Foreshadowed recently in an interview with Michael Smith, Infrastructure Victoria - as part of one phase in its community consultation process - empaneled two citizens juries to "give a voice to the people" as CEO Michel Masson put it, and the authority has now released the metro and regional jury reports.
Michael Smith: How does this [citizens juries] work? What have they been deciding upon?
Michel Masson: We were very keen to ensure that in process of the developing the 30-year infrastructure we had depth and breadth in the consultation. This was about real, genuine engagement, not just an exercise in ticking a box. The citizen jury is a very interesting way to give a voice to the people. It was fundamental to have the right tool, the right mechanism to have the community express their views.
We’ve created two citizen juries – one in metropolitan Melbourne and another in regional Victoria which is based in Shepparton. These citizen juries are two groups of 40-ish people which have been randomly selected but statistically representative of regional Victoria and metropolitan Melbourne.
They spend six Saturdays meeting every few weeks and work like a court jury. Each jury has the opportunity to call on experts on a range of issues- from former treasurers, experts in transport planning, specialist in schools or education and so on – in order to gather evidence.
At the same time they are going through all of the options which we tabled. At the end of the process, they will deliberate and provide their recommendations.
Extract from Michael Smith's interview with Michel Masson, CEO of Infrastructure Victoria
Throughout the metro jury report, a system of various endorsement ranks (or strengths) as well as a priority system (high, medium, low) is used to provide high-level guidance on the metropolitan jury's recommendation on each 'need' and the various areas of focus within each category. Each recommendation and priority is accompanied with a summary of the jury's deliberations.
In contrast to the metro jury report, the regional jury used a system whereby each juror was given five votes to rank infrastructure priorities. This has had the effect of creating a list of priorities ranked from highest to lowest. The regional jury report also expands on why recommendations were made along with other pertinent information.
The 'needs' and various options that went before the juries were originally outlined in the 'All Things Considered' report which summarised the feedback Infrastructure Victoria had received in response to its initial public consultation round. And comparing the popularity of some of the transport projects in the 'all things considered' report with the jury recommendations ought to make any populist politician - or political party preparing the platform for the 2018 election - sit up and take notice.
In the all things considered report, the Doncaster heavy rail line (ranked number 6 out of 24) and Rowville heavy rail line (ranked number 13 out of 24) appear in the "most frequent expressions of support" yet in the metro jury report, both options are not supported. The jury report gave this explanation: "the jury recognises that although there is strong community support for these options, Infrastructure Victoria has indicated that they are very high cost and long lead-time options".
The metro jury did provide one caveat, saying "the jury would like to note that these options were not exhaustively researched and that jurors didn't have sufficient opportunity to consider these options".
One area that there appears to be (furious!) agreement between the feedback as outlined in the all things considered report and the metro jury is on bicycle and walking path expansion and improvement. In all things considered this is the number one most frequent expression of support and in the metro jury report, 'Need 4: Enable physical activity and participation - Active Lifestyle Infrastructure Provision' has strong endorsement and high priority.
While I am more than happy to give Infrastructure Victoria the full benefit of the doubt in the way it selected the regional jury, I detected a slight anomaly while sifting through the regional jury report.
The regional jurors met in Shepparton and they also provided a list of the towns and cities they come from. If you drew a line from Melbourne to Bendigo and then on to the state border near Kerang and another line from Melbourne along the peaks of the alps to the state border at Wodonga, the regional jurors came from this north-central part of the state.
Like in a courtroom jury, we, the public, should trust that the jury made the right decision - or in this case recommendation - yet one can't help but feel there's a borderline worrisome location bias inherent in the recommendations.
The location bias becomes quite apparent when high-speed rail from Melbourne to Sydney is #5 on the regional jury's priority list (this kind of project will benefit regional Victorians in the aforementioned north-central region the most) and the 'Regional Rail eastern corridor dedicated rail track' that would benefit Gippsland the most, is opposed owing to cost.
In a publicly funded scenario (in the regional jury's defence, it does recommend considering privately funded options for high-speed rail), perhaps the most costly piece of transport infrastructure for the state (or federal) government to build would be high-speed rail line to Sydney!
This in and of itself shouldn't be cause for trashing the entire process, nor the regional jury's recommendations as they currently stand, but perhaps it highlights that there can't just be one jury for all of regional Victoria: there would need to be many, should citizens juries be empaneled in future to deliberate on updates to the state's infrastructure strategy.
P.S. Infrastructure Victoria: in future, if you could record and publish any audio/video testimony experts give to the juries, it would be a sure-fire way to maximise even greater community engagement.