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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Production of the public voice : public participation in the hearing process as contemporary democracy Hessing, Melody Beatrice


The dissertation examines public participation in the hearing process from the perspective of democratic theory. Although "democracy" is popularly invoked as both rationale and evaluative standard for public participation, political theorists have neglected to examine the practice of hearing intervention from this perspective. The dissertation challenges the pluralist model of the hearing using a participatory critique of the hearing process. The dissertation argues that contemporary discussion of public participation is formulated from the perspective of pluralist democratic theory. Pluralist theory perceives the hearing as a forum through which public access to the administrative and policy-making processes can be secured. Central characteristics of the hearing process, from this perspective, include a heterogeneity of participating interests (which includes the public), a fairness of procedures, and a neutrality of decision-making. In contrast, a participatory critique of pluralist theory points to a restricted public participation, a systematic imbalance in resources available to tribunal participants, and an advantage to and alliance among state and entrepreneurial interests as features of the tribunal. The dissertation studies public hearings in two tribunals: the Pesticide Control Appeal Board, and the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Uranium Mining. The first is an administrative tribunal which hears appeals concerning the approval of pesticide applications. In the second, a consultative tribunal, hearings are held for the purposes of receiving information and making recommendations about uranium mining in British Columbia. The methodology includes observation, ethnography, interviewing, and documentary analysis of the public hearing process. The dissertation finds that the practice of the public hearing is generated from and generally consistent with a pluralist democratic perspective: multiple interests participate; quasi-judicial procedures are followed by all participants, and decisions are made by heterogeneous, government-appointed Boards. A participatory critique however shows the dominance of the pluralist model of hearings to be predicated on a social and economic organization in which social inequality and state hegemony are primary features. Accordingly, systematic social inequalities such as differential access to hearing resources disadvantage public interest groups and preclude a balance among competing forces within the tribunal. Structural and professional alliances among administrative and entrepreneurial forces further detract from the impartiality of the hearing. Countering the pluralist notion of the tribunal as an independent forum, this analysis points to the hearing as a vehicle of social control and state legitimation. The dissertation concludes with recommendations for the democratization of the public hearing.

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