Friday, November 17, 2006

Ask a stoopid question...

In June last year Toowoomba City Council (TCC) submitted a proposal to the Commonwealth Government for co-funding of a planned indirect potable recycling scheme to supplement that city’s dwindling water supply.

The Commonwealth Government would provide one third of the scheme costs through the National Water Commission (NWC). The Queensland State Government would also contribute one third on the basis that the NWC funding was forthcoming. TCC would be responsible for funding the remaining third. Early indications were that the NWC would support the proposal and even the local member of Federal Parliament (Ian MacFarlane) publicly expressed support.

A month later, Mr MacFarlane received a community petition opposing the co-funding of TCC’s proposal. The petition carried the weight of around 7000 signatures and MacFarlane quickly changed his tune. He claimed to have been misled about the details of the proposal and the established safety of (planned) potable water recycling.

MacFarlane responded by asking Malcolm Turnbull to make any NWC approval of co-funding conditional on a positive outcome of a community poll. MacFarlane’s request was approved and the City of Toowoomba went to the polling booths on 29th of July 2006. The question posed was simply:

“Do you support the addition of purified recycled water to Toowoomba’s water supply via Cooby Dam as proposed by the Water Futures Toowoomba Project?”.

The answer was a resounding “No” (62% of formal votes). The only other option provided was “Yes” and the whole process provided no viable solution.

As far as I am aware, Toowoomba is the only city on Earth to have been given the opportunity to vote (directly) on its potable water supply source. But MacFarlane and Turnbull appear to have set a precedent. Queensland Premier Peter Beattie has since indicated that he intends to call a similar planned potable water recycling poll for Brisbane in 2008. A few individuals are now demanding a poll in Goulburn (NSW). But is this an effective approach for addressing imbalances in a city’s water supply and demand?

Even Toowoomba’s prominent “No” campaigners expressed dissatisfaction in the limited options provided for in the “Yes” or “No” poll. (Almost) all members of the Toowoomba community appear to agree that new water management strategies are required, but no opportunity was provided to properly evaluate, compare or express preferences for alternative strategies. What’s the point in rejecting one option without identifying an alternative? Ironically, Malcolm Turnbull should be as aware as anyone of the perils of an inadequate referendum question.

Planned potable water recycling has much to recommend it, but it makes little sense when considered in isolation. All water supply options come with costs (economic, social and environmental). Once a specific proposal was announced, seawater desalination became extremely contentious in Sydney and similar community sentiments are now unfolding on the NSW Central Coast. Peter Beattie’s recent announcement of plans to build a new dam to supply Brisbane was met with community outrage. Historical plans for a new dam for Sydney (on the Shoalhaven River) have been shelved after extensive investigations have revealed significant environmental, social and economic costs, coupled with the long term inadequacy of such a dam.

I suggest that communities forget about “Yes or No” polls and consider alternative forms of effective participation in decision making. It is thoroughly inadequate to vote on a question that allows for the possibility of no viable solution to be the preferred outcome.

A better approach is to provide a choice between a range of fully evaluated options. Allow the community to identify the options and provide a clear indication of the social, environmental and economic consequences of each one. Its likely that none of the options will attract an outright majority of the vote, so a preferential voting system will be essential.

If the issues involved are highly complex (which in many cases they will be), an effective approach may be to engage the services of a ‘stakeholder jury’ (or ‘citizen’s jury’).

A stakeholder jury process replicates a court-room procedure. Stakeholder juries typically comprise 10-15 representative stakeholders who consider a particular issue and decide for or against a proposal. Alternatively, juries may be tasked to identify the most favourable of a defined list of proposals. The community should be given the opportunity to nominate jury members (or even elect them).

The jury hears or reads evidence from expert witnesses and jury members are able to question the witnesses directly. The process may last several weeks until the jury reaches an informed decision. The jury may then prepare a short report summarising the debate leading to the decision reached.

A major benefit of stakeholder juries is that they allow participants to select and pursue their own lines of enquiry. They support detailed consideration of key issues or sticking points and may help identify relative levels of concern about specific issues. Members of the public may be invited to make detailed submissions for the jury to consider before making their decision.

There are many options for effective community participation in identifying solutions to Australia’s current water woes. Not only is such participation appropriate, it has the potential to deliver the optimum solutions to what is becoming an exceedingly difficult problem with long-term repercussions. Has the jury reached a verdict?


Anonymous said...

guilty, Your Honour.

njta said...

Stuart, I like the idea of a "citizen jury", except that I thought we already had several in the form of local councils and parliments.

Stuart Khan said...

Thanks njta,

I agree...governments are elected to make decisions. However, for some significant and contentious issues, I don’t think its unreasonable to facilitate further community input to the decision making process.

There are some obvious advantages to further involving the community. For example, there are plenty of interested, capable, intelligent and experienced people in our would be foolish not capitalise on that collective skill base. However, not all of them are people that would necessarily be prepared to commit to the full scope of responsibilities that come with being elected to Local Government. A citizen's jury would allow them to participate in a more focused, short-term way (without having to spend the next four years attending to people objecting to their neighbours plan to build a backyard deck...)

But yes...we need to make sure we don’t get carried away such that we start holding polls for every decision governments make!

Anonymous said...

STuart, Should we assume from the title of this post that you beleive the "No" vote in Toowoomba was a "stoopid" answer??

Stuart Khan said...

Hello Anonymous,

Well...did it provide a solution to Toowoomba's water shortages?

What you CAN assume from the title of the post is that I don't blame the answer for that...I blame the question.


waterboy said...

So is asking the same stoopid question again of Toowoomba voters a really really stoopid idea?

Stuart Khan said...

Yes, I think it would be foolish to ask a question that provides for the possibility of no viable way forward. An “either, or” question would be more useful than a “yes or know” question.

water boy said...

Crazy to send Toowoomba to the polls again.

Stuart Khan said...

Water boy, I certainly don't think it is necessary to send Toowoomba to the polls again. There are other legitimate means of consultation. However, now that a precedent has been set, I suspect that many residents of Toowoomba will want to have a say in any plans that may affect them. If Toowoomba residents would prefer to opt-out of any poll, they should communicate this clearly to the State Government, who may well accept such a request.

water boy said...

Just say NO again!

Stuart Khan said...

NO again!

brockerlee said...

What is wrong with people. We have a natural need for water in order to live. Everyone is to use to perfection, or at least the idea of perfection that they have forgotten the big picture. It might not be natural, perfect water but its drinkable and we will need this to happen to live. What do you expect to happen if we jsut leave the matter? Hope like hell it rains? Because guess what, there is a good chance it won't and this will be our only opportunity for years to make a difference for ourselves and future generations. I plead with you, vote yes. We need water.

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