Participative Democracy: Community Participation or Technocratic Elitism

By Richard Nash,

(University of the Sunshine Coast – Paper presented to the Australasian Political Studies Association Conference University of Tasmania, Hobart, 29 September – 1 October 2003)

Discussions on natural resource management promote the idea of community participation as a central mechanism for collaborative politics, participatory democracy and sustainable development. The employment of such terminology implies broad and integrative approaches to decision-making processes. Furthermore, participants at all levels embrace popular ideas such as capacity building, social capital, integration and partnership arrangements, which suggest opportunities for meaningful participation by a broad cross section of the population. A study of catchment strategy management and waterways’ activities in South East Queensland, however, suggests that decisions and
outcomes do not reflect the values, needs or concerns of the wider community. The paper argues that despite a rhetoric that espouses the substantive values of the ‘grass roots’, the decision-making process is confined to a dominant coalition of elite participants that promotes the rationality of a technocratic society. This paper proposes that the language of such a coalition excludes a significant section of the community through the vagueness,
ambiguity and equivocalness of key concepts that underpin environmental politics. Furthermore, the implications of an equivocal and ambiguous use of language expose the Sunshine Coast to economic development that is unsustainable and contrary to the desires of the majority of its citizens. Sustainability, community, social capital and volunteering, for example, are central rhetorical components of debates on natural resource management. However, their meanings, interpretations and application reinforce the dominant discourses of technological paradigms.

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