Citizens Assembly News Digest
September 8, 2006

Ontario’s Citizens Assembly Convenes; Netherlands Enters Last Lap

In recent months citizen assemblies in Ontario and the Netherlands have made great progress. During the summer the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly selected its members and then convened for the first time the weekend of September 10-11, 2006. The Ontario Citizens’ Assembly Secretariat has an excellent website describing these events. The Netherlands, meanwhile, finished its “consultation” phase and began its final “deliberations” stage the weekend of September 1-2. Click here for detailed first person accounts of w hat has been happening in the Netherlands.

Compared to both the British Columbia and Netherlands citizen assemblies, a major distinguishing feature of the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly is the large volume of news coming out in its early stages. This difference can probably best be explained by the efforts of the PR office in Ontario’s Citizens' Assembly Secretariat. This is in stark contrast to the Netherlands, where there appears to be little or no organized PR effort. British Columbia eventually had substantial news coverage but not until it was well underway. It will be interesting to see whether making the citizens assembly members feel like important public personages impacts their subsequent behavior and the appeal of serving in such an assembly.

Two eyewitness accounts of citizens assembly developments in the Netherlands

Both of the accounts below are from eyewitnesses of the Netherlands citizens assembly.

Eyewitness Account #1: From David Hulshuis, a member of the citizens assembly.

September 6, 2006

Dear Jim,

I hardly know where to start as a lot has happened since my last e-mail. There have been three more assembly weekends, over a dozen regional meetings throughout the country, and, meanwhile, the Dutch government has collapsed! I will try to give a succinct, chronological account of what happened in the last few months.

In my last update I reported on the regional meetings that were being held in order to hear the opinions of fellow citizens. In total, 12 meetings organized by the assembly's secretariat were held all over the country, as well as several meetings that were organized by members of the assembly themselves! One of the meetings was especially aimed at "new voters": both young people about to turn 18 and immigrants. The meetings on average drew between 50 and 100 people each and generated very vivid discussions.

It was very striking that many Dutchmen seem to have very little faith in politicians. While most attendants agreed the electoral system has to be changed in order to bring politics and citizens closer to each other, it was also clear that many people feel it is not the system itself that causes problems, but the politicians themselves.

Visitors raised many other issues not directly related to the electoral system such as referendums, e-voting, populism, and so on. To me it became clear that the opinions heard on the meetings differed little from the opinions in the assembly; we indeed seem rather representative of Dutch society!

Discussions generated rather similar opinions in different parts of the country, except on the topic of regional representation. While hardly anyone in the western part of the country (which is most densely populated and also where government is seated) felt the need of districts, much more people in other areas, notably the northeast and the southwest, believed in the necessity of district representation.

The regional meetings also spawned regional media attention, not least because assembly members approached local and regional newspapers and radio stations. Still, national media do not report much on the assembly yet. Maybe that will change soon as we are getting closer to writing our advice.

Two more assembly weekends were held in June before summer recess. In these two weekends the assembly discussed which elements of the electoral system members feel need be changed and which elements need to remain the same. Discussion topics included possible influence on coalition formation, regional representation, irritation about mp's leaving their party who can keep their seat, the height of the electoral threshold, etc. In the first weekend the British electoral system expert David Farrel paid us a visit. He seemed to be very interested and enthusiastic about the assembly
initiative. Many people were amazed to hear Farrel is very charmed by the Dutch system. Maybe it is not that bad after all?

During the second weekend 3 Dutch MP's and one MP from Luxemburg visited and answered many questions, which gave the members a better insight into the activities of
MP's. It was a bit of a disappointment for some members to find out that the MP's were rather reserved when asked what they are going to do with the assembly's advice.

By the end of June a major event happened that may have a large impact on the assembly: the Dutch government collapsed. The coalition, which was supposed to be in office for another year, collapsed after a crisis around Immigration and Integration Minister Rita Verdonk and the fact that coalition party D66 (also initiator of the citizens' assembly) lost trust in the cabinet and its Ministers resigned. New elections are planned for 22 November 2006, around the same time the citizen's assembly is to publish its report. Until then, the other coalition parties, the Christian Democrats and
the Liberal party, continue as a minority government.

While initially the collapse of the government seemed to pose a threat to the assembly, it now appears that it may actually increase our chances of success. Firstly, it is likely that the assembly is finally viewed as independent from D66. Secondly, it may mean that our advice may be taken into account in the coalitions agreement of the upcoming government.

During July and August the assembly was in recess, although smaller groups worked on researching specific topics of their interest in order to get a better idea about the pros and cons. Topics included the concept of an "anti-vote", the way Ministers are appointed, districts, an elected PM, and many more.

During the last weekend (1/2 September) the assembly met again for the first time after recess and it has entered the final phase of the process: decision making. Many members have done proposals for reform and our task is to bring the number of proposals down to 2 to 4 proposals in the coming weekends. During last weekend the assembly decided on what we believe are the core functions of an electoral system, what the conditions and requirements of such a system should be, and what elements we would like to keep, strengthen, or get rid of in our current system.

While just before summer some tensions arose as some members believed the assembly was moving too slow, would not be able to come up with a proper advice, or would not be taken seriously by politicians, it seems that now that our tasks are becoming more specific and concrete, many members are once more very positive and energetic. However, one member quit because of the above critique and two others left the assembly for personal reasons.

Concerning the actual direction, it seems to me that after an initial urge to drastically change the electoral system, many members of the assembly now seem more interested in retaining the current system and proposing some smaller changes. Apparently, many members feel that the current system of proportional representation with only 1 district and coalition governments, and the current party system, should not be touched.

The following weekend is planned for the end of September. On the 7th of October, the assembly will meet politicians and people from other organizations in order to "test" some preliminary proposals and find out about the feasibility of these proposals. A final weekend will be held in October, hopefully resulting in the publication of our report in November

I may have forgotten some news here, but I think I covered most of it. As the assembly has now reached its final decisional phase, there should be some interesting news coming up, and I will try to give an update more regularly.

Kind regards,

David Hulshuis

Eyewitness Account #2: From Henk van der Kolk, a political science professor at the University of Twente.

September 6, 2006

On Friday September 1 and Saturday September 2, the Dutch Citizens Assembly had its first meeting after the summer holidays and is now entering the decision phase. Between February and April, the members were taught about electoral systems (learning phase). During one of these meetings David Farrell, whose (translated) book on electoral systems is used by the members, visited the meeting, which contributed to the enthusiasm of the members. It was the first time I have seen a political scientist giving autographs and being photographed.

In May and June regional meetings were organized where citizens were asked to comment on some general statements formulated by the members of the CA. Turnout during these meetings was not extremely high; about 30 to 100. Some meetings were rather ‘heated’ (Amsterdam, for example), but most meetings were quiet and constructively contributed to the way CA members were thinking about electoral systems. In addition, members and others contributed to the discussions on the website of the Assembly. All website discussions were systematically analyzed in an extensive report written by a subgroup of the members. In the final meeting before the summer, politicians visited the meeting, telling them about both their work as politicians and about their ideas for the Dutch electoral system. In addition to the meetings, the members also participated in a web-based discussion session of about an hour. During this session, members were (anonymously) allowed to express opinions on the Dutch electoral system. Other members were asked (anonymously) to vote on these statements. Statements that were strongly supported were accepted as something of the group and reported back to the members in a written document.

Since the members are now entering the more ‘down to earth’ decision phase (in which concrete alternatives are discussed), they finally get the feeling they are really heading somewhere. During the summer about 30 (partly overlapping) suggestions for an improved electoral system were formulated by individual members and some small groups. In the September meeting, the members discussed the relevance of several criteria of an electoral system. In this meeting members expressed (again) a strong preference for a proportional list system. Most likely will be the adoption of some kind of open list system (abolishment or at least lowering of the personal threshold) in combination with a small electoral threshold or the option to vote for the party as such (an option currently not available in The Netherlands). It may also be, however, that the assembly will suggest keeping the current system.

Until now, only three members decided to leave the assembly; two for personal reasons and one because he lost confidence in the process. The other members are still very enthusiastic. Most members show up at all meetings, many members visited regional meetings, and some decided to organize their own regional or municipal meeting.

In the next meeting (at the end of September), members will decide which alternatives they will develop further. In October there will be a public meeting, where politicians, interest groups and political scientists will express their opinion on the various alternatives. In October the members will decide which alternative is to be adopted by the Assembly. In November the members will discuss the final texts.

News coverage on the assembly is low. The people I ask have never heard of the assembly. And since the political party which initiated the CA within the coalition (D66) left the coalition just before the summer, the impact of the CA is rather uncertain. Despite the fact that the other parties (VVD and CDA) expressed their support for the initiative, they seem to be unwilling to simply accept the advice given by CA.