Dialogue with the Pilbara: Newman Tomorrow

Dialogue with the Pilbara: Newman Tomorrow


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Problems and Purpose

The Pilbara is a large, dry region in the north of Western Australia (WA. Newman is a town located inland in the Pilbara. In 2004, Newman was experiencing an economic boom due to its iron ore mining industry. The WA Minister for Planning and Infrastructure Alannah McTiernan speculated that this would an important point in the town's history. Alongside the mining boom, there was increasing interest in the nearby Karijini National Park. The Minister thought this was an opportunity for Newman to consider its future growth and sustainability. This could involve diversifying the economy rather than relying solely on mining for future prosperity. Previous studies had been conducted around the town relating to planning, and the Minister decided that "using these studies as building blocks, it is now time to get government, industry and the community talking together to determine the best way forward" (McTiernan 2004).

Dialogue with the Pilbara: Newman Tomorrow was set up with the aim of bringing Newman citizens together to deliberate on the future of a sustainable town. The process would also be used to feed into the Pilbara Sustainability Strategy that was being conducted by state and local government agencies at the same. 

The process focussed on three key questions:

  • Where are we now?
  • Where do we want to go?
  • How do we want to get there?

The overall goal was to answer the following in line with sustainability, defined as: "meeting the needs of current and future generations through integration of environmental protection, social advancement and economic prosperity" (21st Century Dialogue 2011).

Dialogue with the Pilbara followed a similar format to Dialogue with the City which took place in Perth a year prior, in 2003. This took elements of the 21st Century Town Meeting, but encompassed an entire process rather than a single event (21st Century Dialogue 2011). 


When Labor came to power in WA in 2001, one of their key pledges was to enhance community and participatory decision-making. In particular, 'the new Minister for Planning and Infrastructure, Alannah MacTiernan, was determined to champion community engagement as a way of encouraging joint decision making and democratic renewal' (Gregory 2008). In order to achieve this, the Minister employed Janette Hartz-Karp, an deliberative democracy scholar and practitioner, to undertake the task. Between 2001 and 2005, Hartz-Karp - founder of 21st Century Dialogue - delivered nearly 40 deliberative processes in WA. At the time this was pretty much unique - where a politician had so whole-heartedly embraced deliberative and participatory decision-making. 

The Martu people have lived in the Pilbara for 30,000 years. However, their previous experiences of working with governments was pretty negative, "strained by a history of slavery and violence in the area and by a present that is dominated by poverty and exclusion" (McGrath et al 2014, p10). In order to ensure that the voices of local Martu communities were heard and understood, an additional engagement process was conducted in-community prior to the forum.

Originating Entities and Funding

Dialogue with the Pilbara was initiated by the WA department of planning and infrastructure, and organised by 21st Century Dialogue. 

Participant Selection

A number of strategies were deployed to recruit a diverse range of participants for the process. Over 1000 letters were sent to a random sample of Newman residents, along with stakeholder and local interest groups. A steering group comprised of local industry, community and government representatives helped oversee the recruitment process and pitched in. They led a 'participation drive' at a local shopping centre to try and recruit participants. 

Newman and the surrounding areas are Martu country and home to a large number of Martu communities. An additional engagement process took place a few months before the dialogue day with several indigenous communities in and around Newman. The aim of this separate consultation was to understand and hear the voices of Martu peoples and involved meeting with communities and community leaders. A number of Martu peoples also attended the meeting.

Overall, around 150 people attended the dialogue day - not including Martu communities who were engaged earlier.

Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction

The Newman dialogue day followed a similar format to a 21st Century Town Meeting. The aim is to hold a large scale, one-day event with a large number of participants, involving opportunities for small group deliberation. It uses networked computers to record discussion and ideas, and a 'theme team' whose role it is to synthesise themes coming out of the room, record and relay them to participants.

Prior to the forum, briefing papers were sent out to participants, prepared by researchers at Murdoch University. The steering group, who had more local knowledge, checked the papers and made changes before sending them out to participants. As well as background information, the briefing papers also touched on some key questions for the day related to Newman's future and provision of local services, the economy and environmental sustainability. 

On the day itself, the 150 participants sat in groups of 6-8 with a facilitator and a scribe, some of whom were volunteers from the community or local government representatives. Three tables were allocated for Martu people to sit together, at their request (McGrath et al 2014, p10). Sometimes participants at the tables took turns to take on the scribe role. The volunteers had received a half day training prior to the event. There was also a lead facilitator and a computer at each table where ideas were typed in and relayed immediately to the 'theme team' for synthesis. 

The focus of the day was long-term visions for Newman and participants were asked to their key hopes for the future and how they could be achieved taking into account economic, social and environmental factors. The day was structured according to the questions outlined above. The first question - where are we now? - was addressed with presentations and a Q&A session. Presentations addressed issues like planning, mining and development in the Pilbara. Three videos dramatising challenges faced by Pilbara residents were also shown. The aim of the videos was to illustrate pertinent issues and to stimulate further discussion.

Small group deliberation covered the second questions, with the theme team then relaying key themes and ideas back to the room during the dialogue. Finally, participants prioritised their key themes individually, which were also fed into the ideas displayed back to the room. The key themes were typed up into a preliminary report which was provided to participants before they left the forum.

Engaging Young People

In addition to the meeting, a competition was held in local schools to engage young people and children in a vision for Newman. Children were asked to design a postcard and message on the back describing their vision of Newman in 2020 (then 16 years away). Sadly, young persons' visions for the future of the Pilbara were somewhat bleak, with the winner imagining a flood that forces townspeople to abandon Newman, and it became apparent that this 'ghost town' fear was a theme throughout. Young people also pointed to the lack of facilities for them in the town such as fast food or shopping outlets.

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

At the end of the meeting participants were asked to fill in feedback forms. People were positive about the experience, praising the content of the briefing papers, the organisers and steering group. Suggestions for improvement included more time, advance notice of the questions that were addressed and more local input into the process. However, many participants were concerned about whether their ideas would ever be implemented, especially the Martu's suggestions.

A final report was compiled by researchers at Murdoch University, who first analysed the suggestions and took care to ensure that minority ideas were included in the output. The final report also took into account the outcome of the separate engagement with the Martu communities, additional research, The report was made available to all participants and the public. Findings from the dialogue were included in the Pilbara Sustainability Strategy.

One of the local councils contested part of the final report that involved the Martu's preference for a Shire (local government area) specifically for Martu communities. This had been raised in the separate Martu consultations and the council argued that it had not been a priority during the dialogue. As McGrath et al point out,

"The reaction from the Shire was to try and assert their historical rights over the Indigenous people. Participation can resolve some issues but deeply political issues require a political solution and participation can expose these tensions" (2014, p16).

Analysis and Lessons Learned

The response from the community to the Dialogue with the Pilbara was overwhelmingly positive. Importantly, despite some skepticism that their ideas would be actioned, the participants were positive about the process itself, with some interested in using the Dialogue process to address other issues, and the majority willing to participate in similar processes again.

21st Century Dialogue notes that prior to the meeting, there was some concern that Martu participants would have difficulty with the format of the meeting. However, this was not at all the case and people were engaged with all aspects of the process. It is possible that this success is due to the prior engagement with Martu communities. Nonetheless, McGrath et al (2014) acknowledge that the Dialogue did not have any indigenous people involved in its design or the writing of final reports. Originally it was planned that there would be an indigenous person on the 'theme team' but this was not achieved. This absence, they reflect, means that an indigenous perspective may not have been represented in the final report, even though they did participate in the forum:

"Indigenous people in Australia continue to be spoken about in their absence. Mainstream government and industry structures require that non-Indigenous people speak for them. The minority status of Indigenous people in these structures means that an Indigenous voice is generally filtered through a non-Indigenous perspective" (McGrath et al 2014, p12).


Secondary Sources and External Links

McTiernan, A. (2004) Newman's future the focus of grand community participation event, Government of Western Australia [online], available at: https://www.mediastatements.wa.gov.au/Pages/Gallop/2004/08/Newman's-futu...

Gregory, J, Hartz-Karp J and Watson, R. (2008) Using deliberative techniques to engage the community in policy development, Australia and New Zealand Health Policy, 5(16), available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2500036/

McGrath, N et al (2014) Dialogues for Sustainability: Indigenous Participation and Relational Power [pdf], Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy Murdoch University and Office of the Minister for Planning and Infrastructure, , Western Australia, available at: https://publications.qld.gov.au/storage/f/2014-02-05T04%3A42%3A53.882Z/m...


The following entry was summarised from 21st Century Dialogue's website.

Case Data


Newman , WA
Western Australia AU


Start Date: 
Wednesday, September 29, 2004
End Date: 
Wednesday, September 29, 2004
Number of Meeting Days: 


Targeted Participants (Demographics): 
Other: Demographics: 
Indigenous Peoples
Other: Method of Recruitment: 
Participation Drive


Facetoface, Online or Both: 
Other: Interaction among Participants: 
Ask/Answer Questions
Decision Method(s)?: 
Method of Communication with Audience: 


Who paid for the project or initiative?: 
Western Australia Department of Planning and Infrastructure
Who was primarily responsible for organizing the initiative?: 
Type of Organizing Entity: 
Who else supported the initiative? : 
Local Martu Community
Types of Supporting Entities: 


Total Budget: 
[no data entered]
Average Annual Budget: 
[no data entered]
Number of Full-Time Staff: 
[no data entered]
Number of Part-Time Staff: 
[no data entered]
Staff Type: 
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Number of Volunteers: 
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