It’s time for us citizens to put democracy back into politics

08 Jul 11

Sunday Times, July 3 2011.

‘But sure, isn’t the Dail elected by the people, an assembly of Irish citizens? What are you going about trying to set up a parallel political system for? A citizens’ assembly doesn’t make any sense at all, Elaine, and I’m still waiting on my pint.”

The thing about my dad’s rural Wicklow pub is that the customers thrive on outdoing one another to get straight to the point quickest. Academics and PhDs hold no water here. These days, the customers are curious about We the Citizens, Ireland’s first national citizens’ assembly, which held a meeting at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham in Dublin last weekend.

They are sceptical about how practical it is. So as a member of the academic team that devised it, here goes. Like in Ireland, political reform featured heavily in the May 2010 election in the UK. A commitment to hold a referendum on abolishing the first-past-the-post voting system was Nick Clegg’s price for the Liberal Democrats to participate in a Conservative-led coalition government.

A year later, Clegg has egg all over his reform agenda. The turnout for the referendum in May was low, the campaign was politicised and characterised by confusion. A resounding 68% of voters rejected what amounted to a mild-mannered reform of the electoral system. The reason Clegg got it spectacularly wrong was because the momentum for the referendum was top-down. It did not originate from a grassroots demand for change, but was instead a condition of coalition dreamt up by the elite, and it ultimately failed to capture the public imagination. So, how is a citizens’ assembly the answer?

Undeniably, there is a lack of trust in politics in Ireland. According to the RTE exit poll on the day of the last general election, the main reason people voted the way they did was because they felt angry and let down by politics. There is no magic way to restore this trust, but deliberative democracy does inject popular legitimacy into any proposed reform. A citizens’ assembly facilitates greater popular engagement with democratic institutions because it gives citizens the opportunity to take ownership of one part of the decision-making process.

Evidence has shown that when citizens embrace a bottom-up process, it’s more likely to succeed. Constitutional change must be accompanied by a sense of public ownership, an acceptance of responsibility for the outcome. In other words, the reform agenda is depoliticised. That was the rationale advocated in this year’s cross-party report of the Joint Committee on the Constitution, which recommended that a citizens’ assembly examine electoral reform.

To recapture trust, the political system must first trust Irish people by voluntarily giving away a small portion of its power. This is based on the premise that the electorate will buy into reform proposals, unlike what happened in the UK, because it trusts the collective judgment of citizens.

So how does it work? We the citizens commissioned a polling company, Ipsos MRBI, to select a nationally representative sample of 100. That avoids the “usual suspects” and instead provides a genuine cross-section of the public, based on demographic criteria such as age, education, gender and regional location. Just like with the Referendum commission, both sides of the argument are presented. Non-adversarial in nature, the assembly is characterised by small-table deliberation, usually of about eight people each, with a neutral facilitator.

This is designed to enhance representative democracy. Citizens weigh up the strengths and weaknesses of an argument to arrive at a considered judgment. This has happened before in British Columbia, Ontario, and in the Netherlands. Their assemblies focused on just one issue, took at least a year and had a mandate from the government.

Our mock national citizens’ assembly last weekend did not have these attributes because only the government has the power to grant a mandate, and our resources meant that the process was broader in scope and shorter in length. Some of our topics were predictable – accountability, trust, transparency and responsibility. It was humbling to hear people share their life stories and business failures with strangers, and to see the fear that powerlessness and helplessness have created. Many people are still deeply angry, but focused on finding solutions. A clear desire for greater local government emerged, a devolution of decision-making to allow people to reclaim control over the direction of their lives.

Participants supported the introduction of mandatory voting, and were marginally in favour of gender quotas. They were strongly in favour of retaining our electoral system, and reforming the Seanad. The session on tax increases versus spending cuts was the most divisive. The results of these deliberations will be broadcast by RTE’s Prime Time tomorrow night. Members of the citizens’ assembly will be in the audience.

So the purpose of our assembly is two-fold.

We want the government to implement its commitment to have a constitutional convention, but we want whatever body they set up to have influence, to be citizenled and to have its recommendations put to referendum. Our second purpose is to prove that this type of engagement with citizens in between elections can be trusted. We want to show that with a focused mandate and structured process, an independent body of citizens can make complex policy recommendations on issues of public importance. Political participation should no longer be defined as voting once in five years.

Before the formal work of the citizens’ assembly began, the 100 people chosen by Ipos MRBI were surveyed and lined up to attend last weekend. They were interviewed again after the assembly had concluded. We wanted to measure the effect of lengthy deliberation, and to see if people’s opinions changed after they had heard the evidence. Again, the results of this will be made public on Prime Time.

I’m nervous about tomorrow night. One pitfall is that if the assembly does not work, it could dissipate the public appetite for political change. And our citizens’ assembly does have its flaws. Perhaps we could have focused on fewer topics, even just debt default, to facilitate more in-depth discussion. Perhaps there could have been a clearer explanation about process. But we are learning, and political renewal has to graduate from the bar stool.

We have a choice. The pessimist complains about the wind, the optimist expects it to change, the realist adjusts the sails.

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