Constitutional convention will be bold new step
WE ARE seemingly weeks away from the launch of the Government’s much anticipated – and for many of us long overdue – constitutional convention which is designed to give ordinary citizens a voice in debates over possible reforms to our Constitution.
To say that this will be something new to Irish politics is an understatement.
Swiss political scientist Jürg Steiner distinguishes between traditional “election-centred” democracies where, other than during elections, citizens are largely excluded from policy decisions, and “talk-centred” democracies in which citizens get to deliberate on policy issues.
Steiner’s attention for the most part is on how such approaches can inform policy decisions at the local level – determining the budget of the local council or perhaps influencing a planning decision.
Ireland is about to join a small band of countries to use this sort of approach to consider bigger national questions over the design of our Constitution. However, even before it is up and running the Government’s constitutional convention has been roundly condemned from all quarters, with most criticism devoted to its agenda – as too piecemeal – and its makeup, as ill-conceived.
Only time will tell if the critics are proven right. But, right or wrong, what cannot be denied is that by its very establishment the constitutional convention is a bold new step by an Irish government.
Clearly the term “constitutional convention” is not new. It is common enough practice for governments to establish conventions with a mandate to advise on possible changes to the constitution. Generally its members are parliamentarians from across the political spectrum, learned experts, or some mix of the two.
The virtue of this approach is that it seeks to take the question of constitutional design or reform one step away from the government in power. However, a core group that remains excluded is ordinary citizens – literally the “constituency” most directly affected by the outcome.
The Government’s model for a constitutional convention differs from the usual approach in three respects: by placing citizens at the heart of the process; by how those citizens are selected; and by how the convention will operate. This form of constitutional convention takes the reform process a further step away from the government in power. To date, only a few other places have gone down this route.
In 1998 the Australian government established a constitutional convention that met over an intensive two-week period to consider the question of whether Australia should become a republic. Its membership comprised a mix of professional politicians and ordinary citizens.
Then there were the citizens’ assemblies of British Columbia (2004) and Ontario (2007) that were tasked with reviewing the electoral systems of both Canadian provinces. Only ordinary citizens were involved in these assemblies, meeting at weekends over a number of months (11 months in British Columbia, eight months in Ontario).