The 2001 Deliberative Poll on Reconciliation in Australia is an interesting exploration on participatory processes and the role that representation plays.
Problems and Purpose
The Deliberative Poll, titled ‘Australia Deliberates: Reconciliation- Where from here?’ was a three-day event which attempted to gauge the ‘average Australian’s’ opinions of the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and to further progress the Reconciliation process which had been ongoing for the past few decades. The Poll was held in Old Parliament House in Canberra, over the weekend of 16th-18th February 2001, with a total of 400 participants, selected randomly but strategically to over-represent Indigenous Australians.
Background History and Context
This Poll was one of the first examples of participatory processes within Australia, though another Deliberative Poll had previously been used in 1996 to discuss the upcoming referendum on whether the nation should become a Republic. Developed by James Fishkin in 1988, the Deliberative Polling method attempts to overcome the problem of ‘rational ignorance’ within the public by educating them on issues so they can have an informed judgement. It had previously been used in Britain, the United States and Denmark, and has since been implemented in other cases (Fishkin, 1988).
The Australian Federal Government, under the Liberal-National Coalition and Prime Minister John Howard, had been gradually responding to calls for restorative programs to overcome the history of racial discrimination in the nation’s colonial past, and yet there had been a failure to reach common ground regarding the establishment of public policies for Australian Reconciliation. In 2000, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation (CAR) was disbanded and handed over control of reconciliation processes to the government. They produced two reports entitled ‘The Australian Declaration Towards Reconciliation’ and ‘Roadmap for Reconciliation’, which gave six recommendations regarding the necessary processes to implement (Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, 2000). Though there is limited material which explicitly identifies the government’s views on the recommendations, general statements following the reports by the Prime Minister indicated a renewed commitment to practical reconciliation (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2000). The reports emphasised the importance of educating non-Indigenous Australians on Indigenous matters, and thus the deliberative poll came under consideration.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Issues Deliberation Australia (IDA) was a non-partisan, not-for-profit public policy think tank which conducted research into social and policy issues affecting Australia. They conceptualised and implemented this Poll with Philip Ruddock, Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs and in collaboration with Reconciliation Australia, a newly established independent organisation which replaced CAR. Funding came from IDA. State-employed policy makers were present for and participated in the Deliberative Poll. These included Geoff Clark, the Chair of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and former Chair of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation Evelyn Scott. Ian Sinclair, the former National Party Leader and Speaker of the House, with Barry Jones, former MP and AlP Federal President were the moderators for the Poll, a role which was deemed important due to the nature of the discussions (Cook and Powell, 2003).
Participant Recruitment and Selection
As is normal in a deliberative poll, the participants were randomly selected, and all voting age Australians had the opportunity to participate (Ryan, 2001). An initial telephone survey of 1454 people was conducted by the organisation ‘Newspoll’, and based off this data, 400 participants were selected to represent a microcosm of the Australian population (Newspoll, 2001). However, a crucial aspect of the selection process was the method of oversampling that was used to ensure Indigenous populations were overrepresented, as they actually made up only 2.5% of the entire Australian population (Karpowitz and Raphael, 2014). This method was employed to address one of the basic aspects of participatory democratic innovations; inclusiveness, which can be considered particularly important when concerning the rights of minorities. Overall, 344 non-Indigenous Australians and 46 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descendants made up the 400 participants.
Methods and Tools Used
This is a case of deliberative polling, broadly defined as a unique form of political consultation that combines techniques of public opinion research and public deliberation to construct hypothetical representations of what public opinion on a particular issue might look like if citizens were given a chance to become more informed. As a method, it involves polling before and after participants have the opportunity to become informed on other perspectives and engage in discussion  .
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Leading up to the Poll, groups of advisors travelled to remote Indigenous communities to gauge the key issues and policy strategies considered important to reconciliation from an Indigenous perspective. Over a six-month period, these advisors prepared briefing materials to be used. These advisors were commissioned by Reconciliation Australia (Saulwick and Associates, 2000). Furthermore, present at the polls to answer questions in sessions with the participants over the weekend were educated advisors who facilitated discussions, including Richard Trudgen, who had spent over twenty years working with Aboriginal communities and being involved in the Aboriginal Resource and Development Services and Aden Ridgeway, an Aboriginal Senator for the Australian Democrats and Ambassador of the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation. It also included Keith Windschuttle, a social policy historian and former board member of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and others. Each of the advisors had extensive experience in Indigenous affairs, and most of them had personal or familial connections to Aboriginal communities.
Participants had been given an initial questionnaire prior to deliberation, to gauge their understanding of Aboriginal relations. It is important to note that in the initial Newspoll survey of non-Indigenous attitudes towards Indigenous issues, only 41% of non-Indigenous people thought they were a disadvantaged group, and 60% believed that they received too much government assistance (Newspoll, 2000, 34).
The participants were divided into groups of fifteen members. Fifteen of these groups had no indigenous representation, while the remaining ten consisted of a combination of Indigenous and non-Indigenous individuals. This deliberate construction of groups allowed for control and treatment studies, to allow for observations of the effects that the presence of Indigenous individuals had on the groups (Jimenez, 2009). Over the three-day period, the groups attended plenary sessions and engaged in a series of discussions over points such as; the need for a formal apology issued by the Australian government in response to the ‘stolen generations’; addressing the employment and education gaps; Native Land Titles and customary laws for individual communities. One of the key contentious issues which arose was over the concept of a formal apology. Following Phil Ruddock’s statement that the government had not offered a formal apology because they did not feel personal culpability for actions in years prior, one Aboriginal participant had asked, ‘Why won’t the government face their demons?’. The heated exchange led the moderator to step in and silence the Aboriginal man, as he had spoken out of turn (Cook and Powell, pp 286). Moderators were thus essential to regulating the process, primarily because of the controversial and personal nature of the topic.
The Stolen Generations refers to the period of governmental policies of forced child removal and assimilation. A report entitled Bringing Them Home in 1997 found that between 1 and 10 and 3 in 10 children had been forcibly removed from their homes between 1910 and 1970, making this an emotive and key point of discussion(Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission). In terms of the issues of employment, Indigenous Australians at this time were almost three-times as likely to be unemployed, with the rate of unemployment at 20%. Education levels were also very low, and bridging these gaps was deemed important for economic and social payoffs for the whole population (Closing the Gap, 2018). The recognition of Native Land Titles was seen as one of the most controversial topics, as the concept of ownership is difficult to define, in terms of if granted it would recognise Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders as the original inhabitants and owners of Australian lands. In a 1971 Supreme Court decision, Australia had been ruled as Terra Nulius or ‘nobody’s land’, but this was later overturned in the Mabo decision of 1992, recognising Aboriginal rights to the land ( Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd , 1971; Eddie Mabo & Others vs the State of Queensland , 1992). In this Poll, participants were asked whether Aboriginals should be granted titles to lands which had symbolic meaning to them.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The Poll was ultimately considered a success in terms of fostering better mutual understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The discussions were deemed respectful and productive, and surveys distributed following the conclusion indicated a distinct shift in opinion from nearly all participants (Jiminez, 27). The perception of Reconciliation as an important issue shifted from 31% prior to deliberation to 63%. Support for formal acknowledgement of Native Land rights rose from 68-93% and support for a formal apology rose from 46%-70% (Ryan, 34-36)
Importantly, it was seen that those non-Indigenous participants who discussed in groups with Indigenous participants showed greater shifts in opinions, indicating that their presence made a key impact on attitudinal changes. Organisers attributed this shift to the difference of hearing ‘first-hand personal stories of disadvantage from the Indigenous Australians’ (Ryan, 49).
While it is difficult to gauge the direct impact of the Poll on Australian governmental policies which followed, the Poll did enhance research conducted in Indigenous affairs and helped to progress a general move towards more-encompassing reconciliation. In February 2008, a national apology was given by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, formally acknowledging the Stolen Generations and acknowledging wrongs of the past (AIATIS, 2008). Subsequently, the government has since delivered a ‘Closing the Gap’ report annually, reporting on any progress made for Indigenous communities. Employment gaps have been increasingly narrowing, though this appeared to stall in 2008, while education levels have been on the rise (Hart, Moore and Laverty, 2017, 11). In terms of legal recognition, the Timber Creek Decision in 2016 marked the first compensation for loss of Native Title rights, to the Ngaliwurru and Nungali peoples of the Northern Territory (Northern Territory of Australia v Griffiths, 2017). However, it is important to note that Aboriginal’s and Torres Strait Islanders are still largely considered a disadvantaged group, and that reforms to address these have been vastly varied across different states.
On an individual level, there has been a lack of research into whether participants began pursuing the progression of Aboriginal rights following the Poll, or whether there was in fact any lasting impact on them. Kimberly Cook, a social policy researcher, was in attendance as an observer during the weekend and commented that the general mood grew to one of greater acceptance and understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants, though it is of course difficult to gauge the long-term effects of this interaction (Cook and Powell).
Analysis and Lessons Learned
This Deliberative Poll marked a moment of extending inclusion and acknowledgement to Indigenous populations. It was a democratic step towards a mutual understanding of the past and to creating a progressive solution, and highlighted that more discussion between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people may generate change.
The research carried out prior to the Poll was essential to the process, and important for facilitating inclusion. Because of the nature of the selection process, being via telephone, Indigenous Australians who lived in remote communities may not have been given the same opportunity to participate. This process allowed them to explain the issues that were important to them, making the Poll more authentic.
Of key interest is the sampling method employed, which has raised questions over the impact of representation in deliberation. Critics of the sampling method, in particular of the overrepresentation of Indigenous people, have argued that compromising the principle of proportional representation may have been unnecessary, given that the results showed even groups with no Indigenous participants became more supportive of reconciliation efforts (Fishkin, 2009). However, this sampling design enabled the active participation of individuals that had previously been excluded from political discourse and discussion. In fact, existent academic research has indicated in fact that minority groups may need to be present in order to have favourable policies approved, and that they should be represented to allow for their interests and perspectives to come across effectively (Phillips, 1998, Dovi, 2002). By encouraging their presence, this institution can be legitimised as a democratic participatory process.
The specific design of this Poll has added to literature on the effectiveness of deliberative polling, and has allowed for analysis of the benefits that participatory democratic processes can have on social progress. Its effectiveness may arguably have been undermined because the advisory parties did have personal, often familial links to Aboriginal communities, perhaps resulting in a bias. However they were also the most informed voices on the topic, enabling for proper education of participants to overcome this ‘rational ignorance’. As mentioned earlier, it is difficult to know to what extent this Poll directly led to social policy reforms. Despite evidence of the participants being more self-reflective and self-critical, the Deliberative Poll was not established in order to be a restorative agreement, and did not directly result in any permanent solutions. As Cook and Powell commented, ‘Warm glows are all well and good, but they are as likely to inhibit a movement towards the structural transformations necessary to offer real justice…as they are to facilitate them’(Cook and Powell, 287). Ultimately, the Deliberative Poll can be looked at as an important social experiment, facilitating progressive relations, and making the case for democratic participatory institutions. Studying democratic innovations and adapting them to different situations is key to creating a successful representative democracy.
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