Better consultation could have reduced desalination conflict
4 December 2009
Researchers believe there could have been less conflict over the Wonthaggi desalination plant if the Victorian Government and developers had given residents more of a voice in the development process from the beginning.
The findings come from a survey carried out by Deakin University anthropologist Dr Tanya King and colleague Dr Tina Murphy.
"Our survey of Wonthaggi residents showed that many of them were concerned about changing climate patterns and access to water. But many were also angry about what they perceived as procedural injustice – or a lack of fairness and transparency – in the development process of the desalination plant, rather than opposition to the plant itself," Dr King said.
"The residents' opposition to the desalination plant wasn't necessarily a matter of a 'not in my backyard' or 'NIMBY' attitude. It was more that they felt they hadn't been fairly consulted about the development.
"Some respondents said they had only found out about the plant through the media. For instance, one respondent said they found out about the plant through a television advertisement and this made them feel 'undervalued' by the government."
Dr King explained that the negative view many respondents had of the announcement also carried through to their feelings about the later planning stages.
"While it could be argued that local residents were given opportunities for consultation, in situations like this it is theperception of fairness that is important, and the overwhelming feeling of the people who responded to the survey was that consultation was inadequate," she said.
Another issue, according to Dr King, was the perception that the city was being favoured over the country.
"Respondents told us that they felt the region was being bypassed when it came to benefits from the plant and they believed this demonstrated the government's bias towards city-dwellers. Once again it's important to remember that even though it can be argued that local residents could benefit from the plant, some people believe the bias exists and that affects their view of the desalination plant.
"Some survey participants indicated they would express their anger and dissatisfaction at the ballot box."
Dr King said that the Wonthaggi experience suggested that how fairly people feel they have been treated influences how they are likely to respond to a proposed project.
"This finding is supported by many other studies which demonstrate that if people feel they have a genuine voice, and are treated fairly, in a transparent process, they are more likely to support a project, even if they do not benefit from it personally," she said.
"This research challenges the assumptions of those who seek to understand opposition to environmental development projects by suggesting that local people have a NIMBY attitude. I think it also provides an insight into why rural and regional people support some projects and reject others.
"If the government and developers had given local residents more of a voice during the planning process and paid more attention to residents' views, I believe they could have reduced the conflict over the Wonthaggi desalination plant."
The Deakin researchers are currently developing a more comprehensive study that will take the form of a broader (Wonthaggi and beyond) random survey and follow up focus groups.
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