Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Antagonism, Technology, and Public Involvement in the Kapiti Expressway Project

Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Antagonism, Technology, and Public Involvement in the Kapiti Expressway Project

Article excerpt

Introduction

This article examines how the public engage with complex issues that are associated with expert-driven politics and top-down decision-making processes. Important public issues, such as large infrastructure projects, are often associated with technocratic politics that discourage public engagement. Therefore, it is important to understand how citizens challenge problems that have been traditionally dominated by experts. In this article I focus on the planning process for the MacKays to Peka Peka Expressway (henceforth Kapiti expressway), which is a section of the Wellington Northern Corridor Road of National Significance (RoNS). The RoNS programme was a controversial policy when it was announced in 2009 by the newly elected Fifth National Government. Costing approximately 11 billion dollars, the publicly funded programme used a fasttracked planning process to urgently improve the state highway system and to support economic growth. I discuss how opponents of the proposed Kapiti expressway connected their concerns with the political and social issues surrounding the planning process with its legal and technical aspects. Focusing on the controversy over the 'preferred option', I examine how residents and opposition groups translated their popular appeals to 'the majority' as legal and technical problems in order to make the Kapiti expressway visible as an object of public concern.

To research the preferred option controversy, I draw on discourse-centred and object-oriented theories of public dispute. In 2009, the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) began a public consultation process on a preferred route for a proposed four lane expressway between MacKays Crossing and Peka Peka in the Kapiti District. A key aspect of the public's involvement in the consultation on the preferred expressway options was their attempts to publicly re-present the expressway as a collective, rather than technocratic, issue. This problem connects with Bruno Latour's (2005, p. 16) idea that representation means not only ensuring that certain groups are gathered around an issue using the 'right' procedures, but also re-presenting "the object of concern to the eyes and ears of those who have been assembled around it". As I will discuss, the significance of object-oriented theories of dispute is that representation is expanded to include the re-presentation of objects and other beings as contested entities (Marres, 2007). However, discourse-centred approaches to public dispute are also important because they can reveal how opponents engage with complex public issues by connecting their personal objections to wider political and social concerns.

While Kapiti residents and other opposition groups were concerned with public representation in the planning process for the Kapiti expressway, they were obliged to find technical faults with the NZTA's impact assessments and consultation process. I argue that the devices and techniques used to measure public preference and social impact made it possible for the actors to critique the planning process and make the proposed expressway visible as a public issue. Residents and opposition groups engaged with the preferred option controversy by mobilising popular appeals to the majority. By doing so, they aimed to expose the government's antagonistic relationship with the local communities on the Kapiti Coast. However, as the planning process became focused on legal and technical issues, the opponents translated their popular appeals as issues with the devices and techniques used to measure public preference and social impact. In this case, public consultation techniques, surveys, and social impact assessments allowed actors to enact popular forms of political engagement in a legal setting.

I start by outlining sociological approaches to public participation and representation in socio-technical controversies. I then discuss my theoretical approach and outline my research methods. My discussion is divided into two sections. …

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