Tag Archives: Ken Carty

The Trouble with Citizens' Assemblies

My friend Peter MacLeod published this web-exclusive op-ed in today’s Globe and Mail where he complained about the critics’ harsh treatment of Citizens’ Assemblies. Peter (and I) may not like the language used by some of its critics but he still has to explain why citizens’ assemblies are an appropriate approach to decision making, something I’m not sure his op-ed accomplishes.

What is that famous Churchill quote? “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Let’s be clear, citizens’ assemblies, despite their non-binding nature, are a form of governance. Moreover, despite what their champions claim, they are not democratic. Randomly selecting citizens cannot ensure a province or country’s citizens’ diverse interests and concerns are effectively represented. We use democracy to make decisions because we believe it is the best process by which conflicting interests can be debated and citizens’ issues can be engaged. Is it perfect? Hardly. But citizens’ assemblies are less so.

To see their possible shortcomings one need only look at the BC citizens’ assembly. As Andrew Potter notes in This Magazine “The Assembly’s director of research (i.e. the fellow in charge of bringing in the experts) is Ken Carty, former chair of the UBC poli sci department. According to a colleague of mine who worked in the department under Carty, decisions at faculty meetings were always entertaining, because of the mechanism Carty used to take decisions. What mechanism was that? STV voting. Coincidence?” Moreover, a scan of Carty’s publications shows that his initial writing focused on politics in Ireland: the only other country in the world to use the system like BC STV. Does this mean Carty unduly influenced the assembly? I don’t know. But this, a problematic process, is exactly the type of issue an opposition party would bring to the publics’ attention in a public debate on a policy initiative – and yet where is the role of opposition in a citizens’ assembly?

If a community felt it couldn’t trust its politician on a given issue – such as electoral reform – why not call a commission? Although less sexy, Canada’s history is filled with notable and effective commissions that have laid the groundwork for some of the country’s most significant reforms and policy decisions. These include: public healthcare, bilingualism, and free trade. Because commissions bring together experts with diverse opinions and engage in public consultations they can accomplish many of the goals of citizen assemblies while simultaneously ensuring that numerous informed opinions are represented in the discussion. Can anyone name a process where we purposefully select non-experts to make a decision? When I get on a plane I don’t believe I will be best served if the pilot and crew are randomly selected from the passenger manifest! I’d definitely prefer an expert pilot and crew to manage the flight. The passengers may tell them where they’d like to go and offer some other suggestions, but I think we’d probably all feel safer knowing there was an expert behind the wheel. Moreover, as life and death flying a plane may be, I’m fairly certain decisions about our country are actually still more important.

My friends know I’m a fan of open-source public policy, mostly because I believe it will allow citizens, in a sophisticated and cumulative manner, to shape how our country should operate. However, there is nothing about open source public policy that is democratic – a constraint we must recognize and live by. The problem with citizen assemblies is its champions don’t believe they are bound by such constraints. A citizen assembly’s product is usually pre-sold as democratic and legitimate. Maybe one day the process will be refined in such a way that this will be true, but for now, such a description is misleading, and dangerously so, as it popularizes these assemblies’ recommendations on a false foundation.

[tags]Citizens’ Assemblies, electoral reform, Canadian politics, BC Citizens’ Assembly, Ken Carty[/tags]