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The role of Citizens' Juries in decision-making on nuclear waste importation

By Noel Wauchope - posted Friday, 13 May 2016


On May 10th South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill announced the process by which the state will decide whether or not to host a global nuclear waste import industry, as recommended by the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission.

The first step will be to set up a "Citizens' Jury" of 50 participants randomly selected from 25,000 invitees statewide, to be followed later by another one of 350 participants.

I think that Weatherill might have mistaken his terms here, as a Citizens' Jury, by definition, means a group of 10 to 12 participants. The Weatherill plan sounds more like a "Deliberative Poll", which involves a much larger group.

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A properly constituted Citizens' Jury can be a valuable process in participatory democracy. The group of 10 or 12 people serves as microcosm of the public. They are selected in a randomised way, from the electoral roll. They're recruited from as wide a range as possible. Methods to help this purpose include an honorarium payment, crèche facilities, and easy-access jury locations.

The Citizens' Jury method has considerable advantages. The members have time to discuss freely with each other. They can question witnesses, and have time to scrutinise the information they receive.

There are risks, as there are in other methods of participatory democracy. The process depends on having the oversight of a neutral but well informed advisory panel. Questions need to be framed in a way that does not risk influencing the response. Transparency is important, and complete audio or video recordings of all jury hearings should be publicly available, although the actual jury room deliberations should be private.

The citizen jury process can be an empowering one for the participants, and, as long as it is perceived to be fair and transparent, can be a valuable democratic option for assessing public opinion. It also has the advantage of being cost-effective.

The "Deliberative Poll" method is potentially another very useful form of participatory democracy. It is a lot more expensive, and more complicated.

For a start, I understand that the inventor (Jim Fishkin of Stanford University) has a patent on it so they would have to pay him. For this participatory democracy project, Premier Weatherill quoted a sum of less than a million dollars in this financial year, but has not mentioned the budget fort the following financial year.

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Again, a random selection of participants is made, and again, with the same kind of provisions to enable particular groups, (e.g: young mothers, remote dwelling citizens) to take part. They study proposed policy in small group discussions, and converse with experts, both "pro" and "con". Each group is supervised by a neutral moderator.

There are disadvantages in the Deliberative Poll method. It is complicated to get all participants together in a single place to discuss the issues. The process typically takes a few days. The material provided must be unbiased, and the whole process has to be supervised by an Advisory Panel. It's important to be sure that this is a balanced panel.

With a larger number of participants, it's even more important to ensure that the most vocal members do not prevail with their opinions, over the group as a whole. This is an important challenge for the moderators and the Advisory Panel.

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About the Author

Noel Wauchope taught science before switching to nursing. She has several post-graduate qualifications, in health informatics, medical terminology and clinical coding. She is a long time anti-nuclear activist.

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