Need to work out what a citizens' assembly is before deciding to have one
OPINION:I was selected to take part in the citizens’ assembly – but what exactly is the aim of the experiment?
LAST WEEK, I was selected randomly to participate in an experimental citizens’ assembly. It met over a day and a half last weekend at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham (originally to be the seat of the Oireachtas in 1922).
I met lots of people who were engaged and pleased to be selected. The event was run by the “We the Citizens” project, funded by Atlantic Philanthropies, the organisation founded by Chuck Feeney.
On consulting the project’s website I saw that We the Citizens champions the use of a citizens’ assembly in Ireland. I was keen to participate and so dutifully set about finding out exactly what a citizens’ assembly is and importantly how We the Citizens proposes that such an assembly would function within a political system such as ours.
Having gone through the mock assembly process over the weekend, I am concerned that either attention has yet to be given to precisely what the advocates of an assembly envisage or that there is a lack of clarity about what is intended.
For example, would the assembly consider a single issue or multiple issues or themes? Would it be once off or continue to operate as an ongoing distinct dimension of the political apparatus of the State? Who would advise the assembly and how would advisers be selected? Would Government be obliged to put the recommendations to the people on a popular vote?
These are important questions. In one of the votes taken over the weekend, participants were asked to vote on Seanad reform. Interestingly, voters were not given the chance to vote for the status quo. The three options given were abolition, reform of existing structures or a citizens’ assembly in its place. A citizens’ assembly was the least favoured option.
There would not appear to be a single model for a citizens’ assembly although it would seem that each of the forms attempted to date have involved randomly selected citizens deliberating with the assistance of experts. Recommendations for a change of some kind are made and put to the vote by plebiscite.
According to We the Citizens there is a “best international practice” for citizens’ assemblies and they have worked successfully elsewhere in the world. They are referred to as a “tried and tested method of giving citizens the opportunity to engage directly in important decisions about their own political system”.
There would appear to be two concrete examples of citizens’ assemblies that have met, deliberated and proposed changes that were subsequently put to a public vote. They operated separately in the Canadian states of British Columbia and Ontario. Both bodies were once-off entities and both considered the specific issue of electoral reform; an area where politicians might be seen to be conflicted.
The recommendations of a similar Dutch initiative were ultimately withheld from a public vote following the collapse of a government. Although the voters of British Columbia came close, in both cases the recommendations put forward failed to get sufficient votes to implement change. As it happens a substantial majority of citizens at the weekend endorsed the proportional representation-single transferable vote system in use here. There are broader Chinese examples although, in my view, such comparisons are unhelpful given the distinctness of the underlying political systems.
We were informed that “the purpose of your work this weekend, is to demonstrate to Government, to all the political parties and to Irish public life, that listening to citizens’ voices, that engaging with citizens in between elections, works”. This seems to suggest something more than the once-off model used by the Canadian states. Surely before you can tell whether something works you have to know exactly what it is?
Of course, just because it hasn’t worked elsewhere doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work here and the Government parties have promised to explore the issue. I am not sure that a series of 30-minute discussions followed by recommendations put to a ballot on pre-selected topics proves that a citizens’ assembly “works” as such.
I was impressed by the team behind the We the Citizens project; the chairman and board of which give of their time voluntarily. I don’t say that I am against the notion of exploring the idea of a citizens’ assembly, simply that some markers should be put down as to what precisely is proposed. When we know more we will be better equipped to know whether it might work.
My own view is that our political institutions work pretty well and we are better off sticking to the really tried and tested system where laws are proposed and, save in the case of referendums, made by elected representatives.
Conor Nelson is a barrister and a citizen (randomly selected)