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Dawson, SK 2015, 'Grassroots democracy: the role of volunteer community groups in the government decision making process: a case study of the origin and evolution of volunteer community groups in Tweed Shire, Northern NSW', PhD thesis, Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW.

Copyright SK Dawson 2015


In recent times the scale and rate of environmental destruction has increased as has the ecological literacy of the public (Jones, 2004; Hundloe, 2009), community groups develop as a response by concerned citizens to the threat of local environmental destruction (Lines, 2006). Volunteer community groups, or grassroots associations perform an important social function in modern society providing services and representing community interests which are not supplied by government or industry (Smith, 2000). This thesis explores the origins and actions of four local community groups in Tweed Shire, Northern NSW. These groups were created in response to development pressures in the late 1980s. The thesis asks the questions, “Why do people create a new community group to campaign on an issue?” and, “How does a group survive and achieve its goals?”

Using qualitative investigation techniques including interviews with key actors and archival research, the topic is investigated through the use of phronesis (Flyvbjerg, 2001) to provide a guiding framework. The theory of voluntary altruism (Smith, 2000) is used as an analytical frame to investigate the characteristics and motivations of community groups, while the idea of cognitive ownership (Boyd, 2012) is used to map power relationships between groups. This is a case study of an historical development issue, the proposal to develop a mountain top for a sanatorium and health resort. The case study records the history of activity by the developer and local government to gain approval by apparently manipulating the land zone regulations, and the actions of volunteer community groups in attempting to support or oppose the development.

With the focus on the processes of community group development and evolution, the study identified that volunteer community groups rely on the activity of a few key individuals to become established and remain functioning. Groups can also ‘clone’ themselves to create the appearance of widespread community support on an issue. Flyvbjerg’s (2001) concept of a rationalising decision-making processes by government and industry was supported by the study. Success for a small volunteer group can be achieved when there is sufficient political opportunity available. There are also differences observed between volunteer groups that support business interests and groups that support conservation, with conservation groups being better able to achieve their goals and survive longer. Political migration of members from conservation groups to government was observed to be more successful than from other groups. The study has supported the Theory of Voluntary Altruism (Smith, 2000) and proposes an additional core value to the theory to better describe the motivations of people involved in conservation groups.