Citation: Sharon Beder, 'No Smoke Without Fire', Australian Society, July 1990, pp5-6.

This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

Sharon Beder's Other Publications

In February 1989 the Joint Taskforce on Intractable Waste engaged the firm Community Projects Ltd to develop a community consultation strategy to prepare the way for the establishment of a high temperature incinerator in Australia to burn hazardous wastes. Some of the wastes destined for this planned incinerator are organochlorine wastes such as PCB's which are named 'intractable' because there is currently no environmentally acceptable way of disposing of them. Others are what the Taskforce calls "non-BAT wastes" (BAT=Best Available Technology) so named because they are not presently disposed of in the best possible way. These include solvents, pesticides, paints, resins and oily wastes.

Several attempts have already been made to build an incinerator for hazardous wastes but none has been successful, usually because of the strength of local opposition to the facility. This latest attempt is a joint effort by the New South Wales, Victorian and Federal governments who have appointed the Joint Taskforce on Intractable Wastes for this purpose. Community Projects Ltd, an Adelaide based firm, has successfully smoothed the way for other controversial projects in the past and it is hoped they can work their magic for the high temperature incinerator.

The Taskforce is attempting, with the help of Community Projects Ltd, to get broad acceptance for the high temperature incinerator in principle before a location for it is chosen. This is supposed to ensure a detached, 'rational' debate can take place before the emotions of concerned local residents cloud the issue and before the community living near the proposed incinerator site can muster support from the broader community.

To do this the three governments need the support of the environment movement. Although there is some dissent within the Australian Conservation Foundation, ACF has given its support and the three person Taskforce appointed by these governments includes an ACF representative. However several other environment groups oppose the incinerator including Greenpeace and various Friends of the Earth groups. Recently a proposal to support the incinerator was narrowly defeated at the NSW Nature Conservation Council annual general meeting. Other groups which have no policy are being supplied information by the Taskforce and asked to take a stand.

In its latest report the Taskforce stressed the importance of continued community consultation. This article seeks to discuss the nature of that consultation process. Whilst community consultation is obviously desirable it does matter why and how it is carried out. We should be wary of consultation that is forced by previous failures to get a facility sited. Dorothy Nelkin and Michael Pollak, who have studied various technological controversies overseas, have noted:

Mechanisms for public involvement may increase direct public influence on the formation of policy, or may merely inform policy makers about public concerns. More often they are a means to manipulate public opinion, to win acceptance of decisions already made, and to facilitate the implementation of these decisions.[1]

During the 1970s as confidence in public authorities dwindled, participatory reforms were instituted in many countries as a way of getting more general acceptance for controversial government projects and policies. In particular, European governments such as those of Sweden, Austria and the Netherlands attempted to increase public consultation as opposition to nuclear power grew. It was believed by these governments that opposition arose from ignorance and a lack of understanding of energy options. It was also thought that the opposition to nuclear power came from middle-class action groups and these governments hoped that by broadening public interest in the nuclear issue, the fact that nuclear power was in the public interest would become evident, especially to the working-class majority.[2] They turned out to be wrong on both counts. Increased information and broadened debate did not increase support for nuclear power.

Despite such failures the myth still persists that opposition to controversial technologies is based on ignorance and the failure of the community to recognise what is in their own best interests. It is still believed that if you educate people and give them a say then they will come round to the 'right' point of view. The consultation process being undertaken by the Joint Taskforce on Intractable Waste is an example of this. The consultation is not to find out what the community wants done with hazardous wastes. That was decided even before the Taskforce was appointed, It is to win acceptance of a high temperature incinerator. The Taskforce states that "effective" community consultation is essential to secure public support for their proposal.[3]

Like the governments pushing nuclear power the Taskforce seeks to "achieve active public recognition that the proposal is in the public interest"[4] and assumes that most opposition "is based upon ignorance that can be overcome" if the appropriate information is supplied. The Taskforce will supply their version of that information and everyone should be reassured. Yet like the nuclear proponents the Taskforce would be wrong to assume that opposition stems from ignorance. The most fervent opponents to the incinerator are among the best informed on the issue. The Taskforce report actually admits that supporters or potential supporters "tend to be less well-informed on the issues involved than are the opponents."[5]

Opposition does not only arise from fears of emissions and accidents associated with high temperature incinerators around the world, although these are rational enough and have a basis in fact rather than ignorance. Opposition also arises from the belief that a high temperature incinerator will facilitate the continued production of organochlorine products and hazardous waste streams by providing a disposal solution for those waste streams. Many who have been involved in the issue of waste disposal for years do not have any faith in the good intentions of governments who say they will endeavour to minimise wastes or promise to phase out the incinerator in ten years. They believe the public interest can only be served if the incinerator is not built whilst intractable wastes are still being generated.

The Task Force does not intend to consult further with that part of the environment movement opposed to the incinerator because it recognises they are unlikely to change their position.[6] It has spoken to opposition groups in order to distinguish "opposition likely to thwart a desired outcome ('effect') from that which is likely to be ineffective even if it is discomforting ('noise')."[7] The reason for needing to do this is that the Taskforce wants to manage and control the debate or, as it puts it, "limit destructive conflict". It states:

Unstructured public involvement is likely to be chaotic and potentially destructive to a proposal. In the absence of a structure for public involvement, individuals and groups will create their own mechanisms... By providing a framework for public involvement, the form and direction of this involvement can be managed in the public interest. Under these circumstances public involvement in the development of a proposal is more likely to be productive and creative, and the scope for destructive conflict is significantly reduced...[8]

Of course the terms "productive" and "creative" and "destructive" are all defined in terms of achieving the goal of establishing a high temperature incinerator. Such an approach has been used overseas for some time. In a recent issue of the American magazine Civil Engineering it was observed that many engineers now see public education as an essential part of their work. A consultant to local government explained:

We successfully educated our public because we controlled the agenda; we set the tone of discussion... In addition, we realized if we didn't educate the public someone else would. An uninformed public will always organise themselves. Finally we used our potential adversaries to our advantage. Our early efforts allowed us to co-opt potential opponents in time to enlist their help.[9]

These American methods are being used here. Potential adversaries from the environment movement have been co-opted and enlisted to help get the high temperature incinerator accepted in Australia. Remaining opponents have been categorised and dismissed as either ignorant, having vested interests, or, in the case of those stubborn yet well informed, environmentalists who cannot be co-opted, the Taskforce has stated that they "show clear signs of wishing to assume the role of champions".[10] What are "champions"? Its an underhand way of implying that opponents are not concerned about the public interest. The Taskforce states:

Champions are those who see some benefits for themselves in adopting one position or another in a potential conflict. They are sometimes more concerned with the opportunity to enhance their reputation than with the details of the case.[11]

All environmentalists welcome moves towards more public participation in decision-making. However we must be able to distinguish between genuine attempts to involve the public in determining policies and attempts to use public consultation as a means to gain acceptance for a proposal that has already been decided upon. ACF and other environmental groups should avoid being duped into taking part in a well orchestrated public relations exercise.


1 Dorothy Nelkin and Michael Pollak, 'The Politics of Participation and the Nuclear Debate in Sweden, the Netherlands, and Austria', Public Policy 25(3), Summer 1977, p334.
2 Ibid., pp333-357.
3 Joint Taskforce on Intractable Waste, Phase 2 Report, September 1989, p2/11.
4 Ibid., p2/13.
5 Ibid., p2/19.
6 Ibid., p2/19.
7 Ibid., p2/17.
8 Ibid., p2/13.
9 Audrey Penn Rogers, 'Public Education: Part of the Design', Civil Engineering 59(2), February 1989, p77.
10 Joint Taskforce on Intractable Waste, op.cit., p2/20.
11 Ibid., p2/15.