Posted by Matt Wall, Feb 18th, 2011.
It’s amazing how rapidly an idea can take off. I first heard of Citizen Assemblies in 2009 when I was doing research work for the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Constitution. The Committee was looking at mechanisms to reform our electoral system. Broadly speaking, the reason for using a Citizen Assembly is to avoid a situation where political institutions are selected by partisan politicians.
An example of why it can be a bad idea to let partisan actors dictate the terms of institutional reform can be found in the referendums held to change the Irish electoral system by Fianna Fáil in 1959 and 1968. In both cases, the proposed alternative electoral system put before the people was a UK-style first-past-the-post system. While, at the time, the Fianna Fáil leadership argued that this system would benefit the country by reducing party system fragmentation and encouraging a more responsible brand of politics, it just so happened that first-past-the-post would have substantially (and disproportionately) benefited Fianna Fáil in terms of their share of seats. It was only because the Irish electorate twice rejected First-Past-the-Post that we are not stuck with that grossly unfair and capricious system in Ireland today. So, with political parties being so directly interested in the shape of reforms, there is a danger that partisan self-interest and the public good can become confused.
All of the parties represented in the Joint Committee agreed with this line of reasoning, and recommended in their report that a Citizen Assembly should be established and that it should examine the operation of PR-STV and make recommendations on electoral reform. However, since the publication of that report in July 2010, and especially during the election campaign, the agenda has evolved rapidly. Several parties are now calling for Citizen Assemblies to be charged with a wholesale re-writing of the Constitution. All major parties ( FG, Lab, FF, SF, and the Greens) have included proposals for some sort of Citizen Assembly in their campaign literature.
Discussion of the relative merits of these proposals has been rather lost in the (admittedly entertaining) constituency-by-constituency Battle Royale coverage, and due to the intense scrutiny on party proposals to deal with the fiscal, employment, and banking crises faced by Ireland. However, the way in which we decide on changes to our constitution, the most important legal document in the state, is of huge relevance. I would advise every Irish voter to read the parties’ proposals on this topic and to factor them into their vote choice next Friday.Each party proposal is linked below, but I seek to provide a quick summary in terms of 1) Composition 2) Scope and 3) Powers.
Fine Gael’s latest New Politics policy document proposes two institutions: An Online Citizens’ Forum and a Citizen Assembly. I elaborate on both below.
Online Citizens forum (see ‘New Politics’, p. 4) supplemented with a series of ‘Town Hall’ meetings.
Composition: As far as I can make out, anybody who sends a submission or rocks up to a Town Hall meeting will be allowed to participate.
Scope: Propose changes to ‘institutional articles’ of Irish constitution.
Power: Consultative (i.e. the power to make suggestions, but not to put proposals forward for referendums).
‘A Citizens Assembly’(see ‘New Politics’ p. 7)
Composition: 100 members of the public who will be ‘chosen from the public to reflect the demographic make-up of Ireland’(p.7).
Scope: Electoral System, Role of Women in Politics.
Power: Not 100% clear, but seems to be consultative: ‘The purpose of the Assembly will be to make recommendations on how the electoral system might be reformed’.
To my mind, the key weakness of both of FG’s Citizen Assembly bodies is their lack of meaningful power; the experience of the Dutch Citizen Assembly shows us that ‘recommendations’ can simply be shelved by elected politicians.
A Constitutional convention (Laid out in their recent policy document: Labour’s Plan for a New Constitution):
Composition: 30:30:30 system. The general public will account for only 30 of the 90 members of Labour’s proposed convention. 30 will be elected members of the Oireachtas and it’s totally unclear to me who the other 30 will be – some kind of mix of lawyers, academics, and members of various unspecified organizations. The composition element is thus a key weakness of Labour’s proposal.
Here is the system as explained in the Labour’s plan for a new Constitution policy doc, p. 7):
‘The convention will be made up of three 30-member sections. One section will be composed of members of the Oireachtas appointed to reflect the composition of the next Dáil and Seanad.
The second section’s 30 members will come from representative associations and organisations, community bodies and will also include academic and legal experts. The third section will be made up of 30 members of the general public randomly selected from the electoral register in much the same way as citizens are selected for jury service’.
Scope: Produce a new draft constitution for the Republic of Ireland within 12 months of its establishment, propose other political and legislative reforms.
Power: As far as I can make out, the new draft constitution devised by the Convention (and other reform ideas) will be submitted to the Oireachtas. It’s not clear whether the Oireachtas will amend the draft or not before submitting it to a take-it-or-leave-it referendum on the adoption of a new Constitution some time before the 100th anniversary of the proclamation of the Republic in 2016.
A Citizen’s Assembly (laid out in their party manifesto, p. 31-32)
Composition: Unclear, but broadly aims to ‘constitute the Assembly so that it includes people from all sections of society – not representatives of organisations’ (FF manifesto, p. 31)
Scope: Focus on 3 areas – the electoral system, the Oireachtas, and government membership.
Powers: Consultative. Fianna Fáil strongly asserts that elected representatives should have a role in the reform process. More than any other party proposal, they make it clear that the Citizen Assembly will not have any powers of implementation – which will rest (as they do now) with elected politicians.
An All-Ireland Constitutional Forum (Laid out in their ‘Towards a New Republic’ document, p.8-9).
Composition: Unclear on how individuals will be selected, but basically politicians (from both the Oireachtas and the Northern Ireland Assembly) and leaders from ‘civic society, business, and trade unions’. Members of the general public may be consulted, but as far as I can see, will not be members of the convention.
Scope: Propose constitutional changes.
Powers: Proposed changes would be put to the people (I assume directly) in a referendum.
A Citizens Assembly (laid out in their Better Leadership policy document, p. 2)
Composition: 40 directly elected members elected in one nationwide constituency via PR-STV
Scope: Draw up a new draft constitution.
Powers: The Greens have a radically different approach to the other parties on this, but their proposal in this regard seems the most sensible to me.
They propose that a Citizen Assembly be preceded by a referendum on the establishment and powers of an Irish Citizen Assembly. If the referendum passes, the Assembly will be directly elected (see above) and will have 18 months to draw up a new draft constitution, which the government will be constitutionally obliged to put to before public in a referendum.