Explaining active citizenship: responsibility, participation and change

By Arman I Rashid, PhD

The Victorian state election will be held in November 2022 after the recent Australian federal election and the Melbourne City Council election is scheduled for October 2024.

These upcoming elections will allow voters to exercise their right to franchise, make choices for representatives and have their voice heard in the political process, which brings to fore the importance of “active citizenship” during elections – and beyond.

Active citizenship

What is “active citizenship”? It refers to sustained civic engagement in the political process by residents to improve the lives of others and shape the future in a community (Adler & Goggin, 2005). The concept emerges from an empowering political philosophy emphasising not only the rights but also responsibilities of voters in bringing about positive change. In other words, voters have a critical role in democratic governance with their active participation in the political process.

Improved governance, cohesiveness

An informed and involved citizenry will augur well for better accountability, transparency and responsiveness in all tiers of government – federal, state and municipal. In fact, “active citizenship” entails an interdependent relationship between politicians and voters in upholding democracy, rule of law and governance. Voters have a stake, role and responsibility to participate in the political process for better policy-making and service delivery.

A higher level of civic engagement can lead to more social cohesiveness in a community, particularly for diverse constituencies like Melbourne. The City of Melbourne is itself home to more than 140 cultures from Aboriginal traditional owners to recent migrants. “Active citizenship” enables voters to develop a sense of belongingness irrespective of their backgrounds by voicing concerns, advocating reforms, and engaging in community activities, thereby playing a constructive role in improving their quality of life.

Mindset shift

There may inevitably be varying degrees of satisfaction with governance, but this begs the question whether we have played our due role as voters in the first place? The underlying motivations of “active citizenship” can be explained by existential self-interest – quite simply, voters recognising their stakes and making a choice to participate proactively in the political process for their own, family and community wellbeing. It is about taking ownership of what is our own: different tiers of government.

Bearing in mind our collective benefits, “active citizenship” requires a mindset shift that the onus of good governance and positive change lies not only with elected representatives but also ourselves as voters with a role to play. Though voting is a key component of civic engagement, our responsibilities as voters are not limited to election day. It is imperative to have a sustained engagement with the political process in the lead-up to and aftermath of elections if we want to ensure policy decisions are reflective of community needs.

Road to civic engagement

Given the benefits of “active citizenship”, how can we be more involved in the political process? There is no “one-size-fits-all” formula for civic engagement – the nature and level of participation will depend on our own preferences and circumstances. Something is better than nothing when it comes to fulfilling our ongoing responsibilities as informed and involved citizenry. Here are some steps for fostering better civic engagement.

 Learn, explore, and decide

Australia has compulsory voting, but it is important to make informed choices in casting our ballots. We need to learn about the Australian political system, parliamentary structure, government tiers, political parties, candidates, manifestos and commitments. We need to have a strong grasp of current issues affecting the electorate, including a self-awareness of values and priorities, before deciding which party or candidate offers the best outcomes for our community. There are many new digital platforms to raise awareness, for instance Polipedia and Vote Compass.

Connect with our community

We have often lost track of our neighbours, particularly in urban settings. The pandemic has reminded us once again about the importance of community and this is the perfect time for connecting with neighbours again. If we live in an apartment block, there may be opportunities for joining body corporate meetings or organising a resident social gathering. This can help build a sense of belongingness, inclusivity and solidarity based on shared priorities.

Engage with politicians

It is important to make our voice heard not only on election day but also after that.  In fact, voter participation in the political process is arguably even more important after the elections to ensure elected representatives receive feedback, fulfil commitments, and respond to community aspirations. There are many ways to engage with elected representatives, including signing petitions, writing letters, or interacting with their teams through social media platforms. In addition, we can join formal community consultations initiated by city councils from time to time.

Join a community platform

There are also opportunities to join community groups raising awareness or providing service delivery in our localities. Residents 3000, for instance, is a not-for-profit association founded in 1993 to promote the welfare of Melbourne CBD residents. We organise monthly community meetings, advocate policy reforms, and engage closely with the City of Melbourne and elected representatives. For more information, please visit the Residents 3000 website.

Nurture civic responsibility

Last but not least, we can nurture the values and benefits of “active citizenship” among the next generation. We can enlighten children about civic engagement by helping them learn about political systems, electoral processes, political parties, and voter responsibilities during and after elections. This will help young people develop political literacy and civic responsibility to play a constructive role as informed and involved citizens in the future.

Agency for change

We can start with small steps towards big strides for more active involvement as change agents in the political process. It can begin with more knowledge on the political system, parties, and candidates, while reminding ourselves of the need for sustained civic engagement during elections and beyond. For Melbourne City Council, residents can enrol as voters even if they are not Australian citizens provided conditions for owning or occupying rateable property within the City of Melbourne are fulfilled. For more information, please visit the City of Melbourne website.

Australia is blessed with a democratic system offering “active citizenship” opportunities for voters. It is an opportunity for old and new residents, including migrants from diverse communities, to contribute to our new homeland. Voters have an indispensable role in ensuring accountability, transparency, and responsiveness through participation in the political process, which will translate to a “government of the people, by the people and for the people” envisioned by Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address.

Godspeed democracy and civic engagement! •

 

Arman I Rashid, PhD is a committee member of Residents 3000. He is a political analyst-turned-mental health professional committed to civic engagement and democratic governance.

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