Citizens on Constitution body to have anonymity

Thu, Nov 15, 2012, 00:00

The decision that the 66 citizen members of the constitutional convention can remain anonymous runs counter to practice in other jurisdictions, where similar citizens’ assemblies have been held.

Analysis of assemblies in other countries shows that all were open processes and the participants became public figures.

A spokesman for the convention told The Irish Times yesterday that some of the people who agreed to participate were concerned about being lobbied and “bombarded” by groups and individuals. They said they would take part only on condition that their identities not be revealed.

The 66 citizens, comprising 33 women and 33 men from across the country, and of various ages and social backgrounds, were selected by polling company Behaviour and Attitudes.

The spokesman said the feedback from the polling company was that some participants were reluctant to be in the public eye. However, he pointed out that the anonymity aspect might not be as big a hurdle as has been suggested. He said the procedures and process still had to be decided, and there was a strong likelihood that many, if not most, of the citizens would be prepared to be identified publicly.

The first meeting of the 100-strong assembly will take place on December 1st in Dublin Castle, with eight further full weekend sessions planned for 2013.

Anonymity unprecedented

In addition to the citizen members, 33 parliamentarians from the North and South will partake. The convention will be chaired by Tom Arnold, the head of aid agency Concern.

The decision to allow the citizens to remain anonymous if they wish is unprecedented for an assembly of this nature. If the situation stands, one-third of the assembly (the politicians) will be “public” while the identity of the remaining two-thirds will be unknown.

A number of countries, including the Netherlands, Iceland and Canadian provinces, have held assemblies over the past two decades where citizens were selected on a random basis by polling companies to deliberate on electoral and constitutional reform.

The citizens were all named and the assemblies took place in public.

Prof Ken Carty of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver said the process and procedures were fully open in the citizens’ assembly in British Colombia in 2004, which had 160 participants.

In a reply to a query from The Irish Times, Prof Carty, who was academic adviser to the assembly, wrote: “The newspaper ran a special section on the opening weekend that had a photo of every member with a thumbnail description.

“They were taken from the members’ handbook that we had distributed to all members. Our staff also sent press releases with this sort of [material] to local papers and radio.”

Dutch assembly

Henk van der Kolk of the University of Twente was the academic director of the Dutch BurgerForum, which involved 142 citizens. He said the selection was public and so the names were known.

“In the final report all names were presented,” he said.

Similarly, in the Ontario citizens’ assembly in 2006, the names, photographs and a short biography of all 103 participants were published.

Asked about the decision not to make the names public, Prof Carty said his instinctive reaction was it was desirable that members should not be anonymous figures. They had adopted a public role and the public was entitled to know who they were.

“Indeed, the assembly will be, in considerable part, legitimated by the electorate knowing that the assembly is made up of individuals just like them.

“These considerations might seem to take on added import given that one-third of the membership will be publicly known. One might think that it would be important that the other two-thirds be treated equally and given the same attention. ”

Prof Patrick Fournier, a political scientist from the University of Montreal, has a more neutral view about it.

While it was unusual for members to remain anonymous, he said, the fact that some participants would not mind being identified nullified the anonymity clause to a great extent.

A full breakdown of the gender, geographical and demographic spread of the 66 citizens selected will be made available.

“We will not be giving out their names and addresses,” said the spokesman for polling company Behaviour and Attitudes.

The plenary sessions of the convention will be open to the public and to journalists. Proceedings will be streamed live on its website.

This means at least some of the 66 “lay” participants will forgo their anonymity if they speak at the plenary session.

Constitutional Convention

The programme for government promised to set up a Constitutional Convention that would report to the Government by March 2012.

However, the process has been beset by delays and it is not likely to make its final recommendations until late 2013.

The convention will comprise 100 members. In a departure from other jurisdictions, politicians are included, 33 in all from the South and North.

Sixty-six citizens have been chosen by a polling company. The secretariat for the convention is expected to run introductory courses and to select panels of experts to assist in deliberations.

There are mixed views on the citizens-politicians mix from academics who have experience of assemblies in other countries.

Prof Ken Carty from the University of British Columbia believes it could be a positive development, as one of the shortcomings of its assembly was there was insufficient connection and "buy-in" from politicians, once the assembly had made its recommendations.

At a recent seminar at the Royal Irish Academy, Prof Henk van der Kolk, academic director of the Dutch Burgerforum, said he feared that citizens, who might know nothing about the constitutional issues involved, would be manipulated by politicians well-trained in advocacy and politics. He recommended that the process of selecting the citizens involved be fully transparent to ensure they had the strongest possible voice. They also needed a strong chairman.

The mandate for the convention is to examine seven possible areas where the Constitution might be reformed.

They are: reducing the presidential term of office to five years; reducing the voting age to 17; giving citizens resident outside the State the right to vote in presidential elections at Irish Embassies; provision for same-sex marriage; amending the clause on the role of women in the home; increasing the participation of women in politics; and removal of the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution.

No recommendation made by the convention will be binding on the Government.

Around the world other assemblies

2004 British Columbia

The assembly of 160 people recommended reform of the electoral system.

All of its members were publicly identified and known, with names, pen pictures and short biographies of all 160 published on its website and in local newspapers.

The assembly recommended a change in the electoral system. It was backed by 57 per cent in a referendum. However, that fell short of the 60 per cent threshold required.

2006 Ontario

This was a similar exercise to reform the electoral system, which recommended a change to a proportional representation system.

There were fewer participants, 103 in all, but its website contained pictures and short biographies of each member. It also recommended change to the electoral system.

However, the media was consistently negative about its work and there was little buy-in from politicians, despite the incoming administration initiating the process.

The result was that the recommended changes were roundly rejected by 63 per cent to 37 per cent in the subsequent referendum.

2006 Netherlands

Henk van der Kolk, academic director of the Dutch Burgerforum, failed in an attempt to introduce a new electoral system to the Netherlands. It had 142 participants, all of whom were publicly identified.

Like the assemblies in Canada, it was split into three phases – learning, consultative and deliberative.

Like the other two, more than 1,000 submissions were received and the forum met more than 20 times.

However, its recommendations on electoral reform were rejected by parliament.

2011 Iceland

In the two-stage process in Iceland, the names of the initial 950 participants were published. At a later stage, a countrywide election was held to select the 25 members of its constitutional council.

More than 500 candidates put themselves up for election. According to Prof Erikur Bergmann, one of the 15 members, the process was made as open as possible, with live broadcasts and web streaming.

The council succeeded in agreeing on a new constitution, which has recently been ratified by parliament.

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