Nuclear Citizens’ Jury in action: the purpose and the process

On June 25 and 26, the South Australian government held the first of three citizens juries, dedicated to discussing the recommendations of the recent Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission. The sessions are being run by the South Australian company DemocracyCo.

From the start, there are problems with the purpose of this Citizens’ Jury. Premier Weatherill did not really help to clarify this, in his opening speech, as he explained its purpose:

It is not to arrive at a decision, but to arrive at a decision that the government can make a decision.

The initial company charged with setting up the jury plan was the Sydney company New Democracy. They used the term “Citizens Jury” which is trademarked by the Jefferson Institute. Here’s where the trouble starts. The Jefferson Institute, in in its definition of Citizens’ Jury  clearly states:

The Citizens Jury convenes diverse groups of citizens to study an issue deeply, discuss different perspectives on the issue, and recommend a course of action or craft their own solutions to address the issue at hand.

The Citizens Jury process has been used in several countries, and was used Adelaide in 2015. On that occasion, the Citizens’ jury recommended the mandatory desexing of cats and dogs. All of these Citizens’ Juries made a decision and a recommendation, in keeping with that trademarked definition. To my knowledge, this Nuclear Citizens’ Jury is the first in the world to abandon that principle of making a decision, verdict, or recommendation. Instead, it is charged with the job of developing a readable, understandable, summary of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission’s 320 pages of recommendations.

How did New Democracy come to this decision to abandon an intrinsic purpose of a Citizens’ Jury? One can only surmise that this was done under pressure from the South Australian Labor government and the Royal Commission?

No wonder that Premier Weatherill floundered a bit in his introduction at the jury opening.

Having arrived at this plan for the jury, New Democracy handed over the process to the South Australian company, who, by the way, had managed the Adelaide Cats and Dogs desexing question.

There are intrinsic flaws in this Citizens Jury process

For one thing, there are too many members (50) in this “jury”, and in the one planned for later this year (350) . A jury should be made up of 10 to 20 members.

Apart from that, the process looks good at the start. New Democracy and DemocracyCo have gathered their 50 members following a random selection from a database of over 820,000. A payment of $500 (Citizens Jury 1) for the four day commitment ensures that the members are not disadvantaged, by for example, missing work, and other costs. Facilitators are selected to be neutral. DemocracyCo have gone to a lot of trouble to ensure that the hearings are transparent and accessible to all. They provide videos, at and at and will be providing transcripts. Watching these videos, it is clear that DemocracyCo’s facilitators are endeavouring to manage the hearings in a fair way, courteously giving space for jury members to question the speakers.

Even so, the process is fraught with difficulties. Following Premier Weatherill’s introduction, the first session  introduced members of the Royal Commission team. They outlined the Royal Commission’s steps and recommendations. I got the impression that they were keen to have the Royal Commission strongly influencing the process. Questions from the jury members were at times answered in a vague way.

If this were a real legal jury, speakers could not get away with waffly answers.

Here’s an example:

A female jury member asked Greg Ward, (member of the RC) about the non existence of a functioning underground nuclear waste storage. Her exact words:

But they haven’t actually done it

Mr Ward’s reply:

There is one – the USA’s WIPP .

He then very quickly went on to lengthy information about the countries trying to develop one. A lawyer would have stopped Mr Ward from doing that waffle – the lawyer would have said:

Yes or No?

The lawyer would also have been briefed, and would know that the Waste Isolation Pilot Project is not functioning, and has in fact, been a disaster.

Another interesting question to Greg Ward:

You make it clear that the Royal Commission has no responsibility to educate the community at large. We jury members, with our lack scientific knowledge are given this job – our job is greater than the Commission’s. Who is going to support and fund this necessary education of the public?

Answer from Greg Ward:

It is a big challenge. I think you will enjoy the process. (repeats) It is a big challenge. You will need to focus on the real issues and the facts. I’m sure that you will provide the right advice.

A problematic area is in the choice of witnesses. This is done in a complicated way, but

DemocracyCo is trying to be fair here. In looking for expert witnesses, the jury members are not necessarily aware that some might come with technical knowledge, but with an implicit or well-known bias on the subject. This is most likely to happen with witnesses on the subject on health and ionising radiation.

A later meeting, on selection of witnesses on the subject of “education” (educational methods etc), the meeting recommended a speaker from Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA). What was needed was an education expert, not a radiation expert.

If you go to DemocracyCo’s Citizen Jury website – Citizens’ Jury One Video Library or to Youtube – you can see 24 videos of these recent hearings.

To try to assess the content of all of these witness speeches is quite a daunting task. However, when one breaks it down into topics, it becomes easier to analyse these speeches from witnesses, and to detect any biases, omissions and flaws. Day One was pretty much a big spruik from the Nuclear Fuel Chain Royal Commission. Day Two was more complicated.

As one goes through all these hearings, as I have done, questionable areas emerge. Some of these are – the economics of waste importing, transport safety, including terrorism risks, the effects of low dose radiation, and perhaps the most significant aspect of all – Aboriginal rights. I think that if observers study each aspect separately, flaws in the Royal Commission’s (RC’s) case will become evident.

It’s not a proper “Jury”, with a purpose to arrive at a yes or no verdict. It is a campaign ruse by the Weatherill government to get these “ordinary people” to develop a readable, understandable, summary of the RC’s 320 pages of recommendations. Apparently the RC personnel are not able to do this themselves.

Two rays of light in all this. First, the jury members are already asking intelligent questions. Secondly, DemocracyCo’s personnel are making every effort to run these hearings fairly, and transparently.

The South Australian nuclear lobby may be in for some surprises.

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