Smoke and mirrors

Photo by Leo Cardelli on

Any magician understands the importance of distraction. Magicians can make a rabbit disappear and are masters of illusion. Public consultations can feel like that. Surveys are another one, and should never be done unless you are 100% committed to acting on them. Those that ask questions are not always interested in your answers.

Consultations and committees

A rhetorical question is a question that you do not need to answer, but there is no word for a question where the person asking is not really interested in the answer.

Caroline Le Couteur’s Valedictory Speech in the ACT Legislative Assembly (28/8/2020) speaks of this.

“The Parliamentary Agreement included a commitment to an inquiry into housing by the Planning Committee.  However, when the committee started, the other members of the committee wanted to inquire into billboard advertising first.  When the Planning Committee finally began to inquire into housing, the government launched the ‘Housing Choices’ citizens’ jury process.  That process covered many of the same topics as the Planning Committee inquiry, so the Planning Committee stopped its inquiry.  The citizen’s jury reported in mid 2018, and the government agreed in principle to all the recommendations.  It then did nothing with them. This was a waste of the community’s time and a waste of the opportunity to build Canberra better.

Along with many Canberrans, I have been frustrated to watch this kind of consultation. It is disrespectful to constantly involve the public in consultation processes, but then disregard their feedback. We can do better – with genuine, meaningful consultation with our community. And when there are pre-determined outcomes, the Government simply needs to be clear with the community on this, rather than pretending that consultation may actually change an outcome. This is the sort of thing that makes people distrustful and cynical and is perfectly understandable.

Caroline Le Couteur Valedictory Speech, ACT Legislative Assembly, 28/8/2020
Photo by Paul Theodor Oja on
Watch me disappear. Photo by Paul Theodor Oja on

Have YourSay

YourSay ACT is potentially an illusion of good democracy when not used wisely. The questions do not need to be particularly well thought out. The main thing with YourSay is that people have a place for community conversations. The issue is that some might use it to vent, not adding to a positive outcome and not encouraging decision makers to do anything with the input.

“The Electric Monk was a labour-saving device, like a dishwasher or a video recorder… Electric Monks believed things for you, thus saving you what was becoming an increasingly onerous task, that of believing all the things the world expected you to believe.”

Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency
Photo by Alex Knight on

Suggestion boxes

Suggestions boxes are often black holes for creative ideas. The danger is always that all your wonderful ideas get swallowed up to be never heard of again. Early on, organisations worked out the potential of suggestion boxes. Somebody puts their hand up and complains they are not being heard. Management can then turn around and rightly say, “we have a suggestion box”.

Photo by Radu Florin on


Surveys are better but need to be designed by experts. Certain design principles apply like: “Never ask as question you are not prepared to act upon.” or “Every question must implicitely imply the action or solution”. You can ask questions where there is only one obvious answer (“Are you honest?”), questions that play on people’s biases (“Would you prefer half the people to live or one-in-two to die?” Clearly live!), and questions for which you already know the answer but are interested if others know it. These are excellent question for elections as people’s false perceptions are the stuff of legends. There is no finer way to win an election.

Should the ACT’s roads be designed to slow us down?

Yes, slowing down won’t hurt anyone

No, it’s a false rationale that infuriates drivers

This loaded question contains a false assumption with a predictable outcome. Published recently in The RiotACT. 3/9/2020

Online surveys encourage you to leave your contact details. Surprisingly, you are called up the next day to check if you want to volunteer. This can be perceived as being manipulative if that is the only outcome of the survey.

Photo by Kaique Rocha on

Act of faith

It makes sense that some refuse to do consultations and surveys because the actual intent may be difficult to see behind the smoke and mirrors.

Photo by Thiago Matos on
Photo by Thiago Matos on

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s