In his 2012 Marg Barry Memorial Lecture Dallas Rogers talked about the need for two different kinds of community participation spaces and the importance of monitoring government. With proposals for urban renewal and public housing redevelopment throughout the area up for “consultation” we have provided an edited version of Rogers’ presentation which is equally relevant to public tenants and the broader communities.

Dr Dallas Rogers

We can think about this as the need for two different types of community participation ‘spaces’. The first is what I’ve called citizen-sanctioned participation spaces, those spaces that tenants create themselves to perform an act of citizenship; these spaces are solely managed by tenants or their representatives and that have no, or very little, state or housing manager control or input. Independent tenant groups, and by ‘independent’ I mean no strings attached to funding, which is increasingly difficult within a market-driven policy environment as will become clearer in a minute.

These types of groups need to be free to question government decisions, free to talk to the media, and have free access to information about government policy and the actions of governments and housing managers.

Tenant verse practitioner spaces

When tenants create a participation space to perform an action of citizenship, they think outside the ‘invited space’ box to broader civil society spaces. They think about going to the media, challenging the dispersal of public housing tenants, or rejecting the idea that the market is the best way to address structural discrimination within housing provision.

By comparison, in the spaces that the government and housing managers create, and invite tenants into to be involved or consulted within, these questions are off the agenda. I‘m not arguing for one participation space over another, but that we need a multitude of participation spaces that will meet the diverse political needs of tenants.

The commitment by government to set up local consultative processes is good, in principle, but it has to be one of many participations spaces within a network, spanning the local to the national, of active tenant participation, or tenant activism, to put it another way.

So I argue that we need both practitioner and tenant participation spaces if we want to start to bridge the gap between expectations and reality for tenants. Going to the media or protesting might be just as important to tenants, as an act of citizenship, as going to a community consultation or being involved in a committee that is put on by the government or a housing manager. And this leads to the next tension.

Transparency verse selective release of information

Democracy requires transparency, but can we really make everything available in a market-centric representative democracy? The renewal of public housing estates in NSW, and indeed an emerging trend within other Australian states, is to use the market, the private sector and non-government sector, to redevelop large public housing estates through contractual arrangements such as public-private-partnerships.

Bringing together the public and private sectors in this way introduces new challenges to transparency and therefore democracy and therefore community participation. Commercial-in-confidence and other legal and market requirements mean that governments cannot release information about government contracts and private sector negotiations until after key decisions have been made. The selective release of information by governments is often cited by tenants as a key barrier to their participation in housing governance at the local level.

This raises the question, how are tenants to monitor the power of the public, non-government and private sectors if they don’t have timely and free access to the information that is guiding policy reforms and the reconfiguration of public and social housing? Here the tensions between direct democracy and representative democracy raise their heads again, but in a new way.

Using the market to deliver social services and infrastructure means that the market – economic evaluation and financial measurements – become important decision-making processes that override, and are undertaken before, local community participation. These market processes are in direct conflict and often trump local level decision-making. To give you a concrete empirical example, I turn to the redevelopment of the Bonnyrigg public housing estate by public-private-partnership.

The Bonnyrigg Consultation


Bonnyrigg PPP

As you can see in the diagrammatic representation (opposite) of the various spaces that the NSW Government created to roll out the Bonnyrigg PPP, they created two spaces into which they solely invited the private sector developers. The first was invited space no. 2, or the PPP contract negotiation space where the Government negotiated the PPP contract with the private sector. And second was invited space no. 4, the PPP contract management space, or where the Government is project managing the PPP.

Local residents were, of course, not invited into these two spaces. In fact they were explicitly restricted from these spaces under financial and legal ‘commercial-in-confidence’ stipulations. Local residents were restricted, in short, because of the property developers’ involvement. So where were local residents invited? Well they weren’t in invited space no. 1, where the decisions about, and the framing of, the redevelopment project took place. Only the NSW Government occupied that space. Instead, local residents were invited into another space that the NSW Government created and called ‘community engagement’, or invited space no. 3.

Then when the PPP was under private sector management, the NSW Government forced the local community into invited space no. 5 by making the private sector, through a not-for­profit housing manager, responsible for funding community participation. And it was within invited space no. 5 that the funding cut to the independent tenant group that I noted earlier occurred.

Three key points should be highlighted here. First, the Bonnyrigg case represents a serious reconfiguration of local level democracy, whereby different social actors were granted different rights. Second, what is clear from this case is that the NSW Government remained central to the design and implementation of the PPP, that is, the government continues to set the scale and scope of urban interventions. And third, once granted the power by the state, the private sector will, almost by definition, seek to cut costs and reduce completion and opposition to their projects.

State-managed verse market-managed policy

Under the former welfare state models, when the government managed and rolled out social policy and large infrastructure projects, tenants could use their constitutional rights to monitor the power of the government and the government’s various social and infrastructure projects. But as the state moves toward market-managed policy, the introduction of public­private-partnerships and the like, tenants rights to call the government to account become more complex as a direct result of these new contracting and private financing arrangements and the selective release of information these legal and market frameworks mandate.

Additionally, in market-managed policy environments new rights are created for different parties. So called ‘market rights’ give raise to questions like, can social housing tenants call the private sector companies that are redeveloping their estates to account in the same way they could government agencies in the past?

For instance, the suggestion in the NSW State Plan of strengthening the powers of the state and federal power scrutinising mechanisms of government, including the NSW Ombudsman, is therefore a necessary step in mounting a challenge to the move towards a market-centric city. But this too is complicated by the marketisation of urban and social policy in NSW.

In interviews I’ve conducted, public housing tenants have stated that when they moved from ‘public housing’ managed by the state to ‘social housing’ managed by non-government organisations, that the NSW Ombudsman no longer had political oversight of the ‘non-government’ housing sector. Therefore, the political reconfiguration of our cities is at the very heart of the processes that will reshape citizens’ rights. Tenants can no longer use their constitutional rights to monitor the power of a state as their landlord.

So how should we think about community participation and citizen rights?

Interests verse consensus. What are we aiming for here?

Monitory democracy, or monitory citizenship where tenants monitor power instead of trying to share decision-making power, and activism are long-standing and tried and tested as effective tenant participation models in a representative democracy. They are perhaps the best ‘best practice’ models we have. They accept that inherent political differences are a reality and operate across and through different political organisations and community groups.

More importantly, monitory and pressure group models also accept that we have deferred our responsibility to elected representatives, who have in turn, deferred their decision-making power to technocrats, or experts such as urban and social planners, architects, and policy makers. So when tenants ask for, or are told that, decision-making power is being given back to them at the local level, are we saying that we are removing this decision-making power from the housing managers, urban and social planners, architects, and policy makers, or the elected representatives themselves? And if so, how, to what degree and by what political mechanisms will this transfer, back to the local, taking place?

In a representative democracy where experts make decisions that will affect tenants lives in very real and significant ways, including moving them out of their homes and changing the terms by which their tenancies are secured, we need to ask if its possible to give tenants the same decision-making power as other experts; such as urban and social planners etcetera. This, to me at least, seems unlikely so it might be important to maintain monitory and pressure group models of participation that will allow tenants to pressure governments for change. This would require no strings attached to funding for independent tenant groups who can advocate through media and other political campaigns at the local, state and federal levels.

So why are independent citizen-sanctioned tenant groups needed?

It is well known that urban and housing policy reforms, such as housing subsidies, taxation exemptions, or welfare provisions, are not entirely driven by rational and objective assessments of the needs of those who live in Australian cities. Instead, these reforms are also an outcome of the politics and actions of citizen, government, industry, business, and non-government organisations. In short, and as Marg Barry astutely understood, housing provision and housing policy is primarily an issue of politics.

As shown in the previous examples, market-centric housing approaches are changing the way civil and political power is distributed in Australian cities. In particular, these market-centric approaches often serve to frame the debates about what is politically feasible and the actions that can be mounted to improve housing provision or address housing need. Low-income and disadvantaged citizens, and their representatives, need to be involved in these political debates; but how?

Well, if we look at the different types of rights that are being granted to different social actors within the current market-centric policy system, we see that not all citizens or groups have equal access to these civic participation tools. The playing field is uneven when it comes to community participation. Low-income tenants, for instance, cannot access shareholder rights because they don’t have a financial stake in the assets involved in the urban redevelopments.

What low-income citizens do have is the capacity to hold the government to account; to monitor the power of the government and the private sector. But it is only through a well ­resourced and coordinated network of independent community organisations that these political projects can be mounted in the interests of low-income citizens. And on political resolve, I reach my final point.

Community participation verse monitory citizenship

Yes, we need, and indeed we should expect and demand, the public, private and non-for-profit sectors to provide community participation spaces for citizens when their activities so drastically affect the lives of low-income citizens. But these state-sanctioned participation spaces will always have limitations. Therefore we also need monitory organisations and individuals. As power monitors, those implicitly or explicitly disenfranchised from political power at any level of government can deploy a suite of rights, in additional to their constitutional rights, to monitor and discipline the power of individuals, the state and private corporations. Monitory citizenship often operates outside the boundaries of state and private sector sanctioned participation processes and encourages different interest positions. That is, it is not consensus seeking, it depends on conflict, dissidence and represents a challenge to oppressive power relations. It is what [political theorist]Chantal Mouffe calls Radical Democracy.

And, in my view, one of the most successful monitory organisations in Australia is located right here in Redfern/ Waterloo, an organization I’m sure you all know, indeed many of you are members; REDWatch.

REDWatch and monitory democracy

The monitory focus of REDWatch did not emerge as a ‘consensus position’ for the organisation, but instead as a process for mediating between different ‘community interests’ for the benefit of the local community.

REDWatch, an acronym formed in part from the Sydney suburbs of Redfern, Eveleigh, Darlington and Waterloo and over which the organisation has a political interest, has a membership that includes local residents and representatives from non-government organisations and several political parties. The REDWatch area has been subject to various NSW Government bodies including the Redfern Waterloo Partnership Project, the Redfern Waterloo Authority (RWA) and currently the Sydney Metropolitan Development Authority (SMDA). It had its own Government Minister from 2004 to 2011 and interventions have included removing planning responsibilities from local government and placing specific responsibilities on various human services and planning departments.

Certainly the Government has conducted community consultations that REDWatch attends and even promotes. But it is REDWatch’s organisational mission that makes it a monitory democracy organization par excellence. In the words of REDWatch, and I quote their website:

‘REDWatch exists to monitor Government involvement in our area and to push for outcomes that benefit the community and not just the Government’.

REDWatch shares information and encourages other individuals, community groups, journalists, academics and even different government departments to ‘do their own research and analysis’ to monitor the power of government and the private sector.

REDWatch is, in short, a good old-fashioned activist organization with sharp new media teeth. It is an organisation in keeping with the old fashioned activist tradition that Marg Barry laid the foundations for four decades ago.

Also see separate article Participation Tools and Social Context which was also drawn from this lecture.

This article has been edited by Geoff Turnbull from the Marg Barry Memorial Lecture 2012 Democracy from the ground up: the real stuff of community engagement given by Dr Dallas Rogers

The transcript of the full lecture can be downloaded here or listen to the presentation at

Originally published in Inner Sydney Voice Issue 118 Summer 2013-14