South Australia’s nuclear waste citizens’ jury was meant to take discourse from radioactive to considered, but ended with polarisation. The former premier, his staffer, a top public servant, and the consultation contractor discuss what they would do differently.
Is community engagement a waste of time?
“Actually, if you don’t get it right it’s much worse than that,” says former South Australian premier Jay Weatherill, whose citizens’ jury on whether the state should host a nuclear waste dump ended with a resounding rejection of the idea.
But, he adds, “there is actually no choice. … The only real choice is how you go about it and if you get it right or not.”
At the time Weatherill’s government decided to embark on one of the largest deliberative public consultation processes ever conducted, SA was looking at “a catastrophic economic situation”. The car industry was leaving for good and unemployment was around 8%.
But one resource the state has in abundance is uranium, hosting around a quarter of the world’s deposits. It also has plenty of sparsely populated, geologically stable land.
The government thought nuclear waste disposal could be a viable economic option and it wanted to cut through the typically polarised debate around all things radioactive to see what regular citizens would think once you gave them access to the facts and the experts.
“We were also running at this time quite a big push into community engagement,” Weatherill explained at IPAA Victoria’s Public Sector Week in Melbourne this week.
“We really proceeded from the assumption we could improve the quality of our decision making if we could improve the quality of public discourse.”
So in an effort to move from “shouting and opinions” to deliberation and judgement, the government set up a fact-finding royal commission, to bring together all the information required to make an informed decision.
Then there was a first citizens’ jury of 50 people to frame the question, followed by a statewide engagement process, then a big citizens’ jury of 350 people to work out whether the government should proceed with developing a nuclear waste industry.
Ultimately the second jury decided that “under no circumstances should South Australia pursue opportunity to store and dispose of nuclear waste from other countries for reasons of consent, economic, trust and safety.”
But it wasn’t just about the final decision — the second jury didn’t really function as a place of deliberation. “It descended a bit into a shouty town hall, which was the very thing we’d set the process up to avoid,” says Weatherill.
Where did it all go wrong?
“The first citizens’ jury was quite a positive and successful exercise,” said the former premier.
“We had a small group of citizens that engaged with the topic and it was a really fruitful exercise.”
People took the process seriously, engaging with the royal commission report and coming up with creative ideas for how a nuclear industry could be developed if the government opted to go down that path.
Responding to criticism that the initial citizens’ jury of 50 people was too few, the second was much bigger — and this is where the problems began.
“As many of you would realise, in a group of 350, assuming that 5% of the community are activists, that’s quite a lot of political operators to have in the one room at the one time,” said Weatherill.
“We found that people inside the room networked with people outside the room, because we were running a very public process, and we started to get, rather than a deliberation, we started to get really interesting group behaviour. … So much so that there was lobbying for votes to be taken, people started to label themselves and break off into groups.”
There was even vote stacking in the process of deciding which experts should speak. Rolls of red dot stickers were handed out and each person was allowed to place one dot next to their choice. Some tables used every dot in the roll.
“In the first jury people were carefully looking at the expert opinion and data and had post it notes all the way through their royal commission report. Nobody was actually referring to the data in the second citizens’ jury. It was very impressionistic and driven by different considerations.”
Asking the right question
There was a mismatch between what the government was thinking about and what the jury ended up considering, says Matt Ryan, who was Weatherill’s deputy chief of staff at the time.
Whereas the government was trying to work out a solution to the state’s economic troubles, “people came to it much more with questions about the ethics, the morals, what does this say about us as South Australians, what are our responsibilities with taking irreversible steps for future generations?” explains Ryan.
“It came to a place where there were two conversations going on.”
This meant the question for the citizens’ jury was really just a “small snippet of a very big question”, says Weatherill.
“With the benefit of hindsight I think we should have framed the question in a more expansive way: so if this isn’t the future for our state, and this isn’t an economic opportunity, what then? This is the ultimate goal, I think, of deliberative processes: to ask citizens to be citizens, rather than self interested individuals. … To actually make real life choices, rather than wishful thinking.”
A lot of government systems are hyper-responsive to public opinion, rather than sensible public judgement, says Iain Walker, executive director at the New Democracy Foundation, which the SA government contracted to work on the process.
“I still remember on the morning you released the royal commission report, I think the report was released at 10am on a Tuesday, and I was contacted by ABC radio at 10.45, and they said ‘Business SA has said you need need to move ahead with this process straight away. And the Conservation Council’s come out and said the whole report is a travesty’.
“And we offered a comment simply to say, it’s a 318 page royal commission report, it was released at 10. I don’t think they’ve read it.”
Walker thinks having 350 people reduced the incentives for individuals to make their own effort to read and engage with the facts. His advice is to work with smaller groups.
“It was amazing to see that on one of the most technical, controversial, emotive topics, people could agree, think, question, engage, come together with different perspectives and listen to one another,” he said. “As long as they were in a group of 50. And if you need scale, just keep them separate.”
Trust and experts
There was a lack of trust in the process.
Many participants and members of the public felt the government was trying to push them to a particular conclusion.
While members of the citizens’ jury were selected by random sampling matched to the census, in other parts of the consultation process where people were able to opt in the statistics show their top reason for joining was personal opposition, says the man charged with handling the public service side of the project, former DPC director strategic engagement John Phalen.
“In every area you saw this playing out between the people opting in versus the people who were randomly sampled.”
But Phalen says proper dialogue did occur in some instances where they were able to link up anti-nuclear activists with respected experts such as nuclear scientists.
“It can go a long way to building trust if you have credible people delivering information,” he says.
Opening up the process of choosing experts can help too.
“Experts should be on tap but not on top,” says Iain Walker.
“If you want to get trust in expertise back, ask a group of citizens: what do you need to know to make an informed decision and who do you trust to provide that information? They’re still drawing on expertise, they just feel it’s less fed to them.”
Of course, this is not foolproof.
“There is also the element of you can find an expert to say anything, and that’s really what we’re trying to conquer,” Walker adds.
“I remember one speaker from a recognised think tank coming off stage and saying ‘that was easy, I just lied and scared the shit out of them.’ A lot of experts are advocates as well.”
And beware free online discussion forums — as is so often the case, the forum often descended into pile ons, rather than productive discussion.
Walker also offered some advice on using surveyed demographic statistics.
“We asked people do they own or rent their home? This is a very good surrogate indicator for income and education. Our early projects skewed far too much to university educated. If you ask people income, they don’t answer it honestly,” he said.
“We’ve also learned that if you ask people if they are of Indigenous heritage then people who say yes to that question are very old angry white farmers who resent the question and then you’re stuck.”
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