The faceless sixty-six
It’s bad enough that the Government should severely circumscribe the agenda of the constitutional convention, but it is bizarre and unprecedented decision to turn it into an advertising focus group by allowing its 66 “citizen” members to remain anonymous takes the biscuit. What price transparency, supposedly one of our new core values?
The convention’s unusual membership – a chair, 33 politicians, and 66 citizens picked at random to reflect the State’s social, age, gender and geographical spread – was supposed to be about empowering a representative group of “ordinary” people outside the political class, and so to give its findings a kind of new legitimacy. What prospect a wide acceptance of its work if the 66 remain completely faceless? And how representative? Must we simply take at face value assurances that the 66 are a statistically valid sample? No one ever raised a banner for a “statistically valid sample”.
Nor has a single one of the similar conventions established in the Netherlands, Iceland and in Canadian provinces felt it necessary similarly to shelter its members from scrutiny.
This is not how a democracy functions – it matters who takes decisions on our behalf as well as why. Does a decision, for example, to introduce quotas for women candidates have the same meaning if backed largely by women, as one opposed by all the women? And why would we be alarmed at the idea of anonymous lobbyists working unmonitored, while granting anonymity to drafters of our Constitution?
The convention’s spokesperson says the anonymity decision was taken to protect privacy because the pollsters who were asked to find a representative 66 were confronted by some unwilling to serve because they were fearful of attentions from lobbyists and journalists. Yet, apart from the fact that such fears are exaggerated, such attention, and maybe criticism, as these representatives might attract should be seen simply as a normal, acceptable part of the public political function they have been asked and agreed to do. If reluctant to face a gentle light of publicity – no problem, the pollsters can do more work and find other volunteers.
US supreme court Judge Antonin Scalia takes the argument against anonymity in the political arena a step further. A willingness by citizens to stand up publicly and be counted is vital to a robust democracy, he argued in denying an application by a group petitioning for a referendum to keep its members secret for fear of public criticism. “Harsh criticism, short of unlawful action, is a price our people have traditionally been willing to pay for self-governance,” he wrote. “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.” Participation in a constitutional convention is a political act. The convention should think again.