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Australian experience: Civic engagement as symbol and substance



This article outlines how civic engagement has become a distinctive feature of the policy development and review processes of governments in Australia, a federal polity. The patterns of civic engagement are quite variable across policy issues, levels of government and geographical regions. Civic engagement (or community consultation) has become a purposeful and planned dimension of policy development in most Australian jurisdictions since the 1980s. Two main reasons for this development are elaborated: the instrumental arguments about programme improvement and effectiveness, and the normative arguments about democratic legitimacy and rights to civic participation. The role of government-sponsored processes for civic engagement is contrasted with the proliferation of new media and independent civil-society forums available for commentary and advocacy. Key distinctions are drawn between various processes and methods of civic engagement in Australia, raising issues about the scope and authenticity of participation on different types of issues. There are specific challenges of involvement by and for indigenous communities, and the special needs of remote communities whose level of social and economic exclusion remains seriously depressed. The conclusions raise some implications for policy development and for state legitimacy arising from impoverished forms of civic engagement. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.