Citation: Sharon Beder, 'Debate is Best Stifled with Yawns', Sydney Morning Herald, 2nd October 1992, p. 13.

This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

Sharon Beder's Other Publications

THE best way of avoiding public involvement in a public discussion is to hold a conference that no-one can afford to go to.

This is all right for business conferences but it is too blatant for public forums. A more subtle means can be used to achieve the same end; a conference that has no impact.

The first step is to give the conference as unenticing a title as you can think of, something like "UNCED: The Need for Institutional Reform". This will ensure that only the professionally interested attend, mainly bureaucrats and lawyers. But make sure that you call it a public forum rather than a conference or the public might catch on.

In case anyone with even a spark of imagination slips past the initial obstacle and actually figures out what UNCED stands for, ensure that the program is full of boring papers given by impassive bureaucrats, starting with the most platitudinous.

This will ensure that any media people who are there by mistake will sneak away at morning-tea time. This avoids any publicity being given to the proceedings.

If any of the speakers threaten to be interesting make sure that they are followed by bureaucrats so that the minds of the audience can be cleansed of interesting thoughts.

Ensure question time is short (10 minutes for every 1 1/2 hours is plenty)and have a panel of 10 bureaucrats on the podium who are so important they all have the opportunity to comment on any question. This serves the dual purpose of taking up most of the question time and making sure the audience does not take seriously the claim that the conference is about listening to what they have to say.

By afternoon-tea time all but the most enduring of attendees will have left or fallen asleep. This is when strategically placed workshops may be necessary for the release of built-up frustrations from members of the public who still haven't got the message that no-one wants to listen to them.

It is best to separate indigenous people, youth and feminists into their own workshops in case there is some mind-stimulating conflict. Conflict is to be avoided at all costs because it might relieve the boredom.

Of course, there is an art to workshops too. This was perfected at the"community consultation" forums held by the Federal Government's ecologically sustainable development working groups.

To ensure full participation in this important debate about the future direction of Australia's development, it was decided that two one-day forums would be sufficient for NSW; one on rural issues was held in Dubbo and one on urban issues was held in Sydney.

The best way to run a totally ineffective workshop is to make sure that the rules dominate and smother spontaneous discussion. The "butcher's paper democracy" method employed at the Sydney forum is a good example.

Those attending are separated into small groups of 10-15 people (this takes up half the allotted time). Each person is then allowed to speak for two minutes and their thoughts are reduced to three words on a piece of butcher's paper.

No discussion of what they say is allowed until everyone has had a turn. By this time any argument is forgotten and conflict minimised. Ten minutes of discussion follows and, just as this starts to take off, the time is up.

Workshop sessions are inevitably followed by plenary sessions. These are the most mind-numbing experience you can imagine, far worse than any paper by a boring bureaucrat.

An elected spokesperson from each small group laboriously reads out its butcher's paper to the reassembled forum. An official bureaucrat takes notes and the refined recommendations of the groups are further diluted and reduced to two A4 sized pages of unconnected points.

The distilled wisdom of the public is then made available to the Government's working groups who no doubt find it a useful contribution to their files. In this way no-one can complain that they didn't get a chance to have a say and anything too complicated or too controversial will have been simplified into a motherhood statement, or lost along the way.

The Government can claim it has consulted the people - the forums were a great success.

Real community debate is to be avoided at all costs. The future of the world is too precious to be left to a bunch of people who have walked in off the street. They might actually want to change something. Better to bore everyone into submission.

NB: Any resemblance in the above to the "public forum" held in Sydney last weekend in preparation for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Brazil in June 1992 is purely coincidental. After all, organisers described that forum as "a novel way for people to dialogue with governments in search of solutions to critical survival issues in an increasingly interconnected world".