (IP&R)”.

Dryly bureaucratic though this may sound, it is really just a straightforward sensible process which offers communities an orderly way to participate in describing the specific future they want and to build safe, practical plans to make it a reality. In short, it is a process which allows citizens to set their preferred agenda.

The sorts of agendas that emerge from this process are not the poor, narrow, short-sighted promises offered insincerely at federal and state election times. Experience in local government has shown that when communities take control of their own planning, they set agendas that are far-sighted, intelligent, inclusive and can take account of the fact that life is complex. They describe the type of social cohesion and life quality they want. And then they integrate that with descriptions of the services, landscapes, architecture, transport, amenity, access, equity, safety, health, recreation, air and water quality, natural environment, biodiversity, education, economic opportunity, heritage, artistic excitement, peace, and the fun they want.

Crucially, they also describe the democratic governance they want and the part they want to be able to play in that.

In short, they describe big, inspiring agendas that bring people together. These look nothing like the standard, divisive political platforms we are offered in national elections. Instead, they describe what really matters to us as a community and where we want to be in the longer term. And then they describe how we want to get there.

All this community engagement and long term planning can and does happen now in local council areas because, in most states of Australia, a process has been legislated by which it must happen. Of course, the process is not always used as well as it might be by communities and it’s not always run well by councils. But it is there, and it has lifted the standard of political agendas in local council areas across the country. It has also given communities more power within their democracy and over their future. And it has significantly increased their capacity to hold elected councils to account for delivery of what actually matters most.

Having been in place for over a decade, the local Integrated Planning and Reporting process has functioned as a large scale pilot test for what could be the next stage of reform in our national agenda setting process. Research on the experience gained with Integrated Planning and Reporting has shown that what works well in longer term agenda-setting at the local level can also be adapted to work well at the national level.

As a result, there is now a well-framed National Integrated Planning and Reporting process that the whole Australian community can use to set up a truly desired future, not just for issues affecting a particular locality, but for the nation as a whole – a future in which we the people can set targets for whatever we really want to achieve as a nation in social development and cohesion, in international standing, collaboration and promotion of peace, in the wider domestic and global economies, in environmental sustainability, in science and technology, in government and corporate ethics and in a healthy, open democracy.

The simple logic behind this is that if we are routinely confirming, every three years, who should lead the nation, it makes no sense if we don’t also routinely confirm where we want to go and what we want to become as a nation in the coming decades and what we want leaders to do in the interests of making that nation and that future a reality. National Integrated Planning and Reporting offers us a way of doing this, for the first time. It is agenda-setting by we the people but in an orderly, inclusive process which integrates diverse strategies that can help us travel to our specified future via the safest paths. It offers us a big chance to significantly improve the way we use our democracy and to increase our shares of power within it.

To pilot test the process that has been devised for a national version of Integrated Planning and Reporting, a community-based organisation called Australian Community Futures Planning has been established. For information on National Integrated Planning and Reporting and how to get involved visit Everyone is welcome to participate.

This is an exciting new tool for democracy which at the local level has distinctly improved the dialogue between elected councillors and communities. It can just as distinctly improve relationships between communities and federal politicians, restoring trust by deepening the understanding of elected leaders on what really matters to we the people.

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