Will the Australian citizen jury process survive the nuclear dump decision?

The SA jury on the nuclear dump proposal has handed out its report eliciting significant press coverage and a flurry of reactions. The Online Opinion reports:

Where to now, for Premier Weatherill’s nuclear dream?

On November 6th, to the surprise of all, South Australia’s Nuclear Citizens Jury came up with a report that overwhelmingly rejected the government’s plan for importing and storing high level nuclear waste. Over four days of witness hearings, and deliberations, the 350 members of the jury were tasked with producing an answer to this question:

Under what circumstances, if any, could South Australia pursue the opportunity to store and dispose of nuclear waste from other countries?

The jury’s answer:

Under no circumstances should South Australia pursue opportunity to store and dispose of nuclear waste from other countries for reasons of consent, economics, trust and safety.

But while the Online Opinion is worried about nuclear dreams, another dream is just as much in jeopardy: the dream of Citizen Juries. It seems very likely that Weatherill has promoted the CJ idea because he believed it would be useful for his political agenda, of which the nuclear dump was a part. It seems very likely that those who offered Weatherill the idea, some of whom got to run the process, implied that this would indeed be the case. It also seems likely that other elected politicians have been watching this process with some interest in order to determine to what extent CJs could be used as a tool in their own political box.

In the wake of this outcome, the academics and the political operatives and entrepreneurs would have to go back to the drawing board. They will have to work hard to explain to the politicians how they will re-engineer CJs to guarantee that such unwelcome outcomes will not re-occur.

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10 Responses

  1. Hi Yoram – this was a newDemocracy project.

    Nothing changes. With every single elected representative we speak with we let them know they need to be open to any result. In the wake of a predictable (given the topic) wave of attack on the process, we now have a conclusive proof point that the process can’t be fixed or gamed.

    The goal in democratic reform is to identify mechanisms which earn public trust. The fact that this deviates from the “expected” should serve to build credibility among the sceptics at either end of the political spectrum.

    Equally, as with all public policy issues, there is no right or wrong answer to the question posed: there is a merely a chance to see if there is a common ground position people can live with.

    iain

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  2. I hit post too quickly!

    One other point: the national evening news showed the end of the process where 332 people were sitting calmly listening to the Premier receive their report after comments from seven of the jurors on different key messages.

    People vote with their feet, and they stayed.

    In an environment where parliaments, council meetings and town hall meetings are tempestuous and disrupted by theatrics, I think many politicians will see that in unarguably the hardest policy topic imaginable (high level global nuclear waste storage, most likely on indigenous land) this model enabled the community to have a more informed conversation than could otherwise have occurred, and the report airs considered view that have not emerged from any other format (including the Royal Commission and the parallel parliamentary inquiry.

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  3. The idea that the citizen jury process would need to be “reengineered” to “to guarantee that such unwelcome outcomes will not re-occur” is not only disturbing but frightening. The purpose of a CJ is to generate considered public judgment, not support for a particular politician’s agenda. To me the biggest need disclosed by this elite response is for a political system where elected representatives are officially committed to follow what such a citizen deliberative council says or to publicly explain why they can’t or won’t – and to pay the political price of ignoring public wisdom. If CJs just parrot the party line, what is the use of having them in the first place?

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  4. “It seems very likely that Weatherill has promoted the CJ idea because he believed it would be useful for his political agenda, of which the nuclear dump was a part.

    “It seems very likely that those who offered Weatherill the idea, some of whom got to run the process, implied that this would indeed be the case.

    “It also seems likely that other elected politicians have been watching this process with some interest in order to determine to what extent CJs could be used as a tool in their own political box.”

    Hey Yoram – you’ve got three “it seems likely” there – you need to give a bit of source weight to them somehow or your suggestions are hanging in the air somewhat.

    I skimmed the CJ report and some of the news stories so I can’t claim to know much at all about this process. What I can say is that I can’t, on the evidence there, draw the same conclusions or inferences as you do from all this.

    It’s another example of a CJ, certainly. Some of the media responses were spectacularly biased – I can see that. I’ll wait to see what else it means.

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  5. Hi Iain,

    > I think many politicians will see that in unarguably the hardest policy topic imaginable (high level global nuclear waste storage, most likely on indigenous land) this model enabled the community to have a more informed conversation

    Unfortunately, the news today do not support your optimistic view. Not only has Weatherill not been as appreciative of the informed conversation at the CJ as you hope, he now announced his next move would be an attempt to circumvent the jury decision via a referendum.

    It is hard to doubt that if the CJ decision went his way Weatherill would have claimed that a referendum is unnecessary due to the CJ decision. This presents the CJ process as a tool to be deployed when useful for elected politicians and to be tossed aside when inconvenient. This move discredits the whole CJ process.

    This moves also puts newDemocracy in a bind. If newDemocracy takes a stand and makes it clear that the CJ decision should be taken as binding and that the move to bypass it through a referendum is illegitimate (as I think it should) this will put newDemocracy in conflict with Weatherill. On the other hand if newDemocracy does not take a position on this it will risk losing its credibility to the public regarding its ability to drive public policy through the CJ process.

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  6. Patrick,

    Very true – I have no direct channel to Weatherill’s mind. My claims about the expectations of the politicians are therefore a surmise based on general ideas about how the political world works. That said, I think Weatherill’s move to initiate a referendum substantiates my claims.

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  7. Tom,

    I agree that the CJ process has to represent the informed and considered ideas of the people, rather than be engineered to satisfy elected politicians. My point is that in the current setting, the latter is much more likely to be the goal than the former.

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  8. Yoram,

    >I agree that the CJ process has to represent the informed and considered ideas of the people, rather than be engineered to satisfy elected politicians. My point is that in the current setting, the latter is much more likely to be the goal than the former.

    Why is it then that the only example we have where the outcome of a deliberative poll was accepted unconditionally by the executive power was in communist China? This would suggest to me that elected politicians are more sensitive to the need for a popular mandate (hence the call for a referendum). If it were the case that the political class always pursues its own interest why did that not happen in the Zegou case? It strikes me that your “general ideas about how the political world works” are resistant to examples that go against your own intuitions on the nature of the relationship between the “elite” and the “masses”.

    It should also be noted that the CJ may have over-represented anti-nuclear and indigenous-rights activists on account of the voluntary nature of participation. I assume there were significant economic arguments in favour of the nuclear dump policy that might well attract greater support with the general population than a voluntary jury. I’m doubtful as to whether New Democracy was able to strictly apply the selection and participation criteria necessary to ensure that the jury’s verdict represented what everybody would think under good conditions (especially in the light of the earlier protests on this forum against the organisers’ call for balanced advocacy).

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  9. […] Belgiorno-Nettis, the founder of newDemocracy Foundation, which designed and oversaw the nuclear dump citizen jury process for the South Australian government, has an article in the Sydney Morning Herald in the […]

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  10. […] allotted bodies were convened to handle corruption in local government, and to consider a nuclear dump in SA. David Van Reybrouck’s Against Elections was published in English and received some […]

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