Democracy is an evolving system that by definition people are supposed to be able to change. In Sydney, a diverse range of locals are flexing their democratic muscle…
Outside the Reserve Bank in Sydney’s Martin Place, at 8.30pm last night, participants of #OccupySydney were organised. As if the architects of the city had planned it this way, a row of steps just outside the bank make for a natural amphitheatre. In that space, an engaging, entertaining meeting between 150 Sydney-siders was taking place. This meeting was almost certainly more participatory and engaging than the meetings usually held in the skyscrapers here in Sydney’s financial district.
The group are inspired by #OWS or Occupy Wall Street, a citizen movement that began 4 weeks ago in New York and has spread to cities around the world. Yesterday was Day 3, and much of the conversation was about how to make sure Sydney’s residents feel welcome and included in this public space: a space decorated by signs and constructed not of fixtures and fittings, but milk-crates and sleeping bags. (‘Permanent’ structures, like tents, have already been confiscated by police).
As a speaker speaks, the audience participate by using their hands to communicate with each other and the speaker. Imagine speaking to 150 people, and having them offering instant feedback; like a television ‘worm’ during an election debate. There’s “I agree” (palms up, wiggling fingers), “I disagree” (palms down, wiggling fingers), “I object strongly and want to speak” (forearms crossed in front of face) and “wrap it up, this is taking too long” (forearms rolling in front of each other). These protocols proved very effective for the hour I was there, allowing instant votes to be held on matters of procedure, consistently seeking and achieving consensus.
Not everyone would be sleeping there tonight, but some would choose to… 24/7, people are welcome join in: to ask questions, to debate, and to imagine futures for their city, their country and the world.
If you’re wondering what the participants stand for, well, a few themes have emerged: equity, sustainability and democracy.
On the economy, to quote business writer Alan Kohler, “while [most people's] wages are going nowhere, being cut, or disappearing as jobs are lost, CEOs are still making ever more money”. The expression, “We are the 99%” has become a rallying cry of some participants, who are telling their personal stories via the web.
On the environment, we know climate change is real, and many signals – from our air and water quality to species extinction – indicate that we need to embrace renewable energy and less environmentally destructive practices. Despite this, capital continues to pour into incredibly environmentally destructive projects, with muted democratic oversight.
Our governments are filled with politicians who need corporate support to run their election campaigns, so their power is shared with the corporations who get them in. It’s a kind of bastardised democracy that many of the protesters believe can improved upon with greater citizen participation… An example of such participation might be citizens’ juries.
This world, and this country, are facing real challenges, and these citizens are wanting to tackle many of them head-on. So, what does success look like to these people? Well, in chalk on the footpath I saw a note: it read, “Change the system before the system changes you!”. To what degree will the #occupy movement be able to gather the momentum and judgement needed to ‘change the system’? Only time will tell.