Citizens’ Assemblies: A More Meaningful Way to Hear from Citizens  

(Updated version of Nov. 14, 2019 —  click here for an easy-to-print version of this document)

Introduction

A decision to add citizens assemblies as a strategic element of Fair Vote Canada’s campaign strategy was approved by Fair Vote Canada’s Council members on March 10, 2019, based on a previous draft of this document.  

The basic premise is that citizens’ assemblies are a superior way of consulting the public on complex subjects such as electoral reform. In the run-up to the BC referendum, BC Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson took a position that a citizens’ assembly should be an indispensable part of any electoral reform process. 

Of course, one can imagine situations in which there is sufficient backing to change the electoral system based on other mechanisms of public consultation. However, a citizens’ assembly would help fill an important gap in most foreseeable circumstances. Our frame of reference in the original drafting of this document was the 2019 federal campaign, but the case for citizens’ assemblies can be made at all levels where electoral reform campaigns are being pursued. When warranted, we would be inviting governments to hand the torch over to a deliberative citizens’ body with confidence in the wisdom of our compatriots when they are given the tools they need to deliberate and come to a consensus.

Fair Vote Canada’s Strategy Update 2019 includes a citizens’ assembly as an additional element of our strategic approach. 

The Problem

Transitioning from first-past-the-post to proportional representation is one of the most intractable policy reforms of our day. Federally in Canada, it has bedevilled us ever since Mackenzie King first promised proportional representation in 1921. In the wake of failures such as the BC referendum, the quest for a better way of electing our representatives continues to be an uphill battle. 

It should not be. Just as we must overcome political obstacles and deal with climate change, managing the national debt or income inequality, so too must we find a way of dealing with the inadequacies of our voting system if we want to save our democracy from the ravages of extreme partisanship and cynicism about the very act of voting in a system where most votes make little or no difference to the result. 

Citizens understand this, as do most politicians when they step away from their own partisan interests. In Quebec, the consensus for proportional representation (PR) is particularly strong and the scene seems to be set for legislation to be enacted in the near future. Yet referendums on the issue have failed to generate sufficient support for change.  

Despite the failure of the 2018 BC referendum, an exit poll conducted by researchco.ca days after the referendum showed that a strong majority of citizens supported the principles of proportional representation yet had voted “No” to PR. What are we to do when citizens themselves vote against reform as they have done several times already?

A starting point is to acknowledge the limited value of referendums on an issue so fraught with partisan considerations and so easily manipulated by opponents of reform. What is clear is that an approach in which the bulk of information directed to voters takes the form of proponent and opponent views is not an effective way to educate the public. The public ended up confused (as shown in the BC exit poll) and ended up voting along partisan lines. 

A second lesson of the BC referendum is that process matters. By retaining government control over how the question was framed and how the final details of a reformed system would be arrived at, the BC government provided an opening for opponents of reform to turn the issue into a partisan one. 

One might have expected voters to rebel against the openly partisan approach taken by opponents but this does not seem to have happened to any significant extent. Instead, voters lined up behind the parties they supported and against the prospect of having to share power with coalition partners. Remarkably, about 85% of Liberal voters supported first-past-the-post. Based on regression work on the referendum results by riding it seems that a significant share of older NDP voters also voted against PR.  

Our view is that partisan interests lie at the core of the problem, including

  • the partisan interests of political parties elected to form government thanks to FPTP,
  • the partisan interests of incumbents who fear losing their seats were the electoral system to be changed and
  • the partisan preferences of voters themselves.  

We need to find a way to overcome those partisan barriers to change and develop the social license for change that Justin Trudeau and others have alluded to. Referendums rarely achieve this. As the recent Brexit and BC referendums have shown, referendums are divisive and not a way to develop social consensus, especially with “opponent” and “proponent” groups expected to duke it out in a parody of what passes for “public education.”

Our Proposal

Alternative approaches do exist and should be inspired by a rights-based perspective in which all votes have equal value. Independent commissions of the sort that have been organized in the past have considerable value and merit further attention. All independent commissions and processes to date have come to much the same conclusions in favour of reforming our electoral system.

Alternative approaches to citizen engagement have included two citizens assemblies, one in BC and one in Ontario, and various ways of engaging citizens directly in Quebec. What distinguishes such processes from referendums is that they involve a deliberative and learning-based approach in which citizens interact with each other and with experts to arrive at their own considered conclusions. Research conducted by the authors of When Citizens Decide shows that citizens’ assemblies lead to consensus views that are relatively free of partisan considerations, based on what they feel is needed according to the democratic principles they themselves have chosen to focus upon. Citizens’ assemblies are increasingly being used around the world to find consensus on complex and divisive issues.

The best road to a proportional electoral system for the next federal election in 2023 is likely to be a citizens assembly rather than a referendum. The aim would be for a representative assembly of citizens to consider the challenges faced by our current electoral system and to propose a way forward that reflects the consensus achieved by that assembly, including recommendations about finalizing any remaining details and next steps to ensure that citizens’ interests are respected. We fully expect that the terms of reference would include consideration of all systems options, including the status quo. 

Ensuring a Legitimate Citizens’ Process 

An important reason for establishing a citizens’ process of this sort is to help overcome the partisan resistance that accompanies certain types of change and build legitimacy and voter trust in the process of choosing a reform model for Canada. For this to work requires that it be a meaningful process—not window dressing or a consultation set up to produce a preordained result. Guidance would be provided by independent facilitators and experts to ensure that the assembly is well-equipped to understand the issues, including political realities. 

To avoid any whiff of manipulation, the process would need to be designed by an independent body with no partisan affiliation consensually chosen by a multi-party committee, with input from civil society. The BC and Ontario citizens’ assemblies, which followed more or less the same model, provides a useful template that has inspired other processes of this sort elsewhere in the world. 

Details of those processes are available in the book When Citizens’ Decide. In brief, these two assemblies were composed of 160 and 103 members respectively, including an equal number of men and women. Citizens were chosen at random from the voters list and asked whether they wished to participate. Participants were then chosen at random from those who were interested. Proceedings included a Learning Phase, a Consultation Phase, a Deliberation  Phase and a Voting and Reporting Phase. 

A federal process would require a larger number to ensure that even the smaller provinces and regions of the country each have a few members on the panel. It would not necessarily require all work to be done in Ottawa. Near the end of the process, the alternatives being considered by the Citizens Assembly would be presented to the caucuses of all parties for their response and consideration of their response by the Assembly. 

A proposal such as this would interest a large audience including civil society organizations other than FVC. We believe there is a strong appetite for independent, non-partisan citizen engagement in its own right, as evidenced by the rapid growth of citizens assemblies and citizens juries around the world (see background paper).

Following the recent BC referendum, The exit poll by Researchco.ca found that, 

Almost four-in-five British Columbians (78%) agree that politicians are in a conflict of interest when it comes to making decisions about how we vote, and would like any future proposals to involve an independent, non-partisan citizens’ body. This includes 77% of those who voted for Proportional Representation and 82% of those who voted to keep the First Past the Post system.

We believe that a citizens’ assembly could help to overcome the political hurdles we face and help build a strong consensus on the way forward.

Summary and Conclusion 

Summing up, we know how difficult it is to get from FPTP to PR. Forging a political alliance for change is a sine qua non. However, getting PR enacted also requires the social licence to do so and political pressure from citizens whose democratic interests are at play. 

Referendums may achieve that purpose under very special circumstances, but practically speaking have not served us well. As a mechanism, they are too easily exploited for partisan gain and do not do a good job of addressing complex issues involving conflicting interests. They are a winner-take-all approach to reconciling differences, when what we need for electoral reform is an approach that respects the civil rights of all citizens. 

What is being proposed, therefore, is another way of consulting citizens, a citizens assembly, as a complement to other mechanisms. Citizens’ assemblies are increasingly being used all over the world and offer the following advantages:

  • They are representative of the general population.
  • They are a learning-based approach, in which citizens invest considerable time studying the issues and are compensated for their time and expenses. 
  • It is a facilitated, deliberative, process, in which citizens are invited to rise above their partisan preferences by focusing on shared principles. Evidence indicates that this works. 
  • It enjoys considerable legitimacy, because participants are a representative body of citizens that has no vested interest in the outcome.
  • It is based on a model that protects the process from political interference and manipulation. 
  • Citizens’ assemblies can be used to discuss issues in which politicians are at an impasse and unable to agree with each other for political reasons. 

As an advocacy organization, Fair Vote Canada is not in a position to dictate how a citizens’ assembly for electoral reform would be run, much less to determine what the results would be. However, the existence of an established models and rules of procedure offers considerable protection from abuse. As for the ultimate outcome, we are confident, based on experience to date, that a citizens’ body enjoying the opportunity to study the issue and to deliberate will come to the same conclusion as us that our electoral system is broken and needs to be fixed. 

What we are asking is that politicians acknowledge that they are in a conflict of interest situation and give citizens an opportunity to study the matter for themselves and recommend a way forward based on their deliberations. 

Other FVC documents and links

 

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