Citizens’ Assemblies: delaying mechanisms or reform catalysts?

Following the publication of the Committee on the Constitution’s report    on Ireland’s legislative electoral system, there has been relatively little debate about the merits of its proposal to establish a Citizens’ Assembly (CA). Would establishing a CA be the first step in a process of public engagement and radical institutional reform, or would it simply be an expensive and time-consuming way of  producing yet another report on institutional reform that would, once written, be consigned to gather dust alongside the numerous Seanad reform reports?

Noel Whelan’s Irish Times article on this topic was unambiguous – he characterises the CA proposal as ‘just another example of the convoluted way our politicians go about avoiding doing anything substantial about reforming our political institutions’. While Dr. Jimmy Devins, TD countered in a letter to the Irish Times  that the Committee had, in fact, made an unambiguous recommendation with regard to whether PR-STV should be replaced with an alternative system (it argued that PR-STV should be retained); his reflections on what a CA would represent may provide some support to Whelan’s suspicions. According to Deputy Devins, ‘a citizens’ assembly is recommended as a means of ascertaining the views of the general public as to how the present electoral system can be improved’.

This is an absolutely key distinction – is a CA a public consultation mechanism (as Deptuy Devins’s comment implies) or is it an institution that facilitates the implementation of proposed reforms? If it is to be the latter, there has to be a mechanism that makes the CA’s proposals realisable. In British Columbia and Ontario, the recommendations of the CAs were put directly to the public via referendums. However, the status quo was privileged in both referendums by imposing super-majority requirements. In the Netherlands, the CA on electoral reform did not trigger a referendum – and its proposals were effectively ignored.

In order for an Irish CA on electoral reform or any other issue to be useful, I would suggest that it would have to be able to put its proposals directly to the people via a referendum. The whole idea of establishing CAs is to place political reform in the hands of citizens, rather than the holders of elected office. If we set up a CA that allows the government to simply shelve any proposals that it doesn’t like, then I would have to concur with Noel Whelan’s assessment that a CA will be little more than a politically savvy method of frustrating the reform agenda.

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20 thoughts on “Citizens’ Assemblies: delaying mechanisms or reform catalysts?

  1. My understanding of this proposal from the Report is that although the Committee itself found no compelling reason to change the current system (based on the survey with Oireachtas Members and Oral hearings), they do believe that the citizens should have their say on the matter. The Citizen’s Assembly can facilitate this process and if they, the citizens, feel the need for reform there will have to be a referendum on same as per the recommendation in the Report, hence the power to enforce constitutional change will be in the hands of people. If on the other hand, the Assembly concurs with the Committee, then the matter will be resolved without a referendum. Surely, this is providing both the elected representatives and the public with a say on the matter and could go some way in allowing for the political reform so desired by the people.

    • Below is the recommendation verbatim from the report. Note that it leaves the specific design of the CA open; there is no explicit proposal that the CA’s recommendations would automatically trigger a referedum. We know from the Dutch experience that CA’s do not necessarily lead to referedums.

      ‘To enhance the level of public engagement with the democratic and political
      process, the Committee recommends the establishment of a Citizens’ Assembly on
      Electoral Reform.

      The Committee recommends that the Citizens’ Assembly examine the current
      operation of PR-STV in Ireland to determine if it continues to meet the needs of
      our democracy, and make recommendations on whether changes should be made
      to the operation of PR-STV or whether PR-STV should be replaced with an
      alternative electoral system’.

      (p.161)

  2. Wasn’t the assembly tried in British Columbia to change their voting system a complete failure?

  3. A step beyond a Citizens’ Assembly might produce better results – the Citizen’s Initiative for Irish voters on Irish issues. This would involve a private group collecting signatures on a petition concerning a national issue. If sufficient signatures of enrolled voters were collected and verified a referendum would then be held within a set period, perhaps 60 days. The topic could be a call for the Government or the Oireachtas to take action on an issue, or it could be a public declaration of support or opposition for a pending item. It could also be use as an expression of the public’s lack of confidence in a dysfunctional Government. An Assembly is of value only if it can present proposals that a Government must deal with in a timely manner. If an Assembly’s effort will just result in a dust-gathering report it would be a waste of money and time.

  4. I am opposed to the idea of the CA in the current Financial climate.

    reasons :

    (i) The project , if it were to be set-up correctly, requires
    national TV and Newspaper advertising.

    (ii) It requires staff to collate data, to design a
    web-site and to ensure that there is communication
    on the issue with media. It would also require a
    good database and discussion area. This means budget.
    (think forum for europe)

    (iii) The question of *trust*, this is a huge problem. Often
    the best intentions in the world and huge finances that go
    to backing them are simply talking shops that occur outside
    of the actual reality of people’s lives and quite simply
    end up being rubber-stamps for political interests composed
    of the local chambers of commerce, a few blue-rinsed housewives
    and the eternal party bore, who likes to join committees and
    have his/her name on things.

    (iv) A CA would have to be income-balanced, gender-balanced,
    and inclusive. I think mostly people are focussed on recession
    issues, with three shops BTW , closing in my village in the
    last seven days.

    (v) It looks increasingly likely that the Referenda set for
    October 2010 are shelved, with Andrews putting off (again)
    the Children’s Rights Referendum 9No news on the Blasphemy
    amendment yet). We do not have the cash to undertake a huge,
    inclusive and expensive talking shop at this time.

    (vi). it is important that things are discussed and that
    the perameters of that discussion are realised. I think
    that this is a huge matter of trust. I am all out of trust
    at the moment and would rather any sweeping political change
    is undertaken by a different Government.

    (Vii) if I were to vote for this in terms of priority, I’d imagine
    we *should* be spending our money in more constructive ways and the
    referenda are more important.

    + my two pence ha’penny.

  5. finance was the reason a (unlikely) blashphemy referendum was put off, money isn’t the issue here, are you saying to spend too much money trying to improve our government?

    its about effect.

  6. ” finance was the reason a (unlikely) blashphemy referendum was put off, money isn’t the issue here, are you saying to spend too much money trying to improve our government?

    its about effect.”

    The Cross-party Committee to decide the wording of the Referendum
    on Children’s Rights was set up in 2006. Twice now the Government
    has reneged on this, with Barry Andrews stating last week that
    it would ‘probably’ happen in 2011.

    In response to your question, I do not think our government
    is capable of improvement and if we were to have these CAs,
    then I’d prefer if they were setup by a Government which
    actually kept to its committments, instead of instigating
    vanity projects that end in Referenda (such as the
    Blasphemy amendment to the Defamation Legislation, which
    necessitates a referendum).

    I do not think that we have the money for a widescale CA,
    nor do I believe that anything positive would come of it
    because this present government has a history of backsliding
    on commitments. How we call ourselves an OECD country with
    such little commitment to the betterment of anyone but
    a few developers and a bunch of career politicians is
    beyond me at this point.

  7. @ Christine: I get what you’re saying. The situation in Donegal South West, where the government is using taxpayers’ money to defend it’s ‘right’ not to hold a by-election for an indefinite period in the High Court, is a farcical, depressing spectacle. It’s hard to have much faith in a government that behaves so cynically and reneges on its promises.

    But surely these are arguments in favour of a CA? Especially if it is designed so that its suggestions would go straight to a referendum – cutting the government’s obfuscating/delaying power out of the equation.

    Basically, for things to change, there needs to be some sort of outside agency charged with proposing reforms that the government cannot shelve. A CA is potentially such an organisation.

    With regards to the costs – I think the costs of maintaining poorly functioning government systems are higher than the costs of seeking to improve them.

    @ Desmond – the referendum following the BC CA approved their proposal by 57% to 43%. It just missed the 60% threshold set out at the start of the process for a new system to be adopted. I don’t think that you could fairly label that ‘a complete failure’.

  8. ” Christine: I get what you’re saying. The situation in Donegal South West, where the government is using taxpayers’ money to defend it’s ‘right’ not to hold a by-election for an indefinite period in the High Court, is a farcical, depressing spectacle. It’s hard to have much faith in a government that behaves so cynically and reneges on its promises.

    But surely these are arguments in favour of a CA? Especially if it is designed so that its suggestions would go straight to a referendum – cutting the government’s obfuscating/delaying power out of the equation.”

    I do see your point but I will re-iterate the point I was trying
    to make, In 2006 a cross-party Committee was set up to word
    a Referendum on Children’s Rights. This was partly because of
    weaknessess shown as in the 2006 Emergency laws. The wording was
    agreed under the Chairmanship O Senator O Rourke. The first
    attempt to put this to the people was reneged on. In 2009, O
    Rourke again announced that a wording had been agreed and that
    it would probably occur in October 2010 (along with the Blasphemy
    Referendum). it is again reneged on.

    If the Government cannot be trusted to fulfill its commitments
    of four years to the issue of protection, as a signatory of the
    UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, what hope that any
    seriousness is to be attached to yet another project based
    in a vague commitment to change or progress, when they are but
    buzzwords ?

    A CA would need to be wholly independent of government influence
    to achieve one iota of change, and still i do not trust that anything
    proposed with be treated with anything but contempt by FF.

    in order to attain a degree of trust, would not the government
    at the very least before embarking on huge projects fulfill
    its previous promises and commitments ?

  9. (slight note)

    I am not per se opposed to the idea of CAs , but
    really am of the opinion that it is a big commitment
    and that other such pressing commitments to change
    (as pointed out above) have been reneged upon relentlessly by both the current and previous Govts.

    What if people who involved themselves in such an
    assembly found that their hard work was just shoved
    onto a shelf because other things became more pressing ?

  10. The tenor of the discussion is rather depressing, there is a depth of dissatisfaction with the government and, indeed, the entire political class in Ireland that is troubling. That’s not to say that I don’t share the feeling personally.

    It’s a feeling of impotence I suppose; a feeling of being unable to challenge or overcome what Eddie Molloy labelled a ‘Severe Implementation Deficit Disorder’ in his paper in Glenties. There are new ideas out there, bold analyses around which a narrative of reform, renewal etc. could be built. But the dogmatic conservatism of the political and administrative structures means that these are never seriously considered. Or, worse, they are disarmed by the now familiar routine:

    Commission a report

    Deflect any and all suggestions that you take action on the issue for 6 months to a year – citing the report in progress.

    Release the report.

    Ignore the report’s recommendations, unless their contents can legitimate a past or future action that would have been taken anyway.

    Let time pass.

    If the issue comes back up, say the situation has changed so much that you now have to commission a new report.

    Repeat.

    We are currently stuck. It reminds me of the episode in Father Ted where Mrs. Doyle is given a tea making machine for Christmas. Rather than rejoice at the free time she’ll have with the new machine making the tea, Mrs. Doyle rails against it, sticks a fork in it, kills it. The tag line that came with the tea machine read something like ‘free yourrself from the misery of making tea’. Mrs. Doyle, after killing the machine, tells it ‘I like the misery’.

  11. Hi Matthew,

    I would not take so bleak a view on the issue of
    reform !

    My points above were simply to highlight a lack of
    commitment in this government to what I’d term
    ‘Follow-through’. You can have all the ideas in the
    world but it you are not committed to the betterment of your
    nation, then the ideas will come to nought and the idea
    of politics as vocation (as opposed to careerism) is cheapened.

    What has increased my ire is the fact that our current
    government with its JCPs has failed to recognise that
    there is a profound disconnect , in the form of deep
    anger and dissatisfaction wmongst those of us who vote
    in order to engage politically. there has been story
    after story of corruption, lies and broken promises.

    The honourable thing to do would be to go to the country
    and there’s the rub : a politician interested in the
    development of their country would accept that there has
    been a failure – a careerist never will.

    To me it is inherently wrong to begin a set of reforms
    when the starting point is lack: lack in follow-through,
    lack in confidence and lack in integrity. The idea
    of a CA or set of Fora wd be blighted at the outset
    by an awareness that what is decided may never be heard.

    That is simply related to this present government and not
    to politics and you are correct in saying that there is
    a pressing need for Reform. There clearly is, because
    vocational politics and the idea of service has been
    replaced with profound careerist cynicism which is
    tbh sickening to me as a voter and citizen.

    I think that they should only have 5 years in office and that we should drop the 30 year rule for starts btw
    🙂

  12. its about end-product : if the cash is to be invested, then surely implementation of CA results would by felicitous ?

    FF (and their varieties of JCPs have a sorry history re implementation of advices imho )

  13. we ain’t spending anything on it yet, but if the effect
    the government desires is to waste time and money cos
    of their appalling dismissal of consultations- then
    *effect* it is.

    + not effective useage of time, money and resources (big difference there)

  14. On costs. Gene Kerrigan had a useful analogy in his Soapbox column a couple of months ago. He used the metaphor of height to give an indication of the scale of the bank bailout spend. He had us imagine that a every foot represents a million euro. So a very tall man, to use Keerigan’s memorable image ‘Packie Bonner in a top hat’ would be about 7 feet tall, and represent 7 million euros, the cost of the much haggled over annual cervical cancer vaccine or the absolute maximum of a project like a Citizen’s Assembly. The 20 billion down the toilet at anglo would approximate 50 of Dublin’s Spires stacked vertically, one on top of the other.

    There is, of course, no certainty that projects like the CA will change politics to prevent future catastrophes. But surely, looking at the scale of the problems caused by the political system, it’s worth tryng?

  15. “There is, of course, no certainty that projects like the CA will change politics to prevent future catastrophes. But surely, looking at the scale of the problems caused by the political system, it’s worth tryng?”

    Yep its worth trying ,have to say my points were not about cash as such BUT about investment of all types
    and how the reports are eventually handled.

  16. Pingback: What is a Citizens’ Assembly? « politicalreform.ie

  17. Pingback: Ireland: High Time for Political Renewal « Shane Fitzgerald

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