Will the SA nuclear citizens' jury scare governments away?

By David Donaldson

November 7, 2016

Raised hands in community meeting

Governments are reticent to consult with the public on contentious issues at the best of times, so what happens when you open up the discussion and the people come back with the answer you didn’t want?

This is the dilemma facing South Australia after a two-thirds majority of the 350 participants on its nuclear citizens’ jury decided they were opposed to their state hosting a nuclear waste dump.

“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,” reads the citizens’ jury report, authored by jurors and published on Sunday.

This brings to an end the public side of the process, which started with the nuclear fuel cycle royal commission and saw an initial citizens’ jury of 50 people consider which questions were most pertinent in the RC report.

“Rather than just doing a poll, it means you’re having a more informed discussion … It’s a clever way to find out what the opposition is actually based on.”

The 350 participants in the second jury, who were randomly selected and demographically representative, expressed concern about the economics of a potential waste site, long-term safety — particularly given the state’s previous issues with nuclear waste — and a lack of consent from traditional owners.

Premier Jay Weatherill, who has been the driver of SA’s embrace of citizens’ juries and wants to develop the state’s nuclear industry, said this would not be the end of the debate.

“The status quo is no. This jury doesn’t believe the present proposal should be taken forward but we need to take into account a whole range of other broad community views,” he said.

“This is what we did this for to understand what exactly people were thinking and why they were thinking it, to assist us to make our decision.

“I will now review their report and weigh it up against all of the other data compiled over the past few months.”

Not the end

Results such as this shouldn’t scare governments off genuine consultation, says Celeste Young, a collaborative research fellow at the Victoria Institute of Strategic Economic Studies.

Apart from anything else, this kind of process demonstrates the resistance government would have encountered if it had pushed ahead without asking the public.

“Perverse outcomes are quite common when you hand things over to the people,” Young explains. “It’s really important people are able to articulate this, because otherwise it comes out in other ways.”

If the state is still keen to pursue waste storage as an option, it can approach the feedback as an opportunity.

“There’s a responsibility to continue the conversation,” she says.

“If the citizens say ‘this is what we want’, it gives the state government a way to negotiate. It’s not the end of the conversation. You then go back and question it — they don’t want this, so let’s looks at what the options are and why they made that decision. There is a risk of resistance, but there is that risk even if you don’t consult.”

Safety has been a large concern for citizens. This tells government where it needs to focus to win over the public. “Everyone wants to know how the waste would be managed. If that’s what it’s highlighted, that’s really useful. So you should ask how can you make it safe. It’s about being clever about how you use the outputs of these things,” Young explains.

It’s important in such processes to be clear from the beginning what the role of the citizens is in decision-making. It’s about expectations management. Other examples show that if it’s made clear the citizens’ jury is just a consultative process and is run well, jurors often come out the other end feeling they’ve had input into policymaking and gain a renewed sense of faith in institutions.

It needs to be clear that government makes the final decision, but also that it will take recommendations seriously.

A couple of issues made it into the media as jurors expressed concerns about the process. There were complaints that facilitators were tilting proceedings in a pro-nuclear direction by adding extra witnesses to the ones chosen by the jury. Some also felt they weren’t given enough time to consider all the issues.

“It really comes down to the process”, Young says.

“Not having enough time is a common complaint. What that points to is a need for further conversation. They are complex issues which you can’t resolve from a one off conversation in a workshop.

“In terms of balancing I can understand from the facilitators’ viewpoint why you would do that — if you’re not looking at both sides of the coin you’re not properly deliberating. It also shows how entrenched some of the feelings are.”

As governments traditionally shied away from giving the public such a significant say in policymaking, Young thinks the public sector needs to invest in skills in managing the risks of opening up.

“Just because people are angry doesn’t mean you cant do something, but what you choose to do with it next is pivotal. You do need to have people with the skills to take it forward, though.”

What’s it all for?

Although the jurors came back with a response at odds with the policy direction advocated by the Premier, one of the questions to consider is what the government wanted to get out of the citizens’ jury process, says University of Melbourne Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Policy Lab Jenny Lewis.

It may have been that they hoped for a rubber stamp to get the go-ahead, she thinks, but “another interpretation is this helps find out what the arguments are.”

“Rather than just doing a poll, it means you’re having a more informed discussion. Having perhaps a more evidence-based discussion. You get a greater level of education in the community and the government gets a much greater insight into what the concerns are. It’s a clever way to find out what the opposition is actually based on,” Lewis suggests.

It allowed the government to ask, “are the issues being raised completely insurmountable, or are there ways to make it more palatable? It all comes back to the question of what they’re using it for.”

And although it can be seen as “an initial slap in the face” that may not help in the short term, Lewis explains, “this is much less risky than some other things, like blasting ahead and saying we’re going to do this anyway.”

It could also provide a convenient out for the government if they ultimately decide the issue is too controversial to proceed.

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