Swollen chests and punched stomachs—Consultation in Australian policy making

Lyn Carson, The University of Sydney

Policy makers are changing their attitude to public participation in the decision making process. Politicians, commentators, and citizens assume that ‘consultation’ on policy development should routinely occur, and discussion now focuses on how rather than if consultation will be conducted. Politicians acknowledge the weakness of traditional forms of consultation—written submissions or public meetings or advisory committees—and seek innovative ways to tap into the views of the wider population. So it was somewhat surprising to read the uncritical media coverage of the consultation process during the preparation of the White Paper on Defence.

Just before announcing his resignation from parliament in late 2000, Minister for Defence John Moore released the findings of the ‘first national consultation process on defence’—Australian Perspectives on Defence: the Report of the Community Consultation Team. There had been the usual written submissions as well as email and voice mail access (all one-way communications commenting on a discussion paper), but the face-to-face component of the consultation process was the Minister’s pride and joy. This process was heralded as a way to seek the views of ‘all Australians’, it was ‘innovative’ and ‘all members of the team’ had ‘embraced the concept with great enthusiasm and professionalism’. [1] While the collective chests of the consultation team swelled with pride at a job well done, groans could be heard across the wide brown land as Australians felt the velvet glove hit their diaphragms. Had we really been consulted? Why did many of us feel more elbowed than involved in the whole curious process?

While the chests of the consultation team swelled with pride, groans could be heard across the wide brown land.

I want to consider the problems inherent in the defence experience and to generalise these problems into the broader context of public participation in political decision making. I suggest how it might be done differently and speculate on the feasibility of this occurring. Firstly, a closer examination of the outcomes of the defence consultation process is in order because these were outcomes that were delivered on behalf of all Australians. All Australians? This is a curious phrase because the consultation process was designed to allow for input from this same rather large group. Did it succeed? Well 2,000 people attended 28 public meetings—that’s an average of 71 people at each meeting—hardly a representative sample of the population. Just what kind of Australian would hurry along to a public gathering being chaired by The Hon. Andrew Peacock with Dr David MacGibbon, Mr. Stephen Loosley and Major General Adrian Clunies-Ross (Retd) side-by-side? One would suspect that this is not a group of chaps particularly skilled at creating an environment conducive to lively debate amongst a group of equals.

Organising a series of public meetings that will inevitably attract ‘the incensed’ and ‘the articulate’ and certainly those with a specific interest in defence policy is an excellent consultation method if one wants to do one of two things. Firstly, if it’s an information session—‘boy have we got a deal for you!’—then a public meeting makes sense. If it’s a token exercise, designed to look good and deliver very little, then again a public meeting is a good approach. If one’s approach to consultation is genuine—that is, designed to find out what a broad cross section of the community thinks, based on sharing and unravelling complex information—then a public meeting (or 28 public meetings) would be at the bottom of the consultation tool kit. Participants would not be representative, the environment would not be deliberative or interactive enough to deal with complexities and the agenda would have been determinedly set in advance. How might it have been done differently?

A few consultation methods could be used. These methods have been trialed around the world (including in Australia) and confidence in them is growing. They overcome many of the weaknesses of opinion polls or public meetings and are sufficiently robust to be used for policy making with real citizen participation.

The Government could have employed a deliberative poll, organised as follows. A random selection of typical citizens could have been contacted and their (uninformed) opinion surveyed. This would have given all Australians an equal chance of being selected. These participants could then come together at one location and engage with the complexities of the issue, through plenary sessions with expert witnesses as well as in-depth discussion amongst their peers in small groups. The small groups would be facilitated by skilled practitioners who ensure that the group stays focused on the topic and that group members all have a chance to be heard. Experience indicates that small group work may be crucial for allaying fears and forming opinions—presumably because of the high interactivity amongst a group of equals. Participants are surveyed at the end of proceedings and opinions compared. Inevitably a considerable shift has occurred. Would such a representative group of Australians, after a weekend of intense deliberations, have said ‘yes, please, we want to spent billions more on defence (and therefore less on health, education, environment)’? Somehow I doubt it.

Consensus conferences, planning cells and citizen juries are also well tested consultation methods. All involve small groups (usually about 12-15) of randomly selected citizens meeting and hearing evidence from expert witnesses and working towards consensus. (In Australia, a consensus conference was used to discuss the contentious issue of genetically modified food. Needless to say, decision-makers largely ignored the intelligent, thoughtful recommendations the conference made.) The small, diverse group that participates in a consensus conference is not meant to be representative but is a cross section of the wider population. If a number of consensus conferences on defence spending had been convened in different locations across the country, the combined participants could have given some insight into the opinions of Australians. Again, all Australians would have had an equal chance of being selected, the group(s) would have engaged in high levels of interaction amongst their peers and deliberations could have been of considerable depth. One of the strengths of a consensus conference is that participants control the agenda—they determine the questions to be asked and the experts whose opinions are to be sought. [2]

There are plenty of robust consultation methods that would allow citizens to participate in a meaningful way.

It is difficult to envisage a government that would be predisposed to embrace such innovative methods, so intent are elected representatives on controlling the agenda. Yet there are indications that all is not as grim as one would imagine. For example, the NSW Government has just commissioned an independent review into container deposit legislation. Stuart White from the Institute for Sustainable Futures is incorporating social research into this review, an unusual component of a formal review process that still involves written submission and independent analysis of data. The social research component provides additional information and will take the form of a televote and a citizens’ jury. People will be randomly selected and asked to participate in one of the two processes. Together they should provide a snapshot of opinion across the state.

Here’s how it will work.

It is considered important to gauge the attitudes of the wider community in relation to container deposit legislation (CDL)—e.g. willingness to pay, preparedness to return containers, acceptance of the principle of CDL (extended producer responsibility). CDL is a waste issue that is a lot more complex than just deciding whether or not to pay a deposit on a soft drink bottle—just ask the packaging industry! A televote and citizens’ jury will be used in combination, because the deficiency of each should be overcome by the strengths of the other. A televote draws on a large sample of the population (400 residents of NSW); a jury is a tiny but diverse group (16 people from across the state). Televoters are surveyed by phone then sent information and surveyed once more. A televote is only moderately deliberative (participants are encouraged to discuss the issue among family and friends) whereas a jury is highly deliberative (at least two days meeting face-to-face, directing questions to experts, participating in discussions and writing a report). The agenda is set for the televote but the jury has far more control of the process.

The consultation methods outlined here have been trialed for three decades, yet remain largely unknown in the wider community. Only in Denmark could any of them be seen to be institutionalised [3]—that is, part of the everyday functioning of government and influential in decision making. Until this happens in Australia, these innovative mechanisms will remain novelties, a side show beyond the main political arena of (non)representative government. Of course, if the answer a government wants from a consultation process is predetermined, then it does exactly what the Howard Government just did with the consultation process on defence: simply use a consultation method that is neither representative nor deliberative, with a fixed agenda. Those with a passion for the topic turn up and, hey presto, ‘the community’ apparently agrees with the plan, entirely. The rest of us will inevitably feel battered or ignored or hoodwinked into believing that ‘an innovative and highly valuable approach to policy development’ occurred. Nothing could be further from the truth. If governments want an involved public with genuine ownership of the issue, there are plenty of robust consultation methods that would allow us to participate in a meaningful way. We can then begin to flex our atrophied political muscles—gone to fat through lack of use. We’ll learn to participate by being given genuine opportunities to do so.


1. Media Release, The Hon. John Moore, MP, Minister for Defence, accessed 19 December 2000 http://www.defence.gov.au/consultation2/index.htm. [Back]

2. Unlike the selected experts who were consulted for the defence consultation process. Graeme Cheeseman has suggested previously in The Drawing Board (‘Defence Review 2000: Public Consultation or Public Education?’) that academics, for example, were virtually excluded. [Back]

3. The Danish Government via its Board of Technology conducts regular consensus conferences to gauge public attitudes. [Back]

Lyn Carson is a consultation practitioner and lecturer in applied politics with the School of Economics and Political Science, The University of Sydney.