News

SA’s citizen jury, which rejected the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission's pro-storage stance, reveals the democratic tension when governments open decision-making to the people while seeking a predetermined outcome. By Mike Seccombe.

SA’s citizen jury defies royal commission

Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce, AC, CSC, RANR, calmly damned the torpedoes when he went on Adelaide radio on Tuesday morning. He wasn’t sunk yet, he insisted.

The available evidence, however, suggested he was taking a lot of water. Over more than a year the former navy man and South Australian governor had steered his royal commission into the nuclear fuel cycle towards a radioactive future. Now, six months after the release of his report recommending the state become a repository for nuclear waste, it had been badly holed.

A citizens’ jury of 350 randomly selected people had looked into the findings, had heard evidence from witnesses selected for them and from their own selected witnesses and had come down by a margin of about two-to-one against any plan to store high-level nuclear waste in the state. This was a surprise to many, including some opponents of the plan who already had put a deal of work into formulating elaborate conspiracy theories and disseminating the message that the citizens’ jury was designed as a stitch-up.

If it was – and we’ll come back to the claims – then it was very badly stitched. The jury’s opposition was absolute.

“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 report said.

Of these reasons, consent and safety were pretty straightforward: the traditional owners had not given approval for the use of their land, and accidents happen.

The most interesting was trust. They made it clear they didn’t have faith in the government and the decision-making process of which they were a part. In particular they didn’t trust the royal commission, which they believed had been established to reach a predetermined outcome.

“Multiple threads of concern are present that undermine the confidence of jurors in the royal commission report’s validity,” the jury report said. “These concerns collectively combine to effect a powerful ‘No’ response.”

Foremost among those concerns was the fact that the consultancy company hired by the royal commission, Jacobs MCM, was not independent. Its economic report was written by Charles McCombie and Neil Chapman, respectively the president and vice-president of ARIUS, the Association for Regional and International Underground Storage, a lobby group for nuclear power and waste dumps.

Both had connections to Pangea Resources, a consortium that had previously proposed the construction of a private nuclear dump in Australia. There were more dubious links, too, which conservation groups had been trying to bring to public attention for months.

“But it didn’t get any traction before the citizens jury,” says Jim Green, national nuclear campaigner for Friends of the Earth, who detailed the links in a November 7 article on the RenewEconomy website – subsequently picked up by the ABC – and who was called as a witness before the jury.

The trust issue in turn highlighted the economic issue. Jacobs MCM had concluded South Australia would reap $5 billion in revenue a year, but now the jury didn’t trust their numbers. The jurors called for evidence from three economists: Richard Denniss, Barbara Pocock and Richard Blandy. Their submissions were damning.

On radio this week, Scarce denied his commission had “cooked” the numbers. There was nothing wrong with contracting pro-nuke lobbyists to do the work.

“There is no point bringing in people to do that economic analysis who don’t have experience and knowledge in the industry,” he said.

The royal commission had been a “very encompassing process”, he said, whereas the jury had been squeezed for time. As a result, he said, his deliberation had been the one that got “a sensible answer”.

He said 350 jurors could not talk for 1.6 million South Australians; but he did not seem keen on Premier Jay Weatherill’s suggestion that the issue might be solved by a referendum of those people.

“We need to remember this is a very big opportunity for South Australia and just because the going’s getting tough, it’s not time to pull stumps,”
he said. “We need to get out there and take the opportunity to talk about what we found.”

A couple of months before the jury reported, and just before his departure on an inspection tour of the world’s first long-term nuclear storage dump in Finland, Weatherill said the government’s decision would be strongly influenced by a citizens’ jury report, but abandoning the concept was unlikely. He also said he expected a “proceed with caution” verdict.

After the report, he acknowledged: “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.”

So there will be more consultation. There is also a parliamentary inquiry into the issue, due to report on November 29, which sources suggest is likely to split three-all, with Labor and Family First on one side and the Greens and Liberals on the other.

And further analysis of the royal commission’s economic calculations, received by the state parliament this week, is highly critical.

So it’s not over yet.

Which makes you wonder why they went to the bother of having the jury, in defiance of the Yes Minister rule well known to every politician: “Never start an inquiry unless you know what its findings will be.”

Weatherill’s answer?

“There is no doubt that there is a massive issue of trust in government. I could sense that and that’s why we started the whole citizens’ jury process. There is no way forward unless we overcome those issues. It’s a much bigger issue than even just the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission.”

Perhaps we should give him credit for that. Or perhaps not, given the evidence that the royal commission was an exercise in manufacturing consent.

Principles of respresentative democracy

Democracy was ancient Greece’s great gift to the world, so we are taught in school.

But even at the time of its invention 2500 years ago, the Greeks recognised democracy’s shortcomings, principal among them the fact that for it to work it required an engaged and informed polity.

To this end they restricted the vote to people of substance, learning and enough leisure to allow them time to cogitate and debate issues – free, property-owning adult male citizens. Maybe 15 or 25 per cent of the total population.

Even so, the ancient philosophers worried considerably that democracy was vulnerable to ignorant or uninterested voters. Plato, for one, would have further limited the franchise to an elite class of “philosopher kings” specially educated for the role of governing.

Which doesn’t seem very democratic at all, by modern standards. Until you think about it.

Back then democracy was direct. Eligible voters were not just electors, as they are today, but legislators. So although only a relatively small proportion of the populace had voting rights, they got to exercise them frequently and meaningfully.

In the millennia since, governance has become a great deal more complex and sophisticated. These days our democracies are – mostly – representative rather than direct. We now have a political class who, if not exactly philosopher kings, are specially educated to their roles.

And while the franchise has expanded to all adults, the chance to exercise it has shrunk. For the vast majority of people the options for influencing government are limited to the right once every few years to vote one lot out and install another lot.

It’s a very unsatisfactory macro decision, too, for when you vote you are deemed to have endorsed a whole suite of policies, regardless of the views you might have on individual issues.

It’s a lot like signing up for cable TV: you commit to it because you want one thing but you end up paying for a package of other things you don’t want at all.

What’s more, the competing political packages include a lot of the same stuff. If, for example, you are like the sizeable majority of Australians who want greater regulation of the gambling industry, tough luck. It doesn’t matter whether you vote Labor or Liberal, the industry has more clout with politicians than you do.

Anyway, how do you find the time to understand the issues, which are so many and complex? Sure, vast amounts of information are out there, universally available online from government, bureaucracies and academe, civil society and lobby groups and media. On the face of it, people should find it possible to be more informed and engaged than ever before. But it’s often dense, or partisan, or straight-out untrue. Paradoxically, it seems the more information that is available, the harder it is to be well informed.

Voters a small per cent of populace

So the fundamental problem of democracy, identified by the ancients, remains. Indeed, it appears lately to be getting more intractable. To function properly it needs an informed and engaged electorate, but people are growing clearly less engaged and arguably less informed.

There is a term for it: rational ignorance. The theory holds that electors apply a sort of cost–benefit analysis to their political commitment. If they don’t think their opinions or their votes count for anything much, they lose the incentive to educate themselves about the issues.

Plato foresaw the consequence of this. The penalty for refusing to participate, he said, was that you end up being governed by your inferiors.

The recent US presidential election was an exercise in rational ignorance. Not just because Donald Trump won, but because only about 19 per cent of those eligible to vote actually cast a ballot for him. Hillary Clinton won a marginally greater number of votes, but still only about one in five eligible electors bothered turning out to support her.

Actually, it was even worse than that, as The New York Times pointed out this week in a statistical analysis of the votes of those who engaged in the primaries, the process of selecting the two major party candidates.

The analysis found that half of the people who voted in the primaries chose candidates other than those who won the respective nominations. “Just 14 per cent of eligible adults … voted for either Mr Trump or Mrs Clinton.”

Athens had a more participatory democracy when slaves and women were denied the franchise.

Things look better in this country, because we have compulsory voting. But are they really?

In February-March this year, the Lowy Institute conducted its annual poll on a raft of issues, including people’s attitude to democracy.

It found just 61 per cent of the population agreed with the propositions that “democracy is preferable to any other kind of government”. Among 18 to 29-year-olds, it was barely more than half – 54 per cent.

The results hardly made the news – probably because, as the report noted, they were consistent with polls of the previous several years.

Indeed, trust in government – not just particular governments but in the whole system of government – seems to be in decline almost everywhere you look.

One way to arrest that decline, some think, is to give the people some form of engagement other than filling in a ballot paper once every three or four or five years.

There are some places that already do that. I lived in one for a number of years, a small town in Massachusetts – Tisbury – where they maintained a practice going back to the early 1600s when the Puritans arrived. Every year there would be a town meeting where the elected councillors – called selectmen, even when they were women – presented a budget to the populace, and they voted on it, line item by line item. Sometimes they convened for several nights to discuss contentious issues. The most remarkable aspect was not so much the verdict they achieved as the fact that they achieved it largely without rancour.

Of course, the people at those meetings were dealing with local issues and other people they probably knew. The big question about such direct democracy is whether it’s scalable to big decisions taken by groups of strangers.

And that’s what made the South Australian citizens’ jury such an interesting experiment. And a not-entirely successful one.

Citizen jury experiment

“Can you think of a harder topic to discuss than a high-level nuclear waste storage facility, potentially on Indigenous land?” says Iain Walker, executive director of the newDemocracy Foundation, which oversaw the process.

“I do feel like I’ve walked out of 10 rounds of wrestling with an 800-pound gorilla.”

Or maybe two 400-pound gorillas. Some on both sides of the argument were hostile. The pro-dump people complained that the process had allowed greenies to stack the jury; the anti-dump side complained the organisers had stacked the witness list.

As to the former claim, Walker says, the jurors were a representative sample of the population, selected entirely at random.

“There’s always attempts to cheat the selection system, in every one of these juries we do,” says Walker.

“One person in this case got a legitimate invitation and registered 61 times. We pulled 60 of them out. You’re entitled to your one chance. We use Excel pattern matching to pull out duplicates, and to pull out people we haven’t sent invitations to.”

And as for the claims from the anti-dump side that the organisers were trying to manage an outcome, well, some were extraordinarily conspiratorial. The newDemocracy Foundation had former politicians among its committee members and supporters, therefore the fix was in. It had business people, so they must have been angling for contracts when the waste dump was approved. All the claims lacked was evidence.

In regard to the witnesses, Walker insists the jurors got to hear from everyone they asked for, and no one they didn’t ask for, either by name or by function.

“We absorbed this line about how we were ‘manufacturing consent’ the whole way through,” he says. “Well, the actual result does not bear that out.”

That is not to say everything went as well as it could have. The process was rushed, some jurors were stressed. There were arguments and hostility and a great deal of suspicion.

Walker says the outcome doesn’t trouble him. What does is that “we are losing the ability to have a respectful conversation”.

Let’s hope it’s just through lack of practice for, as he says, there is a great need to find new ways to engage people in democracy.

“It’s got to be more than just the vote,” says Walker.

One of the happiest, sanest, calmest people I ever met was an ageing Tisbury Selectman, a hippie, landscaper and musician. He drove about in an ancient, battered pick-up with a sticker on the back. It read, simply: “Decisions are made by those who show up.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 19, 2016 as "Unpopular demand". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.