Wairoa Dam in Auckland's Hunua Ranges. Photo: Supplied

An experimental ‘deliberative democracy’ process has been used by Watercare to get input from Aucklanders on future water sources and it could provide a model for a more inclusive and equitable format for citizen participation 

Opinion: In an example of deliberative democracy, a diverse group of demographically representative Aucklanders has been working with Watercare to give a citizens’ view on how the region’s water should be supplied in future decades.

The group handed over recommendations made in response to the question “What should be the next source of water for Auckland, post-2040?” to Watercare Chair of the Board Margaret Devlin in the final session of the Citizens’ Assembly on the Future of Water in Auckland last weekend.

The session was the culmination of almost two months’ work by assembly members and more than two years of research partnership between the University of Auckland’s Centre for Informed Futures – Koi Tū and Watercare.

Assembly members, selected from those who responded to 12,000 invitations issued randomly using NZ Post and Watercare databases, learned about water supply options from multiple perspectives. They had discussions with local and international experts, including mana whenua representatives, Auckland Council and Watercare, before deliberating and drafting recommendations.

Deliberative democratic processes seem to be everywhere these days: from the Irish citizens’ assembly that recommended the legalisation of abortion, to assemblies in France and the UK looking at climate issues and, in Australia, mandatory deliberative engagement in Victoria’s Local Government Act (2020). Deliberative democracy offers hope of restoring informed, respectful discussion and decision-making for the common good in times of algorithmic-driven polarisation.

Deliberative democracy goes back to the 1960s and criticisms of “minimalist” approaches to democracy, which assumed citizens’ democratic responsibility started and stopped at elections. Critics argued that democracy’s missing piece was broad and empowered citizen participation in matters that concern them.

Another and at least as important reason for deliberative processes is that big infrastructural projects have tended to disproportionately affect poor, migrant and indigenous communities

In New Zealand, participatory processes enshrined in the Resource Management Act (1991) and the Local Government Act (2002) are grounded in these theoretical arguments. Yet, other democracy theorists argued that what was missing was the opportunity for citizens not only to participate but also to deliberate: to come to the solution through a reasoned and informed discussion.

However, the first wave of deliberative democracy soon faced criticisms. It was argued that, like its close relation participatory democracy, it ignored power imbalances in the deliberating group. In response, the second wave of deliberative democracy emphasised diversity of the group and inclusivity of the process and so provided us with three core elements: recruitment of citizens by drawing lots or civic lottery; well-resourced, well-informed deliberation; and a clear question from the organisation requesting the deliberative process and a commitment that citizens’ recommendations will be acted on.

The popularity of deliberative democracy today is driven by concerns over the state of democracy and challenges of climate change. Climate change mitigation, requiring decarbonisation, and climate change adaptation, will require massive infrastructural investments and rapid changes in the way we live. In a representative democracy tied into short electoral cycles, it can be too politically risky to raise the prospect of large public debt these investments may require, especially when the pay-off could be years down the track, and in the vague form of a ‘disaster averted’ rather than a material benefit today. Calling for citizens’ assemblies to decide may be a way of distributing the risk.

Another and at least as important reason for deliberative processes is that big infrastructural projects have tended to disproportionately affect poor, migrant and indigenous communities. Te Puea Marae in Māngere was once on the edge of the Manukau Harbour but sea access was taken away through roads, reclamations and bridges. Although a marae reservation since 1933, it was rezoned as an industrial area. And then when the Southwestern Motorway was built in the early 1980s, it cut off the marae from the residential area. Effects of this infrastructural violence on the social fabric continued to be felt for decades.

This project preceded the RMA, but we know now existing participatory mechanisms do not protect less powerful communities. Take the example of the 2017 Board of Inquiry that ruled in favour of building the East-West Link, a motorway that threatened to sever the connection of Onehunga and the sea and ruin the fabric of this old township. A change of government averted this project, though the approval remains on the books.

Importantly, boards of inquiry are still the main method to consult on large infrastructural projects with environmental impact. But a citizens’ assembly would likely provide a much more inclusive and equitable format for citizen participation than the adversarial and highly hierarchical model of the Board of Inquiry.

In this model, the ‘value-free’ technical solution is the starting point and impacts on the environment – natural as well as social – come second. Compare this with typical remits of deliberative processes that tend to be relatively open-ended and allow explicit consideration of values and trade-offs embedded in decision-making. In the deliberations of our citizens’ assembly over the next source of water, participants agreed on the high value placed on preserving local land and marine environments. This value choice explains their recommendation of the use of direct recycled water over desalination.

What distinguishes the deliberative process in Aotearoa New Zealand from those held internationally is respect to obligations enshrined in Te Tiriti o Waitangi and the rights of the mana whenua holders. Our approach included involving the Mana Whenua Kaitiaki Forum, through Watercare, in preparation of the process; respecting tikanga during the process; inviting Māori experts to address the assembly; and, generally, ensuring that te ao Māori perspectives were considered alongside the engineering, environmental and regulatory perspectives presented to the assembly.

Assembly members asked what acceptable options from the mana whenua perspective would be, and representatives of the Mana Whenua Kaitiaki Forum were invited to take part in discussions. Alongside the place-based approach respecting the mana whenua rights and the treaty rights, the emphasis on the human right to safe and affordable drinking water had a huge impact on the citizens’ recommendations.

This was an early and experimental approach towards an Aotearoa-based deliberative democratic process. It was shaped by the question of water, collaboration with Watercare and, perhaps most importantly, the context of Auckland with its complex history and landscape and many iwi and hapū.

At the end of our first citizens’ assembly, we are eager to do more. We know it will not solve all democratic and climate-related problems, but it is a tool that needs to be used – and we look forward to deliberating over future questions.

Dr Buklijas worked on this project with the Complex Conversations Team which is a University of Auckland transdisciplinary research project funded by the MBIE Endeavour Smart Ideas project fund

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