By Dr Gemma Carney and Dr Clodagh Harris
For most voters a sense of déjà vu follows the publication of the Moriarty Report. It appears that relations between the then FG Minister for Communications Michael Lowry and the winner of Ireland’s second mobile phone licence were at best inappropriate. The question again arises: what can be done to clean up politics? Are there alternatives to a populist form of democracy where bad candidates get re-elected on the basis of local issues or lack of alternatives? The current recession has led to lack of legitimacy in a range of public institutions (banks, regulators, corporate sector and politicians). The idea that political reform is necessary is accepted. How reform is achieved is another matter. Deliberative processes may be one way through which this can be achieved.
It is argued that deliberative democratic approaches can overcome some of the most perennial problems of democratic theory, such as informing and educating the public, creating opportunities for citizens to shape policy and the restoration of citizen trust and engagement in politics. Moreover they can bring affected citizens into partnership as decision-makers through dialogue-based processes of policy-development that include agenda setting, policy design, and implementation.
Deliberative politics has moved to the forefront of political theory in recent decades, arguing that political decision making is or should be talk centric rather than vote-centric. Deliberative theorists such as Habermas, Barber, Elster, Fishkin, Young and Dryzek argue that democratic processes and institutions should be built around ‘reasonable’ political judgement where participants give reasons/justify their positions in a truthful and respectful manner from the perspective of the common good and where the force of the better argument prevails. The focus is on improving the quality of democracy by enhancing the nature and form of political participation, as opposed to just increasing it.
First articulated as theory of democratic legitimacy, theorists broadly agree that deliberative democracy emphasises inclusion, equality and reasonableness and that it is public. Its proponents believe that it encourages more informed rational decisions, fairer and more publicly oriented outcomes and improved civic skills.
The political party manifestos and policy documents published in advance of the recent general election included some interesting proposals which could encourage deliberative politics at the national and local level depending on their membership, remit and processes.
All parties made reference to diverse citizens’ forums, which in the case of Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and the Greens was a Citizens’ assembly. However each party had differing views on what this should be. The Fine Gael manifesto called for creation of a citizens assembly, composed of up to 100 members from the public and which would reflect ‘the demographic make-up’ of Irish society with a remit to make recommendations on electoral reform. The Green party called for a referendum to be held in advance to allow the Irish people to choose to put in place a Citizens Assembly to draw up a new draft constitution for the country. Its membership would comprise of 40 directly elected members. This process was supported by town hall style gatherings to shape the debate of the Assembly and the ensuing draft constitution would be put to a referendum (Manifesto p.13). For its part Fianna Fail supported establishing a citizens’ assembly whose membership would be drawn from wider society but that would not exclude elected representatives. It would be charged with making specific proposals on the electoral system and Oireachtas and Government membership (Manifesto, p.31)
In their manifestos the Labour party and Sinn Fein speak of either a constitutional convention or constitutional forum. Labour’s constitutional convention would include 90 members, (one third coming from the Oireachtas, another third drawn from civil society organisations ‘people with relevant legal or academic expertise’ with the final third comprising 30 ordinary citizens chosen by lot) to rewrite the constitution (Manifesto, p.46). The Sinn Fein manifesto proposed the creation of an all-Ireland constitutional forum to draft a constitution that would be put to the people in a referendum. It would include representatives from the Oireachtas and the Northern Ireland Assembly as well as from civic society, business and trade unions (Manifesto p. 9). Reference is made to providing ‘consultation at grassroots level’ and ‘participatory governance’ but no detail is provided on how this could be achieved (Manifesto p.33)
In their programme for government, Fine Gael and Labour have agreed to set up a constitutional convention to consider ‘comprehensive constitutional reform’ with a brief to consider and report within 12 months on a range of issues that includes: the Dail electoral system; provisions for same-sex marriage; reducing the voting age (p.18). No details on its membership or processes are provided.
Some innovative approaches were proposed to enhance citizen participation and engagement in the processes of local government. In its New Politics document, Fine Gael proposes to ‘roll-out’ participatory budgeting processes on a ‘pilot basis’, to give local residents an opportunity to express their views on local authority spending in their communities (p.12). Participatory Budgeting is also included in the Green party’s Better leadership and Democratic Communities policy documents (pages 4 and 6 respectively). Sinn Fein’s Towards a new Republic paper includes a role for increased participatory democracy in local government arguing that citizens should be allowed ‘to set priorities for local budgets as well as setting social and planning objectives ‘(p. 3). It also calls for ‘Town Hall’ meetings to become the norm. (p.14). Not one of these proposed innovations are found in the Programme for Government.
Yet it would be wrong present deliberation as something that should be sought and assessed in a single forum, such as a deliberative poll, citizen assembly, or through co-governance mechanisms like participatory budgeting. Instead deliberation should be found in a variety of locations such as legislatures, courts, social movements and so forth.
Thus in the case of the recent Programme for Government all is not lost for deliberative approaches. Some of the legislative reforms set out in the document offer possibilities for enhanced deliberation. Deliberative processes may be widened and deepened in the committees’ new pre-legislative scrutiny powers, the sittings given over exclusively to committee reports and to private members business and the proposed 10 minute rule to allow backbench TDs to introduce their own bills.
It is disappointing that Fine Gael’s plan to roll out participatory budgeting on a pilot basis in local authorities has been omitted from the Programme for Government. Also it is too early to judge the deliberative prospects of the Government’s proposed Constitutional Convention when it membership and modus operandi have yet to be clarified. Finally, the proposed legislative reforms have the potential to expand and strengthen deliberative processes in Dail Eireann. Their impact will depend not only on their implementation but also on the Government’s will to allow them become the norm rather than the exception.
Drs Gemma Carney (NUIG) and Clodagh Harris (UCC) convene the PSAI specialist group on participatory and deliberative democracy. Further information on this group can be found at http://www.psai.ie/specialist/democracy.asp