This weekend the Nuclear Citizens’ Jury is expected to deliver a report to South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill that will shape the future of the nuclear industry in this country. But although the jury is presented as a non-partisan body able to make a decision in the state’s best interest, the Premier has designed it so it will return the result he wants.

The jury has been asked to answer this question: “Under what circumstances, if any, should South Australia pursue the storage and disposal of high level nuclear waste from other countries?”

If, as expected by the Premier, the report recommends to “proceed with caution“, the South Australian government will feel legitimised to embark on the gradual expansion of the nuclear industry in the state. The answer, however, will have implications for the whole of Australia.

The Nuclear Citizens’ Jury was established as the centrepiece of the community consultation instituted by Weatherill. In his opening address to the Citizens’ Jury on day one, the Premier presented the jury’s work as “a contribution to democracy” and “a better way of citizens coming together and answering complicated questions”.

However, his words also reveal what is at the heart of this matter: trust. The Premier has said that the Citizens’ Jury was set up because people don’t trust government, and that an independent process was needed to address the complex and contentious issue that is the potential expansion of the nuclear industry in South Australia.

Trust was also the key theme in Iain Walker’s remarks to the first jury. The executive director of the newDemocracy Foundation, the main organisation whose ideas underpin the Nuclear Citizens’ Jury, stated:

“… the challenge is a million people will not read a Royal Commission Report. A million people probably won’t trust government documents that come out, they probably won’t trust Business SA or the Conservation Foundation, they will think — yes, you would say that wouldn’t you. But people will not say that of you.”

In other words, people will not question the jury’s decision. People will trust the jury. Effectively, the Nuclear Citizens’ Jury has become the key to resolving the “trust problem” for the South Australian government.

The danger here is that the Nuclear Citizens’ Jury is being presented as a neutral process, when in reality it is designed to manufacture the outcome the Premier wants.

The process has been designed by public relations experts. The “brains trust” behind the operation is newDemocracy Foundation. This organisation describes itself as an independent, non-partisan research organisation that tries to innovate democracy, holds no policy positions, and advocates for citizens’ juries as one of its central planks in reinvigorating democracy.

Yet the list of members and supporters reveals an organisation far from independent from political or corporate interests. Its founder, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, is the managing director of Transfield Holdings, a company with recent major investments in the energy sector and a wide range of infrastructure projects, including port and railway facilities. The foundation includes many former politicians, both state and federal. Two key figures are two former premiers — Nick Greiner, former premier of NSW, and Geoff Gallop, former premier of WA. Both are on the research committee, and both present themselves on the website as having background and interests in energy and energy policy. Significantly, the list of members and supporters of the newDemocracy Foundation also reveals a large number of specialists in community engagement, issue management, public relations and marketing, including Iain Walker. These people are experts in managing public opinion.

Walker has been a constant presence throughout all three sessions of the Nuclear Citizens’ Jury, actively making a presentation to the first jury and monitoring all proceedings ever since.

The role of DemocracyCo, the local enterprise carrying out the overall facilitation of the process, is also interesting. Emily Jenke, the co-CEO, makes no bones about her political connections on her website, stating that she “enjoys a long term and trusted role with the Department of the Premier and Cabinet”. Jurors have recently gone to the press saying DemocracyCo added further pro-nuclear witnesses to appear in front of the jury, after finding jury members voting to hear from many of those opposed to the industry.

It is impossible to explain in a short article the wide range of techniques that can be applied to shape and manage public debate, including citizens’ juries. But here are some examples that are relevant to this particular process.

The first example relates to the question. The power that questions have in framing issues and producing specific answers is perfectly captured in this famous example. Two priests, being unsure if it was permissible to smoke and pray at the same time, wrote to the Pope for a definitive answer. One priest phrased the question “Is it permissible to smoke while praying?” and was told it was not, since prayer should be the focus of one’s whole attention. The other priest asked the question “Is it permissible to pray while smoking?” and was told that it was, since it was always appropriate to pray.

This case illustrates how different questions can produce very different, even opposite answers, on exactly the same issue.

The Citizens’ Jury did not choose the question, and this has been an issue of contention. It is hardly surprising the jurors were not allowed to choose or change the question, as this is one of the most powerful tools in the hands of those managing the process. The question the jurors have been asked to answer is a leading one. As one juror put it to me: “This is a ‘yes’ question.” The question predisposes any evidence gathering and deliberation towards an affirmative conclusion.

Another mechanism is a well-known psychological and marketing trick, designed to limit the possible answers. There is plenty of evidence that shows that when presented with three options most people instinctively (in the case of products) or because they want to come across as reasonable (in the case of debates) choose the option in the middle. The use of three options is a basic tool of what experts call “choice architecture”.

The Citizens’ Jury did not choose the three-option approach to articulate their answer as either: green (yes), amber (yes, but), red (no). Like the question, this approach to the answer is loaded towards an affirmative conclusion. For one thing, it offers two “yes” options and only one “no” option. The reasoning is that the amber is meant to signify “proceed with caution”. This implies that a simple yes would mean “proceed without caution”. No one in their right mind would do that in this context. So the purpose of the amber can only be one: to nudge jurors towards the middle-of-the-road option: the “yes but”. That is, the “proceed with caution” desired by the Premier.

Another worrying aspect about this process has been the interesting use of the word “jury”. This word has certain implications and associations: juries evaluate evidence, identify gaps in evidence, and make final decisions. But the Premier has reserved the final decision for the government. There is nothing wrong with that. It is, after all, elected to represent the people. But why call it a jury? Why not call it a “focus group” or a “citizens’ inquiry”? Because “jury” appeals to our notions of citizenship and predisposes participants towards trust and good faith. “Jury” implies a trusted verdict.

I am not questioning the jury’s judgement. I am questioning the process set up to frame their judgement. The Nuclear Citizens’ Jury is being considered the arbiter or creator of trust. The danger here is that while this is presented as a neutral and independent process, the actual process has been designed to manufacture the outcome the Premier wants.

The Premier stated that the process not the outcome was the most important thing. If so, whatever the outcome, he (or someone else) should take a close look at the process, both in terms of design and execution. There is no denying that this has been an exercise in democracy, but a particular kind of democracy — a carefully stage-managed and closely monitored democracy. Indeed, this process is arguably the most sophisticated illustration of manufacturing consent in the history of South Australia.

*An earlier version of this story said Transfield had current investments in the energy sector. The company’s most recent investment in the energy sector was in Novatec Solar, which was dissolved in 2014.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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