Putting the Con into Consultation

An online tool that changes your answers is not the only problem with this attempt to fake public consent for dredging a dolphin reserve.

By George Monbiot, published on the Guardian’s website, 26th November 2015

It’s every politician’s dream: an electronic feature that automatically changes people’s votes from no to yes. It’s the perfect antidote to those tiresome folk who insist on having their voices heard. You know, the ones who claim we live in a democracy.

This marvellous innovation has been pioneered, no doubt accidentally, by the Welsh government, but I’m sure David Cameron is taking notes. EU referendum: solved. Consultations on academy schools, a new runway at Heathrow, privatising the NHS and drowning the poor in ornamental fish ponds: sorted. Next election: in the bag.

What am I talking about? Well, here’s the story so far.

Five weeks ago, the Welsh government launched a consultation to open a “strictly protected” reserve in Bae Ceredigion (Cardigan Bay), that is ostensibly set aside to protect the UK’s largest breeding population of bottlenose dolphins, to scallop dredging. Yes, scallop dredging. The reserve in question is a Special Area of Conservation. This is supposed to give it the highest level of protection of any wildlife refuge. But the government wants to open it up to what is arguably the most destructive marine activity undertaken while not sitting in a Trident submarine.

I wrote about this a fortnight ago. But I missed something interesting. On Monday, some sharp-eyed people spotted an unusual feature of the consultation. If you clicked “No” to the first question, then clicked “Yes” to the next question, the previous question was automatically changed to Yes. They made a short video, showing how the feature works.

The Welsh government assures me that this political breakthrough was caused by an electronic glitch, and I believe them. But this makes it the only feature of the consultation that has not been deliberately rigged.

What the consultation is supposed to do is to allow you to say whether or not you believe the special area of conservation should be opened to scallop dredging. But nowhere in the questions does it present you with this choice. Instead of asking whether or not you agree with dredging in the reserve, it asks this question:

“Do you agree with the introduction of a Scallop permit scheme which would apply to Cardigan Bay, allowing conditions to be applicable out to 12 nautical miles?”

So, if you disagree with the proposal, what should your answer be?

If you say Yes, it means that you approve of scallop dredging in the reserve, but with conditions attached. If No, it means that you approve of scallop dredging in the reserve, with no conditions attached. In either case, you will be deemed to have approved of scallop dredging, and the Welsh government can claim that the public endorses its scheme.

You might also note that neither in this question, nor in any other question the consultation asks is the Special Area of Conservation mentioned, though this is meant to be the topic of the whole damn exercise. So even if you were allowed to provide an intelligible answer, you still couldn’t address the issue at hand.

It’s a farce of a consultation, that makes a mockery of democracy and public consent. The Welsh government has made it abundantly clear that intends to open the reserve to boats that drag great hooks through the seafloor, smashing the life it contains, and it is leaving nothing to chance. We can’t have people interfering with a matter like this, now can we?

When the glitch was exposed, the government had no option but to suspend the consultation. It tells me that the minister responsible, Carl Sargeant “will launch it again, for a full 12 weeks, once the cause of the error has been identified, and removed.”

But if what the government launches is merely the same con of a consultation, with the same leading questions and non-choices, democracy will be no better served than it was the first time round. The whole exercise needs to start from scratch, with a fair and open process that begins as follows:

“Do you agree with the proposal that scallop dredging should be permitted within the Bae Ceredigion Special Area of Conservation? Yes or No?”

That’s not too difficult, is it?

If Mr Sargeant merely repeats the first farce, with the electronic glitch removed, I recommend that you ignore all the yes-no choices and tell him your views of both the proposal itself and the way the consultation is being run in the boxes at the bottom of the form.

In the meantime, you might be inclined to sign the petition against the proposal, which is currently the only means by which your voice can be heard. The more people who sign, the greater the pressure will be for a fair consultation, and, perhaps, for the quiet abandonment of the whole ridiculous scheme.