Posted by Elaine Byrne
As part of a class project on deliberative democracy and the Constitutional Assembly, these are the views of the Comparative Political Reform, Senior Sophister Class, Department of Political Science, Trinity College Dublin
Brief Background Statement
A renewed focus on the nature of the democracy in the aftermath of the Arab spring and similar uprisings means our own western liberal democracies have grown increasingly conscious of democratic deficits closer to home. The sense that existing democratic institutions are failing us can be said to be manifested in increasing levels of alternative participatory movements, not to mention much diminished trust in traditional governments. In Ireland, the most recent Eurobarometer survey shows trust in government at an all-time low of 15%. This sense of disconnect between popular opinion and public policy poses a threat to the legitimacy of Irish democracy. In a time of economic uncertainty, such concerns become all the more pressing. This is not a uniquely Irish phenomenon. Other countries grappling with similar disaffection in their political mechanisms have sought to address these issues in innovative ways. Notable among these is the establishment of deliberative processes such as Citizens’ Assemblies
The value of such a forum has already been acknowledged across the board in the 2011 election manifestoes of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Labour, The Green Party and Sinn Féin, not to mention President Higgins’ allusion to such commitments in his pledge to “support those initiatives where citizens are again actively imagining and debating our shared vision as a nation” (Higgins, 2011). We are not advocating a Citizens’ Assembly as a catch-all solution, but its potential, as outlined below, has been demonstrated on numerous occasions. Where used effectively, deliberative processes, whether in the form of a Constitutional Convention or a Citizens’ Assembly, have the unparalleled capacity to restore trust, confidence and legitimacy to democratic institutions in Ireland.
An Explanation of Deliberative Democracy
“… a form of government in which free and equal citizens (and their representatives), justify decisions in a process in which they give one another reasons that are mutually acceptable and generally accessible, with the aim of reaching conclusions that are binding in the present on all citizens but open to challenge in the future.” (Gutmann and Thompson, 2004, p. 7)
but also in principle, with respect to what it can offer as a complementary avenue through which citizens can participate in civil society.
· Incorporating the context of President Higgins’ inauguration speech so as to provide a degree of relevance to our target audience:
“We must seek to build together an active, inclusive citizenship; based on participation, equality, respect for all and the flowering of creativity in all its forms. A confident people is our hope, a people at ease with itself, a people that grasps the deep meaning of the proverb ‘ní neart go cur le chéile’ – our strength lies in our common weal – our social solidarity.”
· Defining deliberative democracy in principle must also incorporate a definition of the method by which it could complement the current political system, and thus be properly incorporated into the socio-political mentality of Irish citizens. In penetrating the mindset of individuals, we must be aware that the concept is not a utopian idealisation of how democracy should work, but is rather a realistic supplement to current participative methods that might restore confidence in the political system gradually subsume, albeit to a point, the way politics works in Ireland.
Proposed Topics for Constitutional Convention
The following is a list of all possible topics which we could think of. We think there should be some debate over these before we elaborate on them.
- New Constitution OR
- Seanad reform/abolishment – General dissatisfaction with the Seanad and the cost of it. Referendum not sufficient because it does not involve learning process. There needs to be knowledge of the potential consequences of any decision to abolish or reform the Seanad. Therefore, we believe that any referendum question should be derived from a citizen’s initiative which involves a learning phase. This would ensure that any potential decision is framed by knowledge of the consequences.
- Electoral reform – There is a perceived problem of localism and falling voting numbers. These problems could be potentially dealt with by electoral reform.
- Participation in politics – Reform to include greater number of young people, women, different socio-economic backgrounds and the Irish Diaspora. Potential reforms could include lowering the voting age, gender quotas, compulsory voting, postal voting for 1st generation emigrants etc.
- Local Government Reform – The current system of local government is ineffective and should be reformed to be more transparent, accessible and accountable and provide an avenue for citizen participation. This could include participatory budgeting or town hall meetings.
- Role of the President – While we are satisfied with the current role of the President we believe a number of smaller reforms should be looked at such as the length of each presidential term and/or the number of terms they can be in office, the process of candidate nomination and the minimum age barrier.
- The use of referenda – Belief that some referenda should come from the bottom up rather than from the top down. Potential for use of petition in initiating referenda at a national and local level.
- Link between Church and State in constitution – A review of the link between the church and the state in the constitution.
- Control/use of natural resources; Civil Marriage reform.
- Representativeness: If the Citizens’ Assembly is to offer a voice to the people of Ireland then its membership must be representative of the country’s population. The biggest obstacle to true representativeness is self-selection, as certain types of citizen are more likely to be interested in taking part than others. While a certain amount of self-selection is unavoidable with a voluntary body, efforts must be made to ensure that the assembly is representative in terms of gender, region and socioeconomic background and that minority voices are not excluded from the process. It is also necessary to ensure that the Assembly is organised in a way that allows all member voices to be heard.
- Agenda setting: If there is no agenda set for the Citizens’ Assembly then the discussion will be unfocused and little is likely to be accomplished. However if the agenda is set by the organisers then they can be accused of controlling the discussion and preventing other issues from being raised. A balance must be struck and the issues on the agenda for discussion must be seen as coming from the people.
- Legitimacy: Why should the people of Ireland see a small group of citizens as legitimate representatives of the entire population? It is imperative that the process of choosing Assembly members and setting the agenda for discussion is transparent so that the public can see that its goal is to give them a voice in the most effective way possible. It is also necessary that the public is aware of the Assembly and its work
- Government Mandate: If the Citizens Assembly is to be more than a talking shop then it must have some kind of government mandate. Whether this means that the government commits to an Oireachtas debate on its recommendations or whether these recommendations are put to referendum, the Assembly members and the public must see that the Assembly has the potential to effect real change.
- Although it may be desirable to make a deliberative method as representative as possible, it is unfeasible to suggest that one can necessarily force people into participation. Thus, one would recommend a method of self-selection by virtue of presence at local assemblies followed by subsequent random selection based on the electoral register from this group of people. The population from which selection would be drawn is comparable with that of jury service, validating this methodology in the context of duties to the state generally. When speaking of a disenfranchised electorate, it would be contradictory to incorporate an electorally based style of representation (Iceland) into a citizens’ assembly, for instance, given that a basis for recommending more deliberative forms of democracy in the first place stems from a belief that electoral politics is not necessarily representative of the population at large.
- Oblige the findings of deliberation with a referendum in the absence of no additional thresholds, based on the fact that no additional thresholds have ever been required for previous referenda. Legislative politics is overly transient to be indulged with the entire responsibility of recognising the output of deliberation when it is under no obligation to do so (Netherlands), there. When looking at the example of the British Columbia, the eventual referendum can be interpreted as a result that would be seen as a resounding success in an Irish context.
- CSPE: Incorporate civic participation in secondary education as a precedent for later involvement in deliberative politics.
Deliberative Democracy in the World
- 1. Icelandic National Forum- Iceland
- 2. The Citizens Parliament- Australia
- 3. Electoral System Civic Forum”- The Netherlands
- 4. Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform -British Columbia
The Icelandic National Forum took place over the course of one day in 2010, with 950 elected participants taking part in this process. Their goal was to produce a set of values that would be kept in focus while looking at future constitutional reform. The forum made 8 separate constitutional recommendations that they wanted to see implemented into constitutional reform. These included: morality, human rights, justice well being and equality.
The Citizens Parliament in Australia took place over 4 days in 2009. 150 randomly selected citizens that took part in the Parliament. Their aim was to recommend a structure and operation of government with regard to the question: “How can Australia’s political system be strengthened to serve us better?” They submitted their ideas to the prime minister’s office and received a short letter back acknowledging their contribution. Despite being praised by the prime minister many of the participants were disappointed with the lack of real results, however the exercise was quite vague, which would make it quite difficult for the government to work on any of the suggested reforms, especially without a clear mandate.
The Electoral System Civic Forum took place in the Netherlands over the course of 9 months in 2006. 140 people participated in this process with the aim of electoral reform. The citizen’s forum was conducted in a well organized manner and was commended for its inclusive structure. However the Parliament did not accept the reform ideas and essentially ignored the results of the Forum, something that understandably frustrated citizens.
The Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform in British Columbia took place over a series of weekends in 2009 and lasted for over one year. 160 randomly selected citizens from every district in the province took part in this process, with the goal of making recommendations on the electoral system in British Columbia, as politicians were seen as having too vested an interest in this outcome to be objective. Their final report included the recommendation that British Columbia would change from a “First Past the Post System” to Proportional Representation by the single transferable vote (STV). Although their recommendation was ultimately rejected – partly due to a high voting threshold (60%) –this process was regarded as very successful, and the participants largely satisfied with the way that the process had been conducted.
Video produced by the BC Citizens’ Assembly describing the process - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MoPgLsSvV8g
Citizens’ Assembly website in British Columbia – http://www.citizensassembly.bc.ca/public
Netherlands Example: http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons/lib/research/briefings/snpc-04482.pdf
Case of Iceland: http://www.participedia.net/wiki/Icelandic_National_Forum_2010
Daragh Hamilton, Shane Jackson, Daniel O’Callaghan, Evan McDermott, Elly Friel, Caitlin Sherry, Tom Hoyer-Miller, Ailbhe Durkin, David Barrett, Rachel Sneyd, Grainne Jordan, Orna Lyons, Jack William Farrell, Emily Rose Johnson, Lauren Taylor, Laura Bove, Harriet Lille, Peter Schwartzstein.