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The deliberative poll offers new hope

By Tim Dunlop - posted Wednesday, 28 February 2001


I recently gave a conference paper in which I praised the concept of deliberative polls. A well-known senior academic in the audience (a pretty scary figure for a mere post-grad like me), come question time, asked me if I knew that "Deliberative Poll" was a trademarked term owned by Professor James Fishkin of the University of Texas, at Austin; did I know that Issues Deliberation Australia (IDA), the organisation that runs deliberative polls in Australia, was associated with Newscorp; did I know that it had a lot of corporate sponsors; and did I know that there was criticism of the way they selected the experts who participated.

The implication was that these facts undermined the legitimacy of the poll itself.

While I wouldn’t dispute that it is handy to know these things (and they are hardly secret), I couldn’t go along with the implication that the process was undermined. What I saw watching the tapes of the first deliberative poll ¾ on the subject of Australia becoming a republic ¾ was 350 pretty happy-looking citizens who had participated in a process that all considered worthwhile and that included them in the political process in a way that, I’m pretty sure, none of them had ever experienced before. They not only looked happy, they looked inspired.

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So it is fair to say that I’m a fan of the concept of a deliberative poll. I do have some criticisms, but hey, I’ve got some criticisms of my mum too. I’ll give an outline of how such a poll works, what the thinking is behind it, what it aims to do, and why I think it is a worthwhile project.

What is a Deliberative Poll?

A deliberative poll tries to find out what people think about a topic, not off the top of their heads, but after they’ve been given the time and information to consider the pros and cons, and after they had time to discuss the issue among their peers and with various experts on the topic. As James Fishkin, the inventor of deliberative polls, writes: "A deliberative poll attempts to model what the public would think, had they a better opportunity to consider the question at issue".

The mechanics of a deliberative poll are as follows: the organisers (in Australia, Issues Deliberation Australia, with the help of Newspoll) choose a random and representative sample of about 350 people. These people are then given a carefully prepared "brief" that covers various approaches and opinions on the topic and they have about six weeks to study this material. They are then brought together over a weekend (at Old Parliament House) and divided into a number of small groups. A trained moderator is appointed to each group, and they discuss among themselves the issues at hand. Over the weekend, they also participate in a number of plenary sessions where they question a panel of experts on the topic. This is a formal meeting presided over by a chairperson, and each group is allowed to ask a question. As well, there is a more informal aspect where anyone, more or less at anytime, can ask a question from the floor. The plenary sessions are televised live (in Australia by the ABC ¾ who else?). Participants are flown to Canberra for the weekend, put up together at a hotel and paid a small allowance. (I should add that for the deliberative poll on reconciliation there were a number of "regional deliberations" held, the aim of which was, I believe, to give fair representation to an Indigenous population rather more spread out than the white population.)

Participants are polled before and after the two days of deliberation and the results are compared. So the before results resemble the sorts of outcomes you would expect to get with a regular opinion poll. The after results purport to show what most Australians would say had they had the same opportunity to consider the matter in detail.

The theory behind deliberative polls

Other than voting every so often, few of us get a direct say in government. A deliberative poll attempts to address this "democratic deficit" by giving "ordinary citizens" a voice in some important topic. Deliberative polls, or deliberative democracy more generally, presumes that citizens should have a more direct say in the running of their country and seeks to provide a way for them to do this. It presumes that such public participation and deliberation is a good in itself, and that it is one of the defining characteristics of meaningful citizenship. As such, it presents an idea of citizenship that has roots in the polis of Ancient Greece. Again quoting Fishkin: "…the deliberative poll can be thought of as an actual sample from the hypothetical society ¾ the deliberative and engaged society we do not have."

Most polls seek to predict behaviour. A deliberative poll seeks to recommend particular behaviour. That is, if the sample is properly representative and the participants have not been unfairly influenced in any way, then we can presume that most of the population would come to the same conclusions as the participants if they had the same time and the same access to information. We can therefore take the results of a deliberative poll to be representative of the "ordinary citizen’s" views in a much more meaningful way than we can the views expressed in a regular opinion poll.

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Do deliberative polls live up to these aims?

As you would expect, deliberative polls have their fans and their critics. Some of the complaints are more justified than others. For instance, I think we should give little credence to those critics of the deliberative poll who are simply not happy with the outcome. Some monarchists and direct-election republicans made a fuss after the deliberative poll on the republic when the participants swung heavily behind not just an Australian republic but one with an appointed president. Their criticism rings particularly hollow when you remember that they had been heavily involved in the organisation of the poll in the first place, approving the reading material and the selection of experts for their side of the argument.

Paddy McGuinness’s recent criticisms of the deliberative poll on reconciliation can be seen as a pre-emptive strike. A long-time critic of an apology and a treaty, McGuinness, no doubt fearful that the 350 deliberating citizens would come out in support of both, went to press before the poll had even taken place predicting that the outcome was a forgone conclusion. As it turned out, the change in attitude that occurred was not nearly as dramatic as it was for the republican version and not nearly as dramatic as McGuinness seemed to expect. Nonetheless, he did raise a couple of valid concerns.

He criticised the use of "moderators" to run the small-group discussions that are part of the weekend deliberation. The argument in favour of using them, I think, is that when you bring together a bunch of strangers unused to deliberating in this fashion, there is going to be a tendency for people to be nervous and unsure and perhaps even unfocused. A moderator can help relax people, get the discussion going and keep it on track. However, there is a fine line between this and actually guiding a conversation and the use of them does perhaps under-rate people’s ability to cope with the situation.

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About the Author

Tim Dunlop is a writer based in Adelaide. His PhD dealt with the role of intellectuals and citizens in public debate. He runs the weblog, The Road to Surfdom.

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