This week, Flinders University academic Professor Haydon Manning put forward an intruiging proposal for the use of deliberative polling in South Australia as a mechanism to assist in the building of consensus on whether or not to move forward with further engagement in the nuclear fuel cycle.
As you can read here, deliberative polling is a process whereby a representative sample of citizens are engaged in a structured process of receiving information on an issue, and given the opportunity to ask questions and engage in discussion in small groups with the aid of professional facilitators. The citizens are polled on the way in and at the conclusion.
I was interviewed in this very interesting show (I am starting at about the 24 minute mark however I think the whole show is great) and, as I say, I am in favour of this proposal. Experience has shown me how well the nuclear issue performs in these types of environments. As I also say in the show, I don’t know any advocates of nuclear power who would be disinclined to this: we want people to have these opportunities. To a great extent, it is all we ever want.
I was followed by Craig Wilkins of the Conservation Council of South Australia. Craig offered only highly conditional support for deliberative polling, with his support contingent on a matter of “how it was structured”. There is, globally, a small handful of people to whom I simply could not conscience giving a platform on this issue but aside from that, I would have no concerns whatsover about the inclusion of Australia’s main anti-nuclear commentators in a deliberative poll. I completely trust my fellow South Australians in such a setting and my experience bears out that the nuclear issue performs very well when people have a structured opportunity to engage and contemplate. Craig instead suggested diluting the issue back down from nuclear to a helicopter view of all economic opportunities. From what I have read, such a thing is simply contrary to the purpose or use of a deliberative poll where people are supposed to have the opportunity to look deeply at an issue, not superficially across many issues.
When asked about a referendum or plebiscite Craig stated support and that he thinks we need “as many opportunities as possible for the public to have a say in this, and so far they have not been engaged enough, because it is such a big decision… so as much polling, conversations, discussion is what I would welcome”.
To my ears, this is a direct contradiction to his highly conditional position on a dliuted deliberative poll. My expressed concern with plebiscite, much as those involved in the same-sex marriage discussion have identified, is that it is the antithesis of the deliberative poll approach: populist processes that are vulnerable to the worst excesses of misinformation, that easily overwhelm and subsume measured, respectful engagement and evidence based discussion.
There needs to be a reckoning here. If, time and time again, when citizens are given the opportunity to learn about the nuclear issue they tend to move favourably towards it, this is not a sign of flawed process; this is not a sign that anti-nuclear voices are being excluded. It is a sign that informed and engaged citizens will support nuclear.
It is a sign that, in democratic terms, some people are basically on the right side of an issue and some people basically are not.
I welcome the suggestion for a deliberative poll on this issue.
Here is the show: