Citizens' Assemblies – In opposition to responsible government

Some of you may recall this great debate we had on the site over the merits of Citizens’ Assemblies. My friend, David Brock has gone and added fuel to the fire with an op-ed entitled “Ontario abdicates its duty on electoral reformin Thursday’s Toronto Star.

David punches a number of holes into the Citizens’ Assembly process, but I think his ultimate critique drives to the heart of the matter – that even citizens’ assemblies cannot escape the problem of representation. Someone, somewhere, made choices about which groups should and shouldn’t be represented within the assembly. This, naturally, has an impact the outcome. Choices will be made that favour some over others.

Representative democracy is far from perfect, but it at least allows those choices to be debated openly. Citizens’ Assemblies, in contrast, are top-down, opaque processes with little oversight or self-correcting mechanisms. I’m still searching for the evidence to see how they produce better, more equitable or more ‘representative’ outcomes.

2 thoughts on “Citizens' Assemblies – In opposition to responsible government

  1. Peter

    I appreciate David’s article because, while I disagree with his argument, he has opened up some new turf in this growing debate on the merits of citizens’ assemblies.

    I think it’s fair game to ask constructive questions about the transparency of the secretariat, the role and relationship of the agency in respect to the government, the absence of a clear game plan from the outset concerning the referendum threshold and the public information campaign and ultimately, whether the process should culminate in a referendum or be referred back to the legislature in the form of a white paper.

    To me, these are good and healthy questions. They deserve to be asked.

    David’s tack is different. He finds no use for citizens’ assemblies and claims that the only thing they represent is the “abdication of responsible government.”

    This strikes me as a step too far.

    For one, he ignores the role of the all-party standing committee that made recommendations — largely followed — concerning the creation of Ontario’s citizens’ assembly.

    The citizens’ assembly is something which the government and the opposition parties have endorsed. It’s one thing to delegate — another surely to abdicate.

    Two, following his logic, Royal Commissions, Independent Commissions — all the useful mechanisms that governments and legislatures use to gain independent insight on the big issues of the day, would also qualify as petty abdications.

    Three, he worries that the random selection process used to select members of the citizens’ assembly is anything but. There was the stipulation that the assembly be gender-balanced, that it reserve a seat for a citizen of aboriginal descent, that it respect existing constituencies and appoint one member for each. Not especially alarming stuff, but still no dice. Calling a process with these parameters “random” is, according to David, no less than an “abrogation of democratic principles.”

    Such low deception from high places!

    Well, let’s go all the way then and stamp out this deceit wherever it lurks.

    Henceforth, we will no longer be referring to ‘free and fair elections’ in the province of Ontario. Not until those constituency boundaries are torn down, the prohibitions on both voting and election age are set alight, the nomination process of every incumbent is at last clawed open and we abolish that ugly social convention called ‘electability’.

    To start.

    Then we’ll begin work on, say, a jury of one’s peers. Again — not perfectly random, so we can look forward to David’s future petition on this issue — but somehow credible, legitimate, representative and the basis of our judicial system.

    But let’s drill down further: while we rightly choose to vest ultimate sovereignty in elected representatives, is it impossible that there could be other means of securing significant, legitimate and democratic representation for discreet chores? Surely it matters that the surveys that followed the Citizens’ Assembly in BC all reported high levels of public satisfaction and confidence in the Assembly and its representatives. Indeed, the public’s satisfaction with the citizens’ assembly’s easily exceeds the dismal scores routinely earned by their elected brethren.

    Shouldn’t this offer us pause?

    Four, he argues that it’s all a bit back to the future. He writes “Prior to the adoption of responsible government in Upper Canada in the 1840s, power was concentrated in appointed committees. As a former deputy clerk of the Senate of Canada recently reminded parliamentary observers, “One of the first actions taken by the United Provinces of Canada in 1841 was to abolish the previous system of standing committees.”

    Absolutely — but to conflate an assembly of 103 citizens drawn however randomly from across the province with the narrow and cozy patronage of the Family Compact risks a serious and specious misreading of Ontario’s political history.

    At the heart of his article, however, is a much graver concern and allegation — that the use of a citizens’ assembly is part and parcel of a much darker trend: the contempt of legislative democracy.

    David argues that “Citizen assemblies claim to embrace independence in order to promote citizen engagement. Outsiders are purported to be inside the gates of power. This is the type of anti-government rhetoric that helped send Preston Manning (son of a premier) to Stornoway and George W. Bush (son of a president) to the White House.”

    Equating a process meant to strengthen the legitimacy of elected officials with any sort of anti-government rhetoric is imaginative, but surely in error. What’s going on here isn’t a conspiracy to suppress legislative democracy — but it is a reasoned effort too temper the excessive and hostile partisanship that does too much to disincline the public from taking an interest is either party or legislative affairs.

    I think there exists the very strong possibility of a new and constructive relationship emerging between citizens’ assemblies and legislative assemblies — and hope that the citizens’ assembly on electoral reform will be but the first. They are no more threatening the any other sort of commission: periodic, inclusive and complementary — able to focus on single, big issues of wide-ranging public interest. Nine months, start to finish — thousands of citizens more alert to an issue than would ever be possible with a roving legislative committee — and minus a referendum — our MPPs being where they’ve always been — as the deciders, weighing recommendations against their own political objectives and the interests of their constituents.

    Citizens’ assemblies won’t destroy responsible government, but by creating a space where the practice of politics can be more appreciative and inclusive and less adversarial and elite, they could help save it.

    Reply
  2. Peter

    I appreciate David’s article because, while I disagree with his argument, he has opened up some new turf in this growing debate on the merits of citizens’ assemblies.I think it’s fair game to ask constructive questions about the transparency of the secretariat, the role and relationship of the agency in respect to the government, the absence of a clear game plan from the outset concerning the referendum threshold and the public information campaign and ultimately, whether the process should culminate in a referendum or be referred back to the legislature in the form of a white paper.To me, these are good and healthy questions. They deserve to be asked.David’s tack is different. He finds no use for citizens’ assemblies and claims that the only thing they represent is the “abdication of responsible government.”This strikes me as a step too far.For one, he ignores the role of the all-party standing committee that made recommendations — largely followed — concerning the creation of Ontario’s citizens’ assembly.The citizens’ assembly is something which the government and the opposition parties have endorsed. It’s one thing to delegate — another surely to abdicate.Two, following his logic, Royal Commissions, Independent Commissions — all the useful mechanisms that governments and legislatures use to gain independent insight on the big issues of the day, would also qualify as petty abdications. Three, he worries that the random selection process used to select members of the citizens’ assembly is anything but. There was the stipulation that the assembly be gender-balanced, that it reserve a seat for a citizen of aboriginal descent, that it respect existing constituencies and appoint one member for each. Not especially alarming stuff, but still no dice. Calling a process with these parameters “random” is, according to David, no less than an “abrogation of democratic principles.”Such low deception from high places! Well, let’s go all the way then and stamp out this deceit wherever it lurks.Henceforth, we will no longer be referring to ‘free and fair elections’ in the province of Ontario. Not until those constituency boundaries are torn down, the prohibitions on both voting and election age are set alight, the nomination process of every incumbent is at last clawed open and we abolish that ugly social convention called ‘electability’.To start.Then we’ll begin work on, say, a jury of one’s peers. Again — not perfectly random, so we can look forward to David’s future petition on this issue — but somehow credible, legitimate, representative and the basis of our judicial system.But let’s drill down further: while we rightly choose to vest ultimate sovereignty in elected representatives, is it impossible that there could be other means of securing significant, legitimate and democratic representation for discreet chores? Surely it matters that the surveys that followed the Citizens’ Assembly in BC all reported high levels of public satisfaction and confidence in the Assembly and its representatives. Indeed, the public’s satisfaction with the citizens’ assembly’s easily exceeds the dismal scores routinely earned by their elected brethren. Shouldn’t this offer us pause? Four, he argues that it’s all a bit back to the future. He writes “Prior to the adoption of responsible government in Upper Canada in the 1840s, power was concentrated in appointed committees. As a former deputy clerk of the Senate of Canada recently reminded parliamentary observers, “One of the first actions taken by the United Provinces of Canada in 1841 was to abolish the previous system of standing committees.”Absolutely — but to conflate an assembly of 103 citizens drawn however randomly from across the province with the narrow and cozy patronage of the Family Compact risks a serious and specious misreading of Ontario’s political history. At the heart of his article, however, is a much graver concern and allegation — that the use of a citizens’ assembly is part and parcel of a much darker trend: the contempt of legislative democracy.David argues that “Citizen assemblies claim to embrace independence in order to promote citizen engagement. Outsiders are purported to be inside the gates of power. This is the type of anti-government rhetoric that helped send Preston Manning (son of a premier) to Stornoway and George W. Bush (son of a president) to the White House.”Equating a process meant to strengthen the legitimacy of elected officials with any sort of anti-government rhetoric is imaginative, but surely in error. What’s going on here isn’t a conspiracy to suppress legislative democracy — but it is a reasoned effort too temper the excessive and hostile partisanship that does too much to disincline the public from taking an interest is either party or legislative affairs.I think there exists the very strong possibility of a new and constructive relationship emerging between citizens’ assemblies and legislative assemblies — and hope that the citizens’ assembly on electoral reform will be but the first. They are no more threatening the any other sort of commission: periodic, inclusive and complementary — able to focus on single, big issues of wide-ranging public interest. Nine months, start to finish — thousands of citizens more alert to an issue than would ever be possible with a roving legislative committee — and minus a referendum — our MPPs being where they’ve always been — as the deciders, weighing recommendations against their own political objectives and the interests of their constituents.Citizens’ assemblies won’t destroy responsible government, but by creating a space where the practice of politics can be more appreciative and inclusive and less adversarial and elite, they could help save it.

    Reply

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