The silent majority don't speak unless spoken to, and when they're "consulted" in polling or focus groups, no real opportunity is afforded for deliberation. They get asked opinions for two minutes, but rarely a considered view after learning more deeply about an issue.
In December 2013, the City of Sydney and the state government decided to try a novel approach to consultation. A mini-public comprising of 43 people (including a third under 24 years of age) were randomly recruited from a pool of citizens across Sydney. It was Sydney City's first experience with a citizens' jury . They were asked: "How can we ensure we have a vibrant and safe Sydney nightlife?"
They deliberated in facilitated sessions for more than 50 hours across three months, hearing from individuals, organisations and advocacy groups. The jury had a dedicated online discussion forum and, in April 2014, delivered their report with 25 recommendations. The jury found value in the "lockout law" but, as a trade-off, they wanted an earlier review and a "good behaviour" exemption. Recommendations 21 and 22 read:
21.The Jury supports the independent statutory review of the effectiveness of the lockout … and recommends that it be conducted in 12 months rather than the proposed 24 months. The outcomes of this review are to be publicly available.
22.The Jury recommends that exemptions be available for venues to the "lock-out" and other trading restrictions, based on good behaviour, no incidents, and proven lower risk to public safety. This makes it financially favourable for the venue to police itself.
Neither of these two recommendations were supported by the state government, even though most of the other 25 were well received. The government committed to their review timetable (rather than the jury's earlier one) arguing that "this will ensure sufficient time for the measures to take effect, and for a sufficiently rigorous evaluation to take place." The government also did not support exemptions because the lockout laws "purposefully set a high bar which must be met so that the Government's policy objective in introducing the requirements is not undermined".
Recommendations 3 and 4 were supported: "that the City of Sydney commit budget to support night-time innovation and diversity … and that the NSW Government collaborate with the City of Sydney and provide financial and regulatory support for night-time activities.''
However recommendation 19 wasn't supported: the jury recommended the full restoration of funding to the NSW Education Department Drug and Alcohol Unit, to improve and mandate drug and alcohol education programs across all NSW primary and secondary schools. The state's response was that the current mandatory syllabus and courses suffice, and that "teachers are best placed to deliver drug education".
Last week, waves of social media sought to free up the lockout law, but a "groundswell of opinion" is not the considered view of the silent majority. When a mini-public, a group of our peers, sits down to consider public policy issues, they invariably come to consensus, recognising that trade-offs are usually required, with minimal bickering and jostling for limelight. At the same time a citizens' jury engenders trust in the rest of the community. The jury isn't beholden to any party, lobby group or to the "popular" vote; and they don't have to answer to trending social media and shrill headlines. Unlike our elected officials.
As it was published on Sydney Morning Herald, Comment, 17 February 2016.