Luca 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 aftermath of the jury’s decision to reject the proposed dump. Belgiorno-Nettis softly criticizes SA Premier Jay Weatherill’s newly-announced intention to have a referendum on the dump:
From the time the royal commission report was handed down earlier this year, the South Australian government has been trying to listen, very carefully, to its community.
But now it has stopped listening, even after the citizen jury concluded their deliberations. A referendum has now been floated as a way to finally determine the question; never mind the most recent lessons from the Brexit experience. The jury tried to find common ground. A referendum won’t.
In fact, the Weatherill’s maneuver suggests that the SA never did listen to the community. Weatherill’s aim is, and always was, getting the dump approved. He saw the jury as merely a tool for doing so. Had that tool served its purpose, we would all have been lectured by Weatherill about the usefulness of the jury process and its advantages compared to other ways of decision making – exactly those same advantages that Belgiorno-Nettis mentions. Since the jury turned Weatherill down, he pushes on in other ways. Other elected officials will no doubt take notice – citizen juries may not produce the desired results (at least not when following the process designed by newDemocracy).
Instead of meekly admonishing Weatherill and pleading with him to at least send the jury’s report together with the referendum ballots, Belgiorno-Nettis should reconsider his foundation’s strategy for promoting government-through-sortition. The newDemocracy Foundation strategy has been elite focused: approach elected officials and tell them that using the citizen jury process will serve their ends. To begin with, it is clear that this guarantees that the jury process wil not be applied as long as the elected officials are certain of their ability to achieve their goal through the normal channels. There are then two scenarios in which the jury process may be realistically applied. The first is when decision-making area is one in which the elected officials have no strong preferences. In this case using the jury process serves as a way to generate good publicity, while incurring no risk.
The other scenario is when elected officials wish to attain a policy goal, but are unable to do so, or at least are unsure of their ability to do so. This is the case of the nuclear dump. Weatherill knew it was going to be an uphill battle and he saw the jury process as a relatively low-cost way to gain the upper hand in it.
Instead of pursuing this elite focused strategy, if newDemocracy really would like to see the decision making process democratized, it should appeal to the people and convince them that this process can serve their interests. This could be done in various ways, but one clear way would be to set up an allotted body that monitors elected government for conflicts of interests and corruption. Using its resources newDemocracy could mobilize the community to support this process and in this way make it hard for government to ignore its findings and recommendations.