The Mornington Peninsula Shire Conversations were a series of twelve meetings held in 2008 to discuss the data of a report which had been recently published on the projected effects of climate change on Western Australia.
Problems and Purpose
A report was published June 2008 titled “Impacts of Climate Change on Settlements in the Western Port Region Settlements in the Western Port Region” (Rissik, 2013), the results of which were negative and caused widespread panic among residents; in response, an initiative was launched to involve the public on how to appropriately deal with this issue. The issue needed to be dealt with urgently as due to its geographic location, the Shire is a popular holiday destination with its immeasurable variety of attractions such as golf courses and beaches. Therefore, the effects of climate change would not only negatively impact their properties but also attractions which bring in high quantities of finance of which the area is heavily dependent upon.
To deal with these issues, the Mornington Peninsula Shire Conversations were a series of meetings in the shire of Mornington Peninsula, Victoria, Australia launched in 2008. The principal aim was to discuss a report on the expected impact of climate change in the region. There was a set structure to these aforementioned meetings which stipulated that they would begin with a presentation on the research which had been gathered, this was then followed up by a question and answer session, an open dialogue with the audience and to conclude information and material on starting household responses were distributed. “The conversations were planned for the early evening, between 6pm and 8pm on weeknights and on Saturday mornings from 10am–12pm in settlements where there were significant numbers of weekday city dwellers and weekend peninsula residents” (Hunt, 2008).
Background History and Context
Mornington Shire Council has been aware of the potential impacts of climate change for well over a decade and decided to build resilience towards such an event through an approach of community engagement. The first steps were taken in 2001 when with the involvement of the community, a ‘Sustainable Peninsula initiative’ was introduced; this provided not only a framework but also important facilitators for community action on adaptations to decrease vulnerability to the possible effects of climate change, in conjunction with actions to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Initial actions included tackling issues such as water and energy efficiency, land sustainability, renewable energy, and protection of the Greenwedge. In 2006 the Shire initiated a serious dialog with the community concerning Climate Change at a forum titled ‘Your Community Your Future’. Preceding the launch of the ‘Community Conversations’ the Council created an information kit in 2008 titled “Climate Change: what are we doing about it ”. This kit was sourced from a study which presented scientific evidence relating to the impacts of our changing climate on the Western Port Region, which was undertaken through the council’s partnership with the South East Councils Climate Change Alliance (SECCCA) and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). The conversations were provided extra credibility due to the presence of this study. The community was enticed by this process of communication and engagement which occurred at a time when interest and subsequently concern were both at high levels in regards to how disastrous the impacts of climate change would be. The community also perceived the process of the conversations as appealing due to the level of commitment and energy which the council implemented during the build-up.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
This democratic innovation was successfully implemented due to funding from the local city council of Mornington Shire Peninsula.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
To ensure that these conversations would be representative of the entire population of the shire, the initiative was promoted to all demographic groups without any form of bias or discrimination towards any specific group. In order to reach the 140,000 residents promotion was achieved through advertisements in local newspapers, letters were sent to schools and clubs, a program was displayed on the council's website, posters were displayed in shopping malls and it also secured two minutes of television airtime. In sum, "2.3% of the citizen population participated in this process which amounted to 3000 people. Over 1,700 evaluation forms were sent back and the organizers received more than eighty emails and letters” (Hunt, 2008).
Methods and Tools Used
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Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction
Local residents who had made the decision to become active participants in this process arrived at their designated locations where they were greeted by members of the local council and provided with yellow post-it notes where there were also complimentary sandwiches and tea. They were afforded this time in order to think about what climate change means to them, any specific concerns they had perhaps in relation to their property and the issue in general. Once they had made their minds up, they were then instructed to write it on the post-it note and place it on a board which had three different headings written on it. These headings were Household Actions, Political Actions, and Climate Change Impact. During an intermission, the post-it notes were routinely removed by staff and handed to members of the council who then input this information into a computer data system; the system then used the keywords on the notes to link that specific person's note to one of an estimated 70 PowerPoint presentations which each differ from one another and in total encapsulate the entire CSIRO data along with impacts (both social and economic) that resulted from it. This would in turn allow for the concerns of individuals to be juxtaposed with the actual effects of climate change which have caused those concerns and which would have occurred before the initiative was created.
Once the twenty-minute intermission had concluded, participants were kindly asked to be seated by MC & Shire CEO, Dr. Michael Kennedy. Once climate change-based performances by the local schools were concluded, the councilor of the Ward welcomed those in attendance and notified them of how long the event would last and what the program for the day would entail. He then re-affirmed attendees of the commitment of the local council in tackling climate change; this preceded a talk by officers in the council who are responsible for environmental management and were tasked with conveying a detailed presentation on the biophysical projections which had been developed by the CSIRO. Members of the public were informed of the different factors such as sea level rise, storm surge, fire weather and extreme rainfall. One by one, the questions which the participants had earlier written on post-it notes were addressed alongside the bio-physical impacts; Dr. Michael Kennedy assumed the role of timekeeper so that the pre-planned schedule was kept to. Once these issues had been dealt with, the floor was then opened up to any extra questions the participants may have thought of during the presentation by the council staff; this process was allowed to go on for the final 15 minutes.
Inevitably, not all twelve conversations were exactly similar and the main topics of conversations varied due to the nature of the comments written on the post-it notes. One notable difference after the third conversation was that in subsequent meetings the floor was opened up to the participants during the presentation by the local council staff and not after. The meetings finished on time, avoiding any unnecessary delays; thus, the majority of the participants left accordingly apart from those who wished to stay back and converse with the opportunity to ask any further questions and congratulate the staff on a successful program.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
One of the major outcomes of the twelve conversations was the decision by the local council to respond to the risks and opportunities associated with climate change by “committing $30 million to developing and implementing an Integrated Drainage Strategy which would be focused on managing increased rain intensity and sea level rise; doubling its Fire Management budget; and achieving a 60% reduction in potable water use” (Rissik et al, 2013). In addition, over 2000 members of the local community recorded interest in schemes established by the council titled, ‘Group Buy’ which were based on “Solar PV, Solar Hot Water and Rainwater Tanks” (Rissik et al, 2013); of these 2000, an estimated 1000 purchases were documented. There has also been a development of a ‘Green Business Network’ as over 950 businesses registered with this aforementioned network while around 50 are actively participating. Moreover, an ‘Eco Living Display Centre’ was launched, signifying the positives as more than 800 local residents actively took par in this process. In addition, aside from the involvement of the residents, the initiative was bolstered by the support of 30 business from the local neighborhood and this has allowed for the center to receive an estimated 3,000 visitors per annum. The local council arrived at the sensible decision to carry on the distribution of the ‘Climate Change Conversation Newsletter’ which is scheduled to be sent out bimonthly, providing residents of the Shire with up-to-date news regarding general happenings with an increased focus upon events based on the topic of sustainability and events centered around it. Estimations show that over 1500 residents are recipients of this aforementioned newsletter, signifying its relative importance and outreach.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The concept of a democratic innovation is the notion that as society advances so too must the ‘democratic’ processes citizens are expected to adhere by. These innovations therefore encourage all aspects of society to participate in exercising this democratic freedom and consequently legitimizing their political systems by spreading values such as inclusiveness, popular control, accountability, transparency, and feasibility. The twelve conversations which have been discussed at great length here are a testament to this aforementioned statement as they not only encouraged participation in a democratic process but the successful engagement of such a high number of citizens with the local council has established a line of communication which will only be solidified even further as the next steps of the initiative commence. Parallels can certainly be drawn between these conversations in the Mornington Peninsula Shire and the historic beginnings of participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre; despite its critics, participatory bu dgeting has had a profound influence on a global scale as it practically revolutionized how citizens of a city could provide a valuable contribution to and wield such influence over their own city. In the same way that participatory budgeting has been modified to adequately suit the different social and political environments it has been implemented in, so can these group conversations, and with fine-tuning it can develop into much more than just a local experiment.
There are several lessons to be learned from this process, one being the fact that despite the intention for all the meetings to be representative, ultimately this was not the case. The statistics show that “under 25’s represented only 3% of the participants, 18% were between 50 and 59, 32% between 60 and 69, 27% between 70 and 84 while 2% were over 85” (Hunt, 2008). This represents a significant problem as the dialogue is based on the future and young families are a target demographic so the question of their lack of presence remains. It would be beneficial if the local council attempted to know the reasoning behind their absence and attempted to address it for future initiatives. Furthermore, “can the participation of 3,000 residents over 12 meetings really be considered a success when Mornington Peninsula Shire is home 140,000 people, so that stipulates that 137,000 did not partake?” (Hunt, 2008); after all, this reduces the overall legitimacy of the process and its subsequent results. The reasoning behind why the vast majority did not participate should be explored with a focus on using different platforms to connect with residents. Moreover, it is indeed true that on a whole the questions which were received from the audience were largely suitable and appropriate, but the sheer volume of them suggests that perhaps the local council should hold meetings of a similar nature more frequently in order to allow citizens to establish a level of communication with those in a position of authority. Had this process of regular communication with citizens been established prior to the twelve meetings then the local council could have avoided having to respond to irrelevant questions such as “Why hasn’t the council done something about public transport along my road?”, which is undoubtedly a genuine grievance but has no relation to the topic of climate change. In addition, the conversations could have also benefitted from a more comprehensive leadership by the chairperson who should make the relevance of the question and answer section a priority.
Hunt, G. (2008). Telling you all we know - conversations about Climate Change on Mornington Peninsula. Available: http://www.seccca.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/telling-you-all-we-k.... Last accessed 11th April 2016.
Rissik, D & Reis, N. (2013). Mornington Peninsula Shire Council’s community engagement programs. Available: https://www.nccarf.edu.au/localgov/sites/nccarf.edu.au.localgov/files/ca.... Last accessed 11th April 2016.
Lead Image: Mornington Peninsula Shire https://goo.gl/WFJ14R
Secondary Image: Mornington Peninsula Shire's Councils' Climate Change Strategy https://goo.gl/sYt4Ny
Tertiary Image: Engaging the Community on Climate Change https://goo.gl/xvvT8Y
Challenges with Data Collection
In regards to the Mornington Peninsula Shire conversations there is not much information and data made available for the public and in the relatively few places where there is information provided it is not in-depth and there is no specific evidence on the individual meetings. This means there is insufficient evidence for the success of each meeting and makes it less helpful for any interested party to formulate a holistic picture of the initiative. It would be beneficial if there was access to transcripts from the meetings and first hand interviews with randomly selected participants and those involved in the organizational committee specifically members of the local council. Furthermore, there was no data available on whether initiatives of this nature had been undertaken in the past and if so whether they had reached any level of success.