A Proposal for A Citizens’ Assembly on Political Reform – by Oliver Moran and Matt Wall

Two weeks ago, it was reported in a post on this site that Second Republic, an independent citizens’ group campaigning for political reform (which we are both involved in), was preparing a detailed proposal for a  process of citizen-led political reform in Ireland. The group has today released a draft of their proposal for public comment and discussion. 

The group’s proposal can be downloaded in PDF form here:

 http://www.2nd-republic.ie/proposal

Oliver Moran explains how and why this document came about in this post.

At the time of the election, in their manifestos and on the airwaves, all of the political parties then represented in the Oireachtas presented proposals for deliberative processes that would lead to wide-scale political reforms. Those commitments reflected the widespread view before, during and since the election campaign that our political institutions had failed us and that a fair, non-partisan and involving process of reform was necessary to ensure we move forward, stronger as a state.

Both parties now in government promised radical reform through such a process. Fine Gael promised that “within its first hundred days a Fine Gael Government will establish a Citizens’ Assembly” on political reform. Labour proposed “a 90-member constitutional convention with an open mandate”, thirty members of which would be “ordinary citizens” selected at random. Unsurprisingly, a commitment to a citizen-driven process of radical reform was echoed in the Programme for Government agreed between the two parties.

None of these proposal went into much detail, however, and not many details have emerged since the election. What do now we know about the promised process of reform? What will it look like? Who will be involved? How will it make decisions? The short answer is that we don’t know, which is why we committed, as Irish citizens, to creating a detailed proposal for what an Irish citizen led political reform process might look like. The document above is the outcome of this endeavour.

This document was not prepared by an academic think tank or a government department. It was written by ordinary people, with work and family commitments, bought together by a sincere concern for their state, working in their spare time and for no reward. That commitment, which since November has amounted to thousands of hours of work, should underline the seriousness with which they make this proposal.

This weekend, We the Citizen’s will seek to demonstrate the worth that a citizens’ assembly can have for Ireland. We see the publication of this proposal in terms of that discussion. We hope that it will inform the government in deciding the shape of the process of reform. More importantly, however, we hope that it will invigorate the debate on the role that a citizens’ assembly can play and what it will look like. The group invite comments on their proposal at workgroup@2nd-republic.ie.

As part of that discussion, the group are inviting readers to vote on the name of the proposed assembly. To vote, visit here: http://www.2nd-republic.ie/name

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10 thoughts on “A Proposal for A Citizens’ Assembly on Political Reform – by Oliver Moran and Matt Wall

  1. Where does this fit in relation to the much better funded, more resourced and, apparently, more elabrate ‘wethecitizens’ initiative – which appears to have the same objective? If linked, please explain. If not, why do we need two?

    I have no wish to denigrate the effort people are putting in, but I fear nothing of any substance will happen until these initiatives – and voters generally – seek to energise all TDs, in particular, backbench TDs. Government, by definition, will not initiate any subtstantive reform that might curtail its executive dominance. (These guy’n’gals have sat for far too long on the opposition benchs with their fingers itching to grasp the levers of power. They will do nothing, absolutely nothing, that will curtail its exercise.) And, insofar as government will be compelled or shamed into embracing these initiatives, it will be the most milk-and-water exercise imaginable.

    TDs simply have to be engaged.

    Ideas, anyone?

    • There’s no formal link between the two organisations, but the overlaps in what they are calling for are obvious. I think it’s good that several groups have emerged around the reform agenda, rather than the issue being ‘owned’ by any single group or party.

      As you say, the efforts will only translate to reality if our elected representatives get involved, but the purpose of this doc is to have a concrete plan that we can ask Tds to back.

      I’d be very interested in your views on the contents of the document, are there any areas we haven’t covered or decisions that you disagree with?

    • You’re absolutely right, Paul, about engaging with TDs.

      At election time we did a series of letter and email writing campaign where we contacted all 500 or so candidates. That generated some good responses and engagement from both individual candidates (now TDs) and party representatives. Indeed, some responses were surprisingly refreshing and obviously quite passionate.

      This proposal now gives us something to go back to them with and to begin engaging with them again. In fact, I expect that effort of engagement with members of the Oireachtas will the substantial part of our planning around the launch of this document over the coming weeks. Second Republic was founded as a campaign group and that is where our primary focus will lie.

      With regard to We the Citizens, we have met with them several times and have very cordial relations. They are great people. We support them in all their efforts. I don’t believe there is an issue of duplication of effort. There is plenty of work to be done. We are all rowing in the same direction, and to get there we need to man different oars.

    • Having attended the We the Citizens event at Tallaght my understanding is that the Citizens Assembly which they are having this weekend in Dublin is intended to demonstrate the value and effectiveness of this type participative democracy. The proposal from Second Republic compliments this effort by
      providing a template for how the Citizens Assembly proposed in the Programme for Government could be put into effect. The interesting aspect of the these initiatives is that they are driven by citizens, who are ideally placed to put pressure on their local TDs to engage in this process.

  2. @Matthew and Oliver,

    Thank you for your responses. I don’t in fact think you’re leaving anything out; I reckon you have far too much in. The fundamental issues are about the acquisition, retention and exercise of politcial power, about who decides and about how they decide. Everything else flows these.

    So, initially, we are looking at the allocation of power and responsibility among central government, the legislature and local government. Currently, a government with a Dail majority lords it over the three Houses of the Oireachtas and over local government.

    The ‘wethecitizens’ initiative has been adept at using polls and surveys – sometimes addressing pure policy issues – however omportant they might be (e.g., burning bondholder, etc.) but not specifically related to politcial reform. It might have been better if they had used these resources more appropriately. For example, it would have been informative to have posed the following questions in an opinion poll:

    “Who do you thing makes the laws which govern our daily lives and which the courts use to make judgements?

    1. The Catholic Church
    2. The civil service
    3. County Councilliors
    4. The Dail
    5. The Government
    6. IBEC and other business and professional associations
    7. ICTU and trades unions
    8. The three Houses of the Oireachtas (the Dail, Seanad and the Presidency).
    9. TDs who are members of the party(ies) in government”

    “Who do you think has the the most influence in deciding what laws are actually made – and how they are made?

    Same 9 options with the possible addition of “Businesses and business people advancing their interests directly but behind the scenes.”

    Since citizens are adept at expressing preferences, respondents would be asked to rank their preferences (1, 2, 3 etc.) and the result could be generated as if it were for the election of one candidate from 9 under PR-STV.

    The results would be informative and would define the challenge that needs to be addressed. All else is hope and hype.

    • @Paul thanks for your comments on this, Paul. That ballot idea is an interesting research suggestion, and a lot of pol. science research is now looking at how well citizens can identify what political institutions have authority in various policy areas (especially focusing on the EU’s identifiability).

      I’ve been working today to try to engage TDs and MEPs to contribute their ideas on an irish CA to this site, response thus far has been broadly positive, so i hope that I’ll be able to post their thoughts this week.

      • @matthew,

        Good luck with the TDs and MEPs. I’m sure that, in principle, they’ll be all in favour; but we all know what that means in practice.

        Another area worth considering is the growth of quangos. I have no problem with statutory bodies discharging some functions that previously might have been performed by Department officials – or new functions – independently of polical influence, but compliant with the policy framework. But it has allowed governments to shift responsibility for policy and regulatory decisions (that mightn’t be very popular) while diffusing accountability – and, in many cases, blurring the lines of accountability totally. My focus is on competition policy and economic regulation where so many decisions are made that impact on citizens’ daily lives. But there is no effective advocacy or representation of consumers’ collective interests in these decision-making processes.

        Governments, politicians and Department officials will say that these bodies are statutorily empowered and professionally resourced to make decisions on their merits ‘independent’ of the political process. They must lay reports before the Houses of the Oireachtas and appear before the relevant Oireachtas Cttees. But this is a total joke when they’ve been captured by the businesses they’re supposed to be regulating and are actually implementing implicit government policy.

        Most people realise they’re being hood-winked right, left and centre. They may not know precisely how it’s being down, but they know it’s happening.

        Trying to reform the process of governance is only scratching the surface when so much responsibility has been devolved to so many bodies without any effective accountability. I think many people sense this.

  3. Matthew and Oliver,

    Good work.

    The idea of full time and part time members I have my doubts about. Would the full time members be remunerated? That might not be popular. It might lead to two tier membership. Are Citizens Assemblies in other countries assembled on such a basis?

    I think it should be stated in any document, “changes if any” re our constitution. We have a good constitution, and the best and most democratic of electoral systems in my view. Was pleased with that aspect of the Citizens Assembly when 74 per cent wanted to stick with PR STV. We have good checks and balances. When its not broken don’t fix it etc.. Hope an assembly such as this would not propose changes to our constition and in particular our electoral system, just because that is what is expected of it.

    • Thanks Joanna. If I may, I would like to respond to some of these points.

      1. Full-time/part-time/Two tier membership: as far as i know, this is an original proposal (i.e., it’s something that hasn’t been tried in other countries to my knowledge). However, the scale of the task faced by this CA is larger than previous bodies made up of citizen volunteers has faced, hence the time commitment is more intense.

      It’s fair to say that this was a topic that caused considerable debate among those who drafted this document – with some advocating for a 100% full-time membership.

      However, we wanted to do was include those who couldn’t commit to a 12/13 month full-time involvement due to work, family or other personal constraints, but who still wished to participate. In terms of remuneration, we agreed that members should be both compensated for loss of earnings (although there will evidently have to be some sort of upper limit to this compensation) and legally entitled to a leave of absence from work.

      (Note: For those following the discussion who haven’t read the doc, membership selection, criteria and commitment are covered in section 4 of the detailed plan).

      2) ‘Changes, if any’: Yes, this is a strong point. I think that we discuss this on pages 3 and 4 of the doc, under the heading ‘what is political reform?’ I would totlly agree with you that many aspects of the constitution have performed extremely well and, whatever failings it may have, Irish politics still facilitates peaceful power transfers as a result of open elections – no small achievement.

      I’d also agree that PR-STV is an extremely democratic electoral system, one that combines propotionaliy with individual accountability in an extremely innovative way. Having looked at a wide array of systems in my studies, I haven’t seen much evidence that any system is demonstrably ‘better’ than PR-STV, and many are ‘worse’ either by virtue of being more dispropotional or depriving voters of a choice of which party candidate they elect.

      Still, some tweaks are both possible and advisable even to PR-STV. For instance, the current rules on filling seats that become vacant between general elections led to disgraceful delays in the previous Dáil. This lack of clarity (as well as willful government manipulation of the electoral process for partisan ends) led to a situation where the govt. was ordered to hold a by-election by the high Court in the Doherty case. Also, the way our constituency boundaries are drawn and the very small size of many constituencies could also bear looking at IMO.

    • @Deputy Tuffy,

      “We have good checks and balances.”

      They obviously worked spectacularly well in the run-up to 2008 when successive governments rammed totally imbecilic fiscal policies and woeful legislation on bank supervision and on financial and economic regulation through the Oireachtas and prevented any effective accountability of this supervision and regulation.

      Ah, but wait…that was the other shower. The current government has the interests of the country at heart and can be trusted. Sorry, Deputy, you’ll have to pull the other one.

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