More power to the people may help politics


WORLD VIEW:As trust in the political system hits new lows, citizens’ assemblies are growing in popularity, writes PAUL GILLESPIE

THE OIREACHTAS Committee on the Constitution wants one on the voting system. So does Fine Gael. And the Labour Party proposes a more elaborate one to draft a new Constitution in time for 2016.

Citizens’ assemblies have suddenly become part of the Irish lexicon as public trust in the political system hits new lows. They bring together a group of voters selected on a random basis, who all have an equal opportunity to participate in a deliberative forum on a public issue, under conditions where they are properly motivated and resourced to think about it. They seem to promise direct access to the views and preferences of ordinary Irish citizens on political reform and of creating a fresh source of legitimacy.

Experience in Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, the EU, the US and China with similar projects establishes various comparative benchmarks. In these countries political scientists have worked with public authorities or other sponsoring groups to organise citizens’ assemblies.

A flourishing literature links normative democratic theory with empirical research and methodological concerns. James Fishkin of Princeton University, a pioneer of the associated deliberative polling, argues in his 2009 book When the People Speak that, in contemporary democracies, elites deliberate without political equality, whereas citizens participate without proper deliberation. Such assemblies and polling help overcome that dichotomy, even though it remains difficult to have equality, deliberation and participation all at the one time. These debates deserve a wider audience, since citizens must be convinced the new approaches can be trusted to do the jobs assigned to them if they are to become democratic procedures.

The basic case rests on the statistical care with which the participants are selected to represent the wider society so that they are balanced by class, gender, region, education, minorities or other relevant major features. Random sampling can ensure this. Selection by lot was used instead of elections in ancient Athenian democracy and today’s jury system is similar.

The Oireachtas committee report explains how 103 people were so selected in Ontario, 158 in British Colombia and 143 in the Netherlands to consider electoral reform over 14, 17 and 16 months respectively. The Australian Citizens’ Parliament of 150 participants met in 2008-9 to consider “how can the Australian political system be strengthened to serve us better?”

In 2007, 362 EU citizens met for a long weekend of carefully structured deliberation in 22 languages on the Union’s future. In Zeguo township, Wenling city in China, a very high uptake of 247 citizens participated in a deliberative poll on its annual budgetary priorities, by answering a confidential questionnaire at the end.

These assemblies and polls therefore take time, commitment and effort by the people selected. But so far the research indicates that people are undoubtedly willing to participate in them. They really enjoy doing so if certain conditions are met.

A crucial one is that there should be a realistic link to political decision-making. If assemblies are organised by public authorities who accept their legitimacy there should be a prior agreement that the chosen issues will be referred to a referendum or implemented in practice. A commitment to inform the voting public on what is at stake is also needed.

In Ontario and British Colombia, 60 per cent super-majorities were decided on and electoral reforms proposed by the assemblies just failed to reach them so they fell. But assembly participants sharply criticised the governments’ information campaigns as inadequate.

In Zeguo the township authorities implemented the deliberative poll’s preference for sewage treatment and road construction over more grandiose plans. But in the Netherlands the electoral reform assembly was consultative only and was disregarded by the government. The Australian national political reform initiative was a private exercise but its six main points have a standing value after the election impasse there last week – as does the EU’s consultative one in 2007.

Critics say these exercises privilege reasonableness, moderation and compromise over other values like majority voting, activism, bargaining, negotiation or conflicts of power and interest. The central role of political parties in representative democracy tends to be devalued by them. But this may be more understandable as their mobilising and channelling functions decline.

The “ideal speech situation” championed by political philosophers such as John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas has limited even if valuable application on this view. Deliberation understood as communication that induces informed reflection on preferences, values and interests in a non-coercive fashion, is better seen as one part of a wider spectrum in which these other values also have a role. After all rhetoric, humour, sarcasm and story telling are also used to communicate and deliberate about politics.

Such pros and cons should be debated more fully as Irish public opinion reaches out to citizens assemblies and deliberative polling to restore trust and legitimacy to our political system. What about a randomly selected citizens’ assembly to replace the Seanad?