Democracy is in crisis, whether overtly as in Lebanon and Hong Kong, or slightly more subtly as in the United Kingdom and Belgium. Here in Australia, our country is in flames, and politicians are ignoring the causes and, in the lead up to the crisis, cutting the funding for those at its frontlines. The disconnect between politicians and the public, the decreasing confidence in our political process that is being fostered by some of those at the apogee of the system, and the inability of parties to address, in particular, the hard questions thrown up by the climate crisis are all worrying signs. Umberto Eco famously listed 14 traits of fascism. From nationalism to the fear of diversity and irrationalism, there are signs across the world that facism is on the rise. To counter the rise of fascism, it isn’t enough to fight its open manifestations; we need to offer solutions to democratic disconnect, to deepen democracy, and address the root of the problem rather than just its symptoms.
One of the more promising solutions is through citizens’ assemblies, a selection of people chosen randomly to be demographically representative of the broader population. This article discusses (1) why citizens’ assemblies are a democratic way to solve the complex problems faced by legislatures today; (2) some contemporary case studies of citizens’ assemblies, including those in Ireland and Australia; and (3) some of the concerns that have been raised with regard to participatory, deliberative democracy models.
While citizens’ assembly advocates often draw attention to ideas rooted in Athenian democracy, the resurgence of academic interest in participatory democracy can be traced to the 1990s, with concerns around the growing disconnect between issues of central concern to citizens in Western-style democracies and those that dominate both political party agendas and media interest. To some extent, it also stems from a concern with equality in democracy, and the power differentials between those close to the centre and those on the margins. This research developed in parallel with concern, or at least interest in, “new social movements” and the fragmentation of the ‘big politics’ of class - people focusing on identity politics, environmental movements, the struggle for equality for women, and a plethora of minorities, including Indigenous peoples, ethnic minorities and sexual minorities. Again, the fundamental issue was that the politics as usual of the big parties was not able to address issues that did not fall cleanly across a left-right economic divide.
People felt, and still feel, that many important issues are being sidelined in representative democratic systems. In this sense, democracy itself is in decline. Citizens’ assemblies are one way that the political system can move beyond partisan political divides and help build consensus around the way forward, thereby also increasing the legitimacy of the political system. They illustrate the important principle that ordinary people are able to make complex decisions, including decisions that benefit others over themselves, if given enough time and information to deliberate on them.
Early experiments with deliberative democracy included citizens’ juries. A question is often raised about just how they differ from a citizens’ assembly, both being chosen by stratified random selection, but today the differences are merely a matter of semantics. In earlier citizens’ juries, members were asked to choose between competing sides, while in a citizens’ assembly the focus is consistently on deliberation and choosing the best policy outcome. In the literature, citizens’ assemblies are often envisaged as being larger than a citizens’ jury, but with the standing citizens’ assembly in Eastern Belgium consisting of a maximum of 50 people, size is not always the defining feature of an assembly.
The first citizens’ assemblies were only qualified successes. The first assembly in recent times was held in British Columbia in 2004 to recommend changes to the electoral system. It was in response to a perceived democratic crisis sparked by “a decade of electoral instability” characterised by parties winning outright majorities in Parliament despite winning a minority of votes. The citizens’ assembly did not manage to produce the anticipated electoral system change, largely because the bar for change was set very high (60% of voters in a referendum had to support the proposals, and there had to be a majority in favour in 60% of constituencies). Nonetheless, the experience was considered successful on other grounds, since it helped establish that randomly selected citizens were able to deliberate and make hard policy decisions given the right environment. The experiment inspired two further citizens’ assemblies – another in Canada, and one in the Netherlands. These yielded similar results: change was not affected by the assemblies, but they proved that ordinary people were capable of coming together to make difficult decisions on matters of public interest.
These assemblies inspired the Republic of Ireland to follow a similar model. Politicians were initially unwilling to hand power over to an assembly purely composed of randomly selected people, and instead held an assembly comprised of a majority of elected legislators complemented by a minority that was selected randomly. It was this initial experiment that gave legislators the confidence to engage in a broader series of citizens’ assemblies on issues such as abortion, aged care and the climate emergency.
In Ireland, the legislature chose someone to chair both the organising committee and the assembly, with 99 randomly selected people bringing the number of assembly members up to 100. For the assembly on abortion, the members had access to five experts: two constitutional lawyers, two obstreticians/gynacologists and one medical lawyer. These experts were chosen by the organising committee. It is clear that the role of the chair in selecting these experts is key to the perceived legitimacy of the process; she had to be seen to be unbiased, and, more fundamentally, above or outside of party politics. .
The assembly took place over five months, with members meeting one weekend each month. They were given reading to do in between meetings, both in the form of reports prepared by experts and the 30,000 public submissions that had been made. The submissions were made available to the public, but were also summarised for assembly members by the organising committee. The first meeting, however, was devoted to the skills of critical thinking and bias detection. One of the participants suggested they were “truth detectives,” looking to find what would be the best policy for the people, rather than looking for partisan advantage or to bolster pre-existing biases. Judging by both the outcome of the assembly and by interviews conducted with the participants, the process was successful in inculcating these values. The assembly members recommended reforms that were radical in comparison to the existing legislative framework which banned abortion. Assembly members recorded how their own positions had been challenged and had shifted as a result of the process.
The first Irish assembly recommended the repeal of Article Eight of the Constitution, which severely restricted abortion, and replacing it with abortion on demand for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. These recommendations were passed by the assembly with 66 percent of members’ support. The result was met by scepticism by legislators and conservative commentators who felt that the general public would find it difficult to support such radical proposals – yet they did, and the constitutional amendment was approved with 62% of the vote in the 2015 referendum. The disconnect between popular opinion and the opinions of legislators was stark.
Since the first Irish citizens’ assembly, Europe has seen a veritable explosion in their popularity. There have been assemblies in Belgium, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Scotland, France, Spain, Germany, and Poland. The growth of participatory democracy is also not confined to Europe. Examples appear in Tunisia, in Chad, and in Korea, and are spreading across the world.
In Australia, though apparently less well-known, at least 20 citizens’ assemblies have been held on topics ranging from democratic reform to obesity and nuclear waste. The various processes have shown both the power of a citizens’ assembly and some of the challenges they present.
The first issue is the question of how much influence a citizens’ assembly can be expected to have on the government’s eventual decision. In South Australia, the state government convened a citizens’ jury on the controversial issue of nuclear waste. At the time of the jury, the Traditional Owners of the land had already made clear their opposition to nuclear waste dumping, but the state government hoped to capitalise on the additional revenue they could extract from otherwise “unused” land. The government invested heavily in the community engagement process, yet despite the process strongly condemning the idea of storing nuclear waste by a two-thirds majority, the government nonetheless decided that “discussion should continue on a proposed nuclear waste facility.” Personal communications of jury members indicated that they felt they had wasted their time.
Key to the success of a citizens’ assembly, therefore, is that its importance to and influence on the policymaking process should be defined and formalised beforehand. Otherwise, as in this case, it looks like there had been an assumption that assembly was expected to act as a rubber stamp, when they didn’t, they were ignored. How politicians will respond to the recommendations should thus be defined before the assembly meets. Will they accept them all? Just those that reach a particular threshold of consensus? Will they put them to a referendum? Or, as in Eastern Belgium, accept that the assembly is a body of equal status and negotiate with them on that footing? It is important that the influence that the assembly has is decided on prior to the assembly meeting, precisely to avoid a situation such as that in South Australia, which was an outcome that, rather than increasing faith in democracy or the political system, would tend to increase apathy including in deliberative processes. Assemblies need to be given real political influence at the outset, or they increase the drive towards authoritarianism.
A second fundamental question was raised by Maori woman at a meeting discussing the creation of a citizens’ assembly on the climate emergency in Aotearoa: could this be merely another colonial process, with little more than lip service paid to Indigenous representation? To ameliorate this possibility, all citizens’ assemblies should include Indigenous representation on the planning or organising committee, and should also include at least one Indigenous expert giving testimony, recognising that many of the problems we face today are in part a result of ignoring the insights of Indigenous knowledge and ways of being in the world.
And lastly, just because the question comes up repeatedly: yes, a totally apolitical randomised process is possible. It’s as simple as pulling names out of a hat, or a computer programme picking random names. It’s been done elsewhere, and the results have been convincing. It’s been done here. We just need to see more of them, more often, involving more people.