Dialogue with the Pilbara: Newman Tomorrow

Rich in resources, Newman’s mining economy is booming. Such growth offers both challenges and opportunities. It was determined to engage the Newman community to develop a sustainability strategy that would optimize the current boom and encourage long-term growth beyond the iron ore industry.

The Issue

Rich in resources, Newman’s mining economy is booming. Such growth offers both challenges and opportunities. It was determined to engage the Newman community to develop a sustainability strategy that would optimize the current boom and encourage long-term growth beyond the iron ore industry. The objective of Dialogue with the Pilbara: Newman Tomorrow was to get all levels of government, industry and the community talking together about the issues confronting Newman to determine the best way forward to ensure a sustainable future for the town.

To effect a sustainability strategy, it is critical to elicit joint ‘ownership’ of the broad community, industry, and all levels of government. In Newman’s case, it also needed to include the voice of the indigenous Martu. The State Government expressed its commitment to action the priorities set by the community over the next two decades.

It was also agreed that the Dialogue would be used to inform the Pilbara Sustainability Strategy, being conducted jointly by the Western Australian Planning Commission, the Department for Planning and Infrastructure, the Western Australian Department for Local Government and Regional Development and Murdoch University.

The Methodology

21st Century Town Meeting
Similar to Dialogue with the City, the Newman Dialogue drew on the methodology of the 21st Century Town Meeting – a large scale meeting, with small group, facilitated, interactive discussion to encourage deliberation; networked computers to record individual and group ideas; and a theme team to discern the common themes of the room, virtually in ‘real time’.

The Dialogue process focused on ensuring that participation was representative of the Newman population, that comprehensive background information was presented, that there was an opportunity for meaningful deliberation in small interactive groups, that common ground was sought, and that the forum priorities were taken seriously by the key stakeholders.

Like Dialogue with the city, the engagement was a process rather than an event. It involved extensive deliberation with remote indigenous communities, a school postcard competition picturing and describing Newman in 2030, a large, interactive forum, and a local Steering Team to oversee the engagement process.

The Process

The engagement process focused on three key questions:

  • Where are we now?
  • Where do we want to go?
  • How do we want to get there?

The goal was sustainability:

“meeting the needs of current and future generations through integration of environmental protection, social advancement and economic prosperity.”

Prior to the Dialogue with Newman forum

The Steering Team
A Steering Team guided the process. It included representatives of the key local organisations, industry, local and state government within the Newman area. Its role was to ‘champion’ the community engagement process, and to oversee the process to ensure it was fair, accountable and transparent.

Forum Participants
To ensure a broad cross-section of the community was represented at the Dialogue, invitations were sent to a large random sample of Newman residents and to a broad range of stakeholder groups, and advertisements were placed in the media.

To achieve representative participation, a number of strategies were applied. Advertisements and articles were placed in local newspapers inviting citizens to participate in the forum. There was also an advertisement for volunteer facilitators. One thousand letters were sent from the Minister for Planning and Infrastructure to a random sample of residents, inviting them to take part. Participants were also recruited by the Steering Team, including at a ‘participation drive’ at the local shopping centre. A comprehensive range of community and industry organisations, suggested by the Steering team, were sent letters inviting several delegates to attend. Targeted strategies elicited the participation of the indigenous Martu community.

Engagement of Local Indigenous Communities
To clearly hear and understand the views of the indigenous communities, a series of meetings and discussions were held prior to the forum with members of the Martu communities surrounding Newman.

This separate consultation process took place in July with Martu communities of Jigalong, Parngurr, and Nullagine. Similar questions to those used for the Dialogue day were discussed with community leaders and at community meetings. A significant group of Martu were also able to attend the Dialogue forum.

Briefing Papers
Confirmed participants were mailed briefing papers to read in advance of the forum. These were prepared by independent researchers from Murdoch University. The Steering Team checked the content of this work and made some alterations. The briefing pack included a broad issues paper, case studies and fact sheets. The aim was to expand participants’ knowledge of the issues so as to broaden and deepen the deliberation on the day of the event.

Some of the key challenges presented by the briefing papers included how Newman could endeavor to:

  • maintain its population?
  • plan to meet the challenges and opportunities of economic diversification?
  • accommodate growth and development for more people without sacrificing the environment?
  • ensure an adequate standard of health services?
  • enhance the service of education to overcome problems of remoteness?
  • plan for a more vibrant culture and community life?
  • maintain its community as a safe place to live?

Schools’ Postcard Competition
A school competition, ‘Postcards from the Pilbara’, was held to encourage young people to be involved in the Dialogue process. Two competitions were conducted, involving the children of the Newman primary and high schools, and the children of the Indigenous communities surrounding Newman, with cash prizes both for the winning schools and students.

The topic was ‘Newman 2020, the sort of town I would like to live in’, and children were invited to produce a picture for a postcard and write some words for the back outlining their vision for the future.

The pictures created were not overwhelmingly positive. Notably, the winner’s postcard described a future vision of 40 days and 40 nights of rain that filled the Mt Whaleback Mine, creating the Mt Whaleback Dam, requiring residents to abandon the town for fear of flooding. The possibility of Newman becoming a ghost town was a frequent undertone. Another related to the lack of fast food and retail outlets in the town. Only a minority presented an exciting, positive future for Newman.

The Dialogue with Newman Forum

The stated aims of the day were to:

  • Broaden understanding of the issues with comprehensive, balanced information;
  • Provide opportunities to share views, jointly problem solve, learn from one another and from experts;
  • Seek common themes on the direction forward;
  • Prioritise what needs to be done to get there.

Approximately 150 Dialogue participants were seated at 20 tables of 6-8 people with a scribe and a facilitator. A lead facilitator coordinated the proceedings. Computers at every table were networked, relaying the ideas of each group to a ‘theme team’ who worked collaboratively to find the common threads emerging in the room. The theme team collated ideas and projected the conclusions on to a screen for the entire room to see.

All facilitators, theme team members and some scribes took part in a half day training prior to the event. Most of the scribes were participants who volunteered to take on the role at the forum. At many tables, this role was rotated between participants at the table.

Participants were asked to address a series of questions to vision a sustainable future and determine how this vision could be implemented. The focus was on the long-term integration of economic, social and environmental elements. Questions included:

  • What are your key hopes for the future of Newman and its surrounds?
  • Remembering your key hopes for Newman:
    • What do we need to keep?
    • What changes do we need to make?
  • You have been transported to 2020. Describe how you would like Newman to be:
    • Socially,
    • Economically,
    • Environmentally.
  • You are now in charge of this town. Your job is to head Newman in the direction of the 2020 vision. What are you going to do:
    • Socially,
    • Economically,
    • Environmentally.

    to ensure Newman thrives?

Dialogue developed around three key questions: “Where are we now?” “Where do we want to go?” and “How do we want to get there?”

The first question, “Where are we now?” was addressed through the presentations and panels responding to participants’ questions. Presentations included the BHP Billiton Iron Ore Social Impact Study, the Pilbara Regional Sustainability Strategy Issues, the Strategic Planning of the Shire of East Pilbara and the Pilbara Development Commission. In addition, a series of three short videos were shown on the challenges confronting the residents of the Pilbara. Using fictitious characters as a vehicle for dramatising the dilemmas, the videos were intended as a tool for identifying issues, and a catalyst for discussion within groups.

The remaining key questions: “Where do we want to go?” and “How do we want to get there?” were addressed through small group, interactive dialogue. Themes generated from these dialogues were projected on to a large screen, virtually in ‘real time’. Participants then prioritized the key themes. These individual priority rankings were added to discern the priorities for the room.

The description of the engagement process, as well as the themes and priorities developed during the forum were written into a Preliminary Report. A copy of this Report was distributed to all participants before they left the forum.

Participant Feedback
At the close of the forum participants were asked to fill out a feedback form. All participants said the day went ‘great’ or ‘okay’, with sixty percent ranking it as ‘great’.

The information packs distributed to participants prior to the day were well received. Respondents were impressed with the level of organisation and the efforts of the support team. Most importantly, they felt that participation by the community was interactive and inclusive, and that their voice was heard.

Suggestions for improvements varied from comments on the logistics and need for more time, through to ideas about improving the consultation process itself. These included accessing a Martu interpreter; suggestions to improve the video including more local input and using real dialogue rather than ‘stories’; and advance notice of the questions to be addressed at the forum.

Of those who responded to the question whether their views had changed as a result of the day, most felt they had not. A number, however suggested that their views had been strengthened or broadened, while others learnt new information and better understood others’ viewpoints. Overall, it was felt that much learning had occurred.

Comments on the community consultation experience were very positive, with some participants interested in more broadly applying the Dialogue process, in particular the information technology utilised.

When asked if they would take part in something of this nature again, ninety three percent of those who responded to the question said ‘yes’; no-one said ‘no’; and seven percent declined to comment.

Considerable concern was expressed about whether the results of the Dialogue would be actioned, including the suggestions of the Martu.

Overwhelmingly, participants expressed appreciation for the work of the volunteers – the Steering Group, the table facilitators and scribes, as well as the organisers.

For participants to attend a full day during the weekend and still be prepared to be involved in further community consultation was a clear indication of the success and worth of the Dialogue forum.

The Outcome

Following the forum, independent researchers from Murdoch University undertook a further analysis of all suggestions submitted to ensure that all the themes and minority issues had been taken into account. The Final Report consisted of the themes produced at the forum; the additional Murdoch University analysis; the findings of the preliminary dialogue with the indigenous Martu communities; and the suggestion that an Implementation Team of the key stakeholder groups be established to oversee and ‘champion’ the implementation of the Dialogue vision and priorities. This Report was distributed to all participants, made available on internet as well as at the offices of the local shire and Member of Parliament.

The Newman Dialogue findings are being included in the Pilbara Sustainability Strategy. Although the suggested Implementation Team has yet to be established, some of the key suggestions have already been implemented by BHP, the East Pilbara Shire and the Pilbara Development Commission.


It was felt that the Martu would have difficulty with the format of the Newman Dialogue forum, in particular with the short time lines to respond to questions and the use of the computers. To the contrary, they stayed engaged throughout the day and took delight at seeing their suggestions broadcast to the entire room. Nonetheless, it was important to have carried out independent engagement at their community sites with their elders, in the way to which they are accustomed.

The Steering Team was critical to the success of the engagement, in particular in eliciting strong community participation, and in ensuring the language of the information was appropriate not only for the background papers and reports, but also by participating in the theme team at the forum.

It would have been preferable if a follow-up process of implementation had been agreed and announced at the outset of the engagement process. This would have given greater assurance to participants that the outcomes of the forum would be seriously considered and actioned where feasible.