Funder by the Department of Human Services Auspiced by Our Community


Once we have been appointed or elected to a committee, the interactions we have on and about the committee are political. This is because the decisions made by that committee and the relationships within that committee are about power, and power is always about politics.

Every place where important decisions are made is a setting for power-based interactions as people jockey for ascendancy and fight for their point of view, claiming the best qualifications, superior standing in the community or professional arena, superior experience in their field, or affiliation with a powerful group in society.

Consumers are not always without power in this situation. Sometimes well-connected consumers join the more powerful groups. And sometimes this is to the disadvantage or disenfranchisement of other consumers.

Those who have power frequently deny it exists, and those who don't have it often feel its absence acutely but might not know what this feeling is, or might be bamboozled into thinking it has something to do with their own competency or, to use the parlance of psychiatry, 'capacity'.

Sometimes, consumer members of committees have enormous problems locating the source of their feeling of powerless, which they might experience as anger or shame. Anger and shame are the product of poorly thought out committees, of inadequate processes in recruiting consumers, of ignorance about the role of consumers on committees, and of ignorance of the impact all these problems can have on consumers.

For many of us, these power arrangements trigger memories of trauma and shame at another time when we were powerless. The combination of anger, shame and memory drives many consumers into silence or loudness, depending on their temperament. Thus prejudice is reinforced, and particular consumers, or consumers in general, are then seen to bring nothing to the committee except angst, over-persistence, too much space, a lack of commitment, irrelevance, or just plain incompetence.

Many committees fail to take responsibility for the havoc they create in the minds of consumers who are trying to improve the world for their peers. This in itself is deplorable, but blaming the consumer for it is unforgivable.

Institutional power

Institutional power has nothing to do with bricks and mortar, or with deinstitutionalisation. Rather, it refers to the fact that certain roles are valued, honoured, deemed knowledgeable and prized not because of the particular individual in the role, or their attitudes or knowledge, but because of the social standing that comes with their social class, professional status, political preference or education.

Institutional power influences all discourses. Some ways of speaking and some categories of voices are privileged by definition, and there is prejudice against others. Institutional power operates regardless of how nice or gentle or obliging the representative of the powerful elite might be. Indeed, those who are the most obliging can actually cause greater confusion and potentially more harm than those non-consumers who are ratbags, as the following case study shows.

This case study illustrates the idiosyncrasies of power. Non-consumer committee members who show sensitivity towards consumers and seem to like and welcome us cannot always protect us from those who have power over us, and possibly over them too.

Furthermore, the 'nice' people on committees can hurt consumers more than the difficult ones because we are more likely to trust them, only to find out later that they don't have the power to deliver on what we might believe they have promised.

These sorts of realities should be talked about in a consumer-led education session for all committee members before the committee starts meeting.

Using power

Power doesn't always manifest in the form of a yelling chairperson. Those who wield a lot of institutional power can say little and do so very quietly, but we will still all listen attentively.

Most consumers on most committees do not have the opportunity to win people over in this way because it relies so heavily on status. If we say something softly-softly, the chair may well wriggle in her chair, look towards someone else as if to demonstrate tolerance, and move on to the next agenda item.

There are ways of presenting arguments that can help consumers to get their points home. For example, we can 'play the game' by lobbying other delegates, those we perceive as having the ear of the chair, to help us to get our argument up. Often, power has to be fought with power.

The use of power is a game some consumers (and other committee members) enjoy and others hate. Those who hate it might choose not to sit on committees.

What the consumer movement must do, however, is share in the power. As a movement, we must create places where the greatest mix of consumers can be heard by the most important decision-makers in Australia. Committee-sitters need to be instrumental in making this happen.

The solution lies in educating committees. Most influential committees know nothing about issues of power or see them as unimportant. At the same time, many consumers have learnt to play the game and have found ways to be heard. This might win them friends among powerful elites, but it can come at a cost to consumer integrity.

Educating committees about power is essential to committees becoming useful mechanisms for the healthy regeneration of a sometimes destructive mental health sector.