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What I learned from European citizens on tackling hatred

Tackling hatred through citizens' engagement can also strengthen and revitalise democracy. Should Australia follow the EU’s lead on this?
David Alberts
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150 EU citizens gathered to tackle hatred in society at a Citizens’ Panel in Brussels, May 2024 (Image: European Union).

Published: 6 June 2024

Last updated: 6 June 2024

A plumber, a teacher and a 90-year-old artist walk into a bar. While this could have been the opening line of a joke, it was in fact, a portrait of the European Citizens' Panel on Tackling Hatred.

A diverse group came together not for laughs, but for a serious mission – to address and counteract the growing tide of hatred within the European Union. Over three weekends, ordinary EU citizens from all walks of life talked, listened, analysed and came to conclusions, proving that when people collaborate in an environment of respect and inclusivity, meaningful progress can be made.  I was part of a consortium that was commissioned by the EU to ran the project.

The assembly, which concluded on 19 May sparked a wave of optimism and provides a compelling blueprint for how Australia can engage its citizens on complex social issues. It produced 21 robust recommendations aimed at combating hatred, underscoring the potential of citizen-driven initiatives to influence policy. These recommendations cover areas such as education, digital and media literacy, awareness-raising initiatives, protection of vulnerable groups and the fight against disinformation.

I may have lost my hope in politics, but the last three months have restored my faith in people

Citizens' assembly participant

The European Commission’s motivation to host such an assembly was simple.

“Hatred is a fundamental risk to our democracy,” said European Commission’s Vice-President for Democracy and Demography Dubravka Šuica.

Another of the Commission’s Vice-Presidents, Vera Jourova noted that "we are witnessing an ever-growing river of hateful messages, especially online. They further add to a growing polarization of our societies and fracture democracy. In worst-case scenarios, violent words can lead to violent actions.”

Recent surveys reveal that more than 70% of Europeans want regular and meaningful involvement in policymaking, citing the lack of such involvement as a primary reason for their disinterest in elections.

"I may have lost my hope in politics, but the last three months have restored my faith in people," shared one participant, a sentiment which captures the essence of the assembly's success.  

Lessons for Australia

The situation is likely similar in Australia, where many citizens feel disconnected from the political process. The insights from the European Citizens' Panel provide a compelling case for Australian politicians, especially those involved in multicultural affairs, to adopt similar methods. Engaging citizens in tackling hatred is not only possible but essential for fostering a cohesive and inclusive society.

By establishing forums where people can share their experiences and solutions without fear of reprisal, Australian politicians could foster an environment of trust, gain valuable insights and demonstrate their commitment to addressing citizens' concerns.

The citizens assembly model ticks all the boxes. Running a citizens’ assembly successfully requires the following steps:

  • Start with pilot assemblies on specific issues related to hatred and discrimination. These initial efforts can serve as a learning experience and build momentum for larger-scale initiatives.

  • Assemble panels that reflect the diversity of Australian society, including participants from different age groups, backgrounds, and regions. This ensures that a wide range of perspectives are considered in the deliberations.

  • Ensure that participants have the necessary resources and support to engage effectively. This includes access to information, expert guidance, and logistical support.

  • Maintain transparency throughout the process, from participant selection to the implementation of recommendations. Regular updates and feedback mechanisms can help build trust and accountability.

  • Treat these assemblies as the beginning of a continuous dialogue with citizens. Follow up on recommendations and keep participants engaged in the long-term process of policy development and implementation.

Working with and within communities

Community leaders bridge gaps between politicians and citizens, making the engagement process more effective. This requires collaboration with respected community figures to build trust and ensure that diverse perspectives are included and help in mobilizing grassroots support and fostering a collective effort to tackle hatred.

Schools, community centres, and public campaigns also play a pivotal role in changing attitudes and behaviours. Politicians can and should support and initiate educational initiatives that highlight the value of diversity and the dangers of hatred., and build understanding between citizens.

By embracing citizen engagement, we can tackle hatred, strengthen and revitalise Australian democracy

More than a ‘talkfest’

The European Citizens' Panel is not the end of the journey but the beginning. As participants re-enter their daily lives, they will do so as change-makers, inspired and equipped to make a difference. The assembly showed me that when citizens are given the tools and opportunities to participate, they can drive significant change.

As an Australian, I believe the time is ripe for a similar initiative back home. By following the European example, Australia can create a more inclusive and engaged society, and by doing so reinstate humanity in politics and decision making.

Let's disagree agreeably, listen to others, trust strangers, change our minds, build collaborations. By embracing citizen engagement, we can tackle hatred, strengthen and revitalise Australian democracy and build a better future for all Australians.

Together, we can make a difference and ensure that citizens voices are harnessed in the fight against hatred.

About the author

David Alberts

David Alberts is the Founder and Chief Vision Officer of BeenThereDoneThat, an expert talent network whose mission is ‘To harness the world’s best thinkers to solve the world’s toughest problems’. David has recently started a new company called AnswersAreOutThere to help share the benefits of deliberative democracy with the world.


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