Citizens Assembly News Digest
November 1, 2006

Netherlands Winds Down; Ontario Roars Ahead

The major citizens assembly news continues to come out of the Netherlands and Ontario. The Netherlands Citizens Assembly only has one more meeting left on its agenda and will issue a report to the minister of government reform in early December. As the Netherlands Citizens Assembly has approached its last lap, Dutch language press coverage of its activities appears to have increased.

The Ontario Citizens Assembly continues to roar ahead, with lots of local press coverage and some important milestones being reached. On October 25, 2006, legislation was introduced to allow for a referendum question on next year’s ballot. The referendum will be held on October 4, 2007. The most controversial feature of this legislation is that it requires a 60% majority for the legislation to pass. Many people argued for a 50% threshold.

The Ontario Citizens Assembly has announced that it will hold 37 “public consultations” around Ontario during its next phase. To facilitate public participation, it has set up an excellent website. An especially impressive overview document on this website is “Citizens Talking to Citizens.” George Thomson, Chair of the Ontario Citizens Assembly, described his public engagement philosophy in a late September op-ed that ran in multiple local newspapers: “Assembly members know that the process will only be truly successful if their fellow citizens are learning with them and if the assembly learns from them. It isn’t enough to wait for the assembly’s report before focusing on an issue that takes some time to learn and understand.”

One striking innovation in Ontario is the introduction of a high school students citizens assembly to run parallel to the official, adult citizens assembly. The high school student citizens assembly is being run out of the same office as the adult citizens assembly and has been allocated a budget of $200,000. The student citizens assembly has two components. First, instructional materials so individual high school classes can run their own assemblies. Second, a province wide assembly constituted of 103 students—the same size as the adult citizens assembly. Unlike the adult citizens assembly, students must submit their names to be part of the citizens assembly lottery pool. The recommendations of the student citizens assembly will be formally submitted to the adult citizens assembly.

In my judgment, the student citizens assembly idea is a brilliant marketing and civic participation strategy. It brings the public into the debate in a very meaningful way while creating many additional opportunities for press coverage of the adult citizens assembly.

On September 25, 2006, the Center for Ethics at the University of Toronto put on a distinguished public issues forum titled Democratic Legitimacy in Crisis: Are Citizens’ Assemblies the Answer?

Other provinces in Canada, notably Alberta and Prince Edward Island, continue to evince interest in having their own citizens assembly modeled after British Columbia’s and Ontario’s.

A major worry of mine is the proliferating use of the “citizens assembly” term in contexts in which it wasn’t originally used and in which I don’t think it's appropriate. I would like to see the term reserved for situations when a randomly selected body of citizens has government standing to propose legislation on an issue where elected officials have a direct conflict of interest. However, this may be a quixotic hope.

In general, there seems to be a trend toward convergence between “citizens assembly” and “deliberative opinion poll” terminology. The deliberative opinion poll concept, like the citizens assembly, is based on a randomly selected group of citizens coming together to deliberate on an issue. But whereas a deliberative opinion poll could deliberate on any issue and without government standing, a citizens assembly had a narrowly tailored jurisdiction and was a complement to existing formal government institutions.

Typical of the new citizens assembly usage, the prime minister of British Columbia has proposed a “citizens assembly” to discuss health care policy. A mayoral candidate in the town of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario wants to convene a citizens assembly to deal with government waste. Others want to create a citizens assembly with completely overlapping jurisdiction to an elected legislature.

First Person Account of the Netherlands Citizens' Assembly

The following report is from David Hulshuis, a member of the Netherlands Citizens’ Assembly.

Here is another update from the Dutch citizens' assembly. The assembly has moved fast in the last two months and, with only one assembly weekend left, an advice is within reach! It seems that the assembly is being mentioned more often in nationwide media, perhaps partly as a result of other initiatives on democratic reform. Meanwhile, Dutch politicians are busy campaigning and preparing for the national elections on November 22. It sure is an interesting moment to present our final advice, which is planned for November 10.

The assembly has had two more weekend meetings in the last month (on September 29/30 and October (20/21). During the first weekend of September some 30 or so proposals for reform were presented by members of the assembly. The core functions, conditions, and requirements of an electoral system were also established. The last two weekends focused more on working out the different proposals and narrowing down their number.

During the weekend of 29 and 30 September the assembly worked in smaller groups in which members discussed the five main variants of the proposals. Three groups paid attention to other themes, which may be applied to one of the variants: possible influence on coalition formation, an anti-vote, and topical voting. Although there still were significant differences in opinions, there were in-depth discussions resulting in more specific, sometimes reshaped, proposals. By the end of the weekend an indicative poll was held to see which proposals and themes garnered the most support.

In between the weekends, a structured online chat discussion was held among the members in order to elaborate on the arguments for and against the different proposals.

On October 20 the assembly traveled once more to the World Forum Convention Centre in The Hague for another exciting weekend. Some concept texts for the final report were discussed and some political science experts reflected on the assembly proposals, raising some questions and generally giving some useful feedback. The next morning we discussed topics related to the electoral system, including the role and value of abstentions, the electoral threshold, size of parliament, session length, and distribution of residuals seats. After another discussion on the system reform proposals, the assembly went to the vote in the afternoon, reducing the number of proposals to two. The rest of the afternoon was spent on making an inventory of additional recommendations the assembly wants to include in its report. This resulted in a whole shopping list of additional recommendations that definitely will have to be narrowed down during the final weekend as well.

The last two or three weekends were exciting as we now had to turn our general ideas into concrete plans and finally make choices. There seems to be a general consensus that the remaining variants held something for everyone and most members seem to be content with the direction we are going. However, seeing little support for your own proposal or finding out that ideas you advocate will not be included in the final advice, was of course disappointing for some members. This final phase does seem a bit rushed compared to the time we spent on learning about electoral systems and consulting with the Dutch people. To some it indeed seems to go too fast, but I think the majority of the assembly is glad that we are eventually moving towards our advice.

The assembly has gotten more attention in the media lately, at least that is the impression that I get. Often, the assembly is mentioned in connection with other democratization topics. For instance, there has been a "National Convention," a group of 14 independent members, backed by 30 advisors, that looked at the state of politics in the Netherlands and at ways to close the supposed gap between citizens and politicians. The presentation of their report on October 5, in which they recommended a stronger role for parliament and a sharper divide between the cabinet and parliament, yielded quite some press coverage. Hopefully, the citizens' assembly will face similar attention once the advice is ready!

Particularly interesting is the fact that the National Convention advised the government to install citizens' assemblies on important topics more often, as they provide a great opportunity to bridge the gap between citizens and politicians. Also, the Convention said, assemblies give citizens the much wanted opportunity to participate and to give a fresh view of the matter that politicians need. However, they also warn that it should be clear beforehand what role the results of an assembly will play in formal decision-making, as otherwise trust will be let down if results are pushes aside (A risk, I think, of the current assembly too). The Public Prosecution Service seems to lead the way, as it is planning to install an assembly on sentencing in the Netherlands, in order to hear citizens' opinions on penalties, as it is a much heard assertion in media and jurisdiction that penalties do not always fit crimes well.

The final assembly weekend will be held on November 10 and 11. On Friday, the assembly will vote for the final proposal and the additional recommendations. The citizens' assembly will publicly announce their proposal for the first time on prime time national television on the same day. The next day we will spend time on revising and adapting the contents of the advisory report. The weekend will be concluded with a party. In the following days there will be more TV coverage and hopefully a lot of press coverage as well. The actual report will be finished afterwards and presented to Minister of Government Reform Atzo Nicolaï in early December, when coalition formation will be taking place.

Best regards,

David Hulshuis