The nuclear waste storage facility citizens’ jury of 350 people — which we convened — recently returned a verdict that didn’t neatly advance the government’s agenda. Some have since argued that citizens’ juries don’t offer a useful approach to democratic decision-making. After all, the jury voted down the government’s proposal that a nuclear waste storage facility be hosted in SA. It is widely understood that the government wanted further consideration of this issue.
However, after six days of formal deliberation and countless additional hours of reading and analysis, a large portion of the jury (66%) found that this was not a proposal the state should pursue.
Unlike those they mention who are ready to abandon citizen juries as having been clearly shown to be unfit for purpose, Lawson and Jenke continue their pursuit of solutions to the deteriorating quality of governance. They are concerned that the public’s insistence that politicians obey their every whim is a trend that runs a “major risk […] to policymaking as we know it”, the risk of having governments “increasingly responding to the opinion of the day”. They argue that government should not see the jury’s unwelcome decision as a reason to abandon the CJ process – on the contrary.
As they present the situation, the government’s greatest problem is that people are uninformed. That is why they have unrealistic expectations of government which lead to dissatisfaction and even to Trump. Lawson and Jenke claim that despite the negative decision, the jury’s report shows that government can make the jury see sense. They say that while the negative attitude of the uninformed public toward nuclear technology and waste disposal is dominated by safety concerns, the report showed a lack of such concern, which indicates that expert evidence did manage to rationally sway the jurors and dispel the popular suspicion. In fact, Lawson and Jenke say, it is only general distrust in government – caused by a history of government insulation when it does not use techniques such as the CJ process – that undermined the government’s proposal.
The way forward then is the “clever application of deliberative democratic techniques” to “move beyond an individualistic approach and enable the community to reconcile self-interests” and “address conflicting values and perspectives”. The public will then come to “understand and trust politicians, public service [and] institutions of government” and will show this new-found confidence by supporting the government, giving us the democracy we want and need.
It is worth noting, by the way, that the degree to which the experts managed to make the jury see sense regarding the safety of nuclear materials can be questioned. The main recommendation of the report is phrased as follows:
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.
The rationale section adds:
Accidents are inevitable in any industry, the cost of accidents may outweigh the economic benefit, and undermine any consent previously given. Jurors have also raised concern of long term quality assurance for safety measures both in Australia and client countries. This includes the safety associated with shipping in international waters and the security of the waste. Tim Johnson’s provided comment that no inclusion of costs associated with accidents had been considered. Some Jurors are less concerned with Safety as a predominant issue for consideration.