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Inside the 'chaos' and 'bias' of the citizens' jury

Opinion

Political scientist Haydon Manning was called as an expert witness to the State Government’s citizens’ jury on the nuclear waste dump proposal. What he experienced, and what he has learned since, has led him to question the value of the Government’s “deliberative democracy” push.

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For many years, I’ve supported the practise of deliberative democracy. I’ve believed the concept, including citizens’ forums, offered a beneficial means for citizens to inform government decision-making on issues that affect them. In this vein, a citizens’ jury established by Premier Jay Weatherill has just concluded. It provided advice to the State Government on the question: “Under what circumstances, if any, could South Australia pursue the opportunity to store and dispose of nuclear waste from other countries?”

As a consequence of what I observed during my day spent with the jurors as an expert witness, but more so what I’ve subsequently learned about the process that led to the majority ‘no’ vote, my appetite for deliberative democratic processes is now much diminished.

Jurors I’ve spoken to in the last few days paint a picture of a chaotic and rushed process, and you only have to read the jury report to feel the pulse of the chaos. It is far removed from what one would expect from a careful examination of the evidence for and against the proposition.

What I observed as a witness, and what I have learned from conversations with participating jurors and key players involved in the process, including the organising body, democracyCo, is the basis for this view. I only touch the surface here, but it is sufficient to raise serious questions about how the ‘verdict’ was reached and how much weight it ought to be given in lead up to the Government’s response to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission.

Pre-judgement?

One common theme noted by those with whom I have discussed the process is that it appears that many jurors arrived with their minds already made up for the negative and worked assiduously to that end. As one juror observed to me, the “anti-nuclear [people] are well trained and active in this space, drowning out a lot of debate”.

One who was positive toward the proposition said she considered withdrawing due to the stress she endured. All spoke about how organised advocacy for the negative was constant, especially on the juror’s blogging site, known as ‘Base Camp’. It has been reported to me that Friends of the Earth literature/links were constantly presented as compelling ‘evidence’; accordingly, Base Camp quickly became the ‘no zone’.

The name ‘jury’ seems something of s a misnomer given what one usually associates with a room filled with impartial citizens, carefully weighing evidence. Consider this entirely plausible hypothesis, one I’d not considered when advocating this process as a sensible way to conduct public consultation: citizens who accepted the invitation to attend were far more likely to hold, and often passionately so, an anti-nuclear point of view. Preparedness to spend three weekends as a citizen juror is likely to be much stronger among those who loathe all matters nuclear compared with those who are ambivalent or favourably disposed.

Arguably, the Government never should have entertained a citizens’ jury process given the complexity of nuclear fuel cycle issues and, more significantly, the history of activism surrounding it.

“Bizarre” witness selection process

I always assumed the organising body, democracyCo, would research who might present as experts and, on that basis, equally apportion them for and against across the panels looking at the key themes of Economics, Trust, Safety and Community Consent. That did not happen, for democracyCo enabled the jurors to decide for themselves from whom they wanted to hear.

Jurors voted in what is described to me as an ill-informed and rushed process late on day two of the process. As they left after day one, jurors were given ‘homework’ in the form of a booklet of short biographical notes on 160 names selected by the stakeholder reference group. This group consisted of 12 organisations with five—Friends of the Earth, SA Conservation Council, Mothers for a Sustainable South Australia, Unions SA and the Yankunytjatjara Aboriginal Corporation—being against the proposition, and only a couple, Business SA and SACOME, in favour. What followed with the voting process can only be described as bizarre.

The opportunity to transform the state’s economic and, therefore, social foundation should not be allowed to flounder on the determination of a very flawed experiment in deliberative democracy.

Late on the second day, weary jurors were asked if they wanted to add any additional names; 40 more names were stuck to a wall on the venue, but with no biographical notes. Imagine, if you were not committed either way, being confronted with 200 names, on a wall. You are then issued with five red stickers to place on what is essentially the largest ‘ballot paper’ in history! Some jurors used all their stickers against one name, and I’m told it looked like some ‘gaming’ occurred to select so-called ‘experts’ with a negative view.

Quality of evidence

Gamed or not, the polling produced no economist able to explain the financial modelling undertaken on behalf of the royal commission. Obviously troubled by this outcome, democracyCo, keen to achieve a semblance of balance, nominated Dr Tim Johnson to participate on the Economics panel. Dr Johnson contributed to the commission’s financial modelling as project manager for Jacobs, one of the independent consultancies contracted by the inquiry. But Johnson isn’t an economist and didn’t undertake economic work for the royal commission. In addition, he and the commission have made it quite clear that further economic analysis is required to test the financial model.

Battling with their messy witness selection process, democracyCo further tried to right the lack of balance. The company organised a new plenary session for all jurors and invited the economist who chaired the commission’s socioeconomic modelling advisory committee, Professor Mike Young, to speak alongside a leading critic of the commission’s work, Dr Richard Denniss. While an important move, Young had only 12 minutes to outline both the royal commission’s concept and the economic model underpinning it, compared with over 100 minutes, across the day, given to the economists opposed. (Indeed, the only time jurors were presented with the economic concept was the three minutes of Young’s presentation!)

Young was afforded no right of reply to the criticisms presented by Denniss, a rhetorician, who had a distinct advantage speaking after Young. In our correspondence on these matters, Young told me that “the manner in which the citizens’ jury was run was the most biased process I have ever seen”.

I’ve not only watched the video of the economics panel on the Citizens’ Jury 2 website, I’ve also transcribed it, and concur with Ben Heard’s critique of the evidence provided by panel members Denniss, Richard Blandy, Barbara Pocock and Mark Diesendorf. To be sure, I’m no resource/nuclear fuel cycle economist, but nor were the four critics on the panel. It is fair to say that Blandy and others’ assumptions are untested, whereas the royal commission put in place a process of peer review and considered and responded to submissions from Blandy and Denniss, among others.

In relation to Aboriginal peoples’ views, the jury heard only one viewpoint. There was no discussion of the diversity of views held by Aboriginal South Australians on this issue, nor was there discussion about the potential positive economic benefits that may accrue to Aboriginal communities if the financial bonanza forecast by the royal commission transpires. A juror, who I am informed is Aboriginal, added to the picture I paint above when she presented the ‘minority report’ to the Premier – a report which supported further investigation of the proposition.

Need for further investigation

If ever there were a time for bipartisanship, combined with determined and visionary leadership, this surely is it. The opportunity to transform the state’s economic and, therefore, social foundation should not be allowed to flounder on the determination of a very flawed experiment in deliberative democracy.

If the economics of the concept developed by the royal commission fail to stack up, let that be the end of the conversation. But what if the commission’s modelling is broadly correct, and an economic ‘bonanza’ a genuine prospect? After all, the commission had a highly esteemed panel of economics professors peer review the modelling. You’d wager that social consent would follow if the economic carrot dangles.

So, to keep our options open, we need an outbreak of unprecedented bipartisanship: Mr Marshall needs to help Mr Weatherill, and Mr Weatherill needs to court that help with humility and a conviction that this is about more than politics.

‘You’re dreaming!’, ‘Fat chance!’, I hear you cry, and fair enough. But this is what is required, I figure, now more than ever.

This issue, more than any other before it, warrants bipartisanship for the social and economic transformation that it promises. It would have the added benefit of addressing the  deficit of trust in government that was supposed to be addressed through the key plank of deliberative democracy: the citizens’ jury.

The Government should move to amend, with the Liberals’ support, section 13 of the Nuclear Waste Storage Facility [Prohibition] Act 2000. This would allow for further public money to be spent to test the robustness of the royal commission’s modelling, which it recommended. This surely is a punt worth taking.

Haydon Manning is Associate Professor in the School of Social and Policy Studies at Flinders University.

 

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