Power to the people: Citizens Assemblies

Never before in modern history has a democratic government given to unelected, 'ordinary' citizens the power to review an important public policy, then seek from all citizens approval of any proposed changes to that policy. – Jack Blayney, Chair of Citizens Assembly

British Columbia is divided into 79 ridings (similar to our electoral districts). Up until now there's been a 'winner takes all' outcome because of an unfair electoral system that can see most of the seats in the hands of one political party. Premier Gordon Campbell wanted to address this problem but I guess knew that having politicians or experts consider alternatives would not build community confidence in an alternative model. He proposed a Citizens' Assembly (CA) to consider different options for an alternative voting system. The CA made its decision and a new voting system was put to the people of BC in a referendum in May 2005.

Who were these people that formed the CA? How were they selected? Well it was not like Australia's constitutional convention for the republic that was held in 1998 (prior to 1999 referendum) – half of whom were hand-picked by government, the other half were, in my opinion, the usual suspects. I had no faith in its findings because of the method used to select its members. The British Columbian experiment was different.

200 names were randomly selected from each of the 79 electoral districts (50% were men, 50% women). They were invited to meetings to hear an overview of what would be involved in participating in a CA. There would be a lot of hard work. The willing placed their names in a hat and one man and one woman was drawn from each riding: 158 people in all, with 2 additional First Nations people added to the list – 160 in total.

These 160 people met for eleven months, every other weekend, from January 2004 until November 2004. It was an incredible commitment that people were prepared to make for an important issue – defining a fair electoral system. Those eleven months began with a learning phase: listening to academic experts, then working in small discussion groups. Members of the CA then attended 50 public hearings and heard from thousands of their fellow citizens. They finally deliberated over a three month period – again, every other weekend. They agreed (147 to 13) on a new electoral system: the single transferable vote. We are familiar with this system in Australia – the Australian Senate uses a similar system to the one chosen by CA.

It then went to a referendum so everyone could have a vote. Premier Campbell set an unusually high requirement for 60% approval – the referendum question required 60 % approval from all voters and needed to be passed in 60% of the ridings. It received 57.4% support in 97% of ridings (or 77 of the 79 ridings). So almost all ridings passed it but it fell short of the 60% requirement: by 2.6%. It's worth noting that Campbell's own party received only 46% of the vote to be re-elected.

However, the Premier has agreed to keep the issue alive and to reconsider it at the next election. It was a fabulous experiment in deliberative democracy – it has all the essential ingredients: a representative sample of citizens, brought together and given access to considerable information and an opportunity to puzzle about this complex information in small groups, and it was extremely influential – the recommendations went directly to the people in a referendum.

The exit interviews suggest that supporters of the referendum question either investigated the 'single transferable vote' model themselves and decided it was a good alternative or they took into account that people like themselves had thought of nothing else for 11 months so they trusted their judgment. They voted for the model because they trusted the judgment of their fellow citizens.

I do not know what kind of republic we should have but I do know this, if a process like the CA is sufficiently robust, I would trust its conclusions far more that I would trust of any review conducted by politicians or those hand-picked by politicians. I find random selection to be a system of selection that is both fair and seen to be fair. Couple that with a deeply deliberative process and access to detailed information and we have a robust decision-making process that would earn my trust in it every time.

Check out the CA model at http://www.citizensassembly.bc.ca/public – there is a final report that details the method used and other resources as well.

This article is an edited version of a speech delivered at the launch of newRepublic on 17 November 2005. newRepublic (www.newrepublic.com.au) aims to encourage discussion in Australia around the nature of our democracy. Visit newRepublic's forum where you can offer your thoughts on Citizens' Assemblies and Australia's democracy.

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