Deliberative polls and the Australian lesson
Pamela Ryan interviewed by Elisabetta Ambrosi 10 October 2007

One of the tools used by the Ida is the Deliberative Poll, set up by the politologue James Fishkin from Stanford, through which Ryan’s research institute is able to measure the change in opinion of groups of citizens on crucial public issues, before and after informative sessions where pools of experts illustrate different and competing opinions. It is precisely on the relationships between Muslim immigrants and natives in Australia that the Ida recently (March 2007) carried out an important deliberative poll. After having collected the uninformed opinion of 1401 Australians and 160 Muslims regarding the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims, and on the possible dangers of the former, a subgroup of the two samples was subjected to a weekend of discussions, with professors and high profile public PEOPLE (parliamentaries of opposing factions but also the arch-bishop Sidney George Pell and the Muslim leader Taj Din al-Hilali). The results? Surprising. The Australians have discovered that, despite what they thought, Muslims only make up 2% of the population, and the majority of them have changed their opinion on the relationship between immigrants, terrorism and the security risks.

The Australian lesson gives some indication for the possible resolution of an all-Italian querelle, the one broken out on the hypothesis of the construction of a mosque in Bologna, and the consequent proposal of the mayor Sergio Cofferati to carry out a poll to base a decision on. There have been many criticisms regarding the proposal of the ex leader of the Cgil: why, in fact, rely on a communal poll on such a delicate issue? It is in fact evident that the Bolognese citizens, if not well informed, will be unlikely to give their consent to a proposal of this type. “It is possible they won’t give it in any case”, Pamela Ryan remarks, “but if they are questioned using simple opinion polls, their conclusions will certainly be based on very inadequate information and knowledge, and on no real interaction with Muslims”.

How you would comment Cofferati’s decision to make a popular poll about this very delicate issue?

Based on our 18 month research in Australia investigating Muslim non-Muslim relations, citizens, from the general population or the Australian Muslim population, make judgment with very little knowledge about Islam or the political arena in general. Australians are not alone. Limited political knowledge is a well-documented finding across the globe. Judgments are therefore made from a position of “rational ignorance” and “non attitudes” – made up on the spot, from little knowledge or understanding of the issues. For this topic especially, judgments are driven by stereotypes and fear.

Why in this case a deliberative poll would be much more appropriate?

Deliberative Polling attempts to counter rational ignorance, non-attitudes and the flaws inherent in both typical opinion polls and typical focus groups. Citizens are given the opportunity to become informed about the issue under consideration, to contemplate competing perspectives on that issue, to have their questions answered from opposing points of view, and to debate the diverse nuances of the issue with their fellow citizens. The citizens have time to systematically weigh the competing arguments and to draw considered conclusions. Deliberative Polling thus empowers individuals and the collective citizenry to make informed decisions about issues affecting their lives, their state and their nation.

Which are the advantages of a deliberative approach in case of controversial issues related to the harsh problem of immigration and integration between natives and immigrates?

Our Australian Deliberative Poll on Muslim non-Muslim relations clearly demonstrated that when citizens interact with each other, learn about the “other’s” culture, and get to know the “other”, (particularly if there are many ‘others’), this learning cuts through the fear and breaks down the stereotypes. Our research showed that uninformed Australians’ attitudes about immigration and multiculturalism are a paradox: Australians like multiculturalism in principle, believe its good for Australia, but want multiculturalism as they see it now: mostly English-speaking immigrants, and those from Europe. Uninformed Australians are more wary of immigrants from Asia, the Middle East or other European countries. They are particularly fearful that these other immigrants would change the cultural and physical landscapes (ex. with mosques). Once informed, both Muslim and non-Muslim Australians were more appreciative of each others’ religions, focussing on commonalties rather than differences. Informed Australians were much more aware of the shared humanity across all cultures and religions. They were therefore less likely to be fearful of difference, particularly as reflected in dress or places of worship.

What is, briefly, IDA (I found lot of information on your rich website) and which its specific political and cultural aim?

IDA is a non partisan, independent public policy think tank and research institute. Our goal is to conduct rigorous consultative research that informs policy on controversial, complex and difficult issues. For this project on Muslim non-Muslim relations, our goal was to initiate informed national dialogue that could examine the fear and the stereotypes, in a way that might help reduce racism, and lead to practical and constructive programs to enhance cross-cultural understanding and relations.

Which was the goal of your deliberative poll about Muslims and non Muslims in Australia?

Australia Deliberates: Muslims and non-Muslims in Australia was a comprehensive, 18 month project including: Individual consultations over 100 experts, four hour Focus Group Deliberations with over 200 Muslim Australians in major capital cities, a national survey of 160 Muslim Australians, a national survey 1401 Australians, the national Deliberative Poll with a subset of 330 of the randomly surveyed Australians and 41 of the Muslim Australians.

Was it successful?

As stated above: Our goal was to initiate a national dialogue that might help reduce racism, and lead to practical and constructive programs to enhance cross-cultural understanding and relations. We feel very positive about what we behave achieved already. The informed dialogue has ignited, and cross cultural education activities are ongoing. Through screenings of the documentary, on television networks, in Federal and State parliaments, public venues and schools and tertiary institutions around the country, the informed dialogue will continue. These screenings will include the very short version of the Australia Deliberates Final Report. Wider media coverage – from programs in Australia on commercial and public television networks, to internationally – for example, Al Jazeera – all contribute to this broad goal.

In which way did it give a contribution to the integration of Muslim people in Australia?

Both Muslims and non-Muslims learn about each other, get to know each other, get to examine the issues from each others’ perspective. It raised the issue of racism in a non-threatening way – and in so doing, helped Australians examine their opinions, and think about how they treat each other, especially those who are different.

Apart from deliberative polls, which are in your opinion the other instruments we can dispose to orientate public opinion towards an acceptation of diversity?

Massive public awareness and cross cultural education programs. Educating media / journalists / political and religious leaders to present a more balanced, less stereotyped portrayal of Islam in the West, and vice versa of the West in Islamic countries.



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