Citizens Assembly News Digest
December 30, 2006

Netherlands Issues Final Report; Ontario Starts Consultation Phase

The Netherlands Citizens Assembly finished its deliberations and on December 14 reported its final recommendations to the Minister of Government Reform in The Hague. The Citizens Assembly recommended a new electoral system for the Netherlands, but its recommendations (fine tuning the existing proportional representation system) are more incremental in nature than those of British Columbia’s Citizens Assembly (moving to the radically new single transferable vote). For authoritative English language accounts of what happened in the Netherlands, click here.

Ontario’s Citizens Assembly finished up its learning phase and is now entering its consultation phase. The consultation phase includes written submissions from the public plus some 40 public hearings throughout the province. To date, and based only on a handful of the public hearings, the turnout appears to be small. An advantage of the local consultations appears to be that they attract additional local newspaper coverage.

For first person accounts of what happened in Ontario, click here. The three members of the Ontario Citizens Assembly who submitted comments all expressed disappointment with the press coverage. This comes as a surprise because, compared to British Columbia and the Netherlands, Ontario was getting a bounty of press coverage. But it is true that the vast majority of the articles were in small town newspapers. Coverage in the major papers appears to have lessened in the past few months. These observations suggest that press coverage may be helpful in keeping up the morale of members of citizen assemblies.

In late November, the Ontario student citizens assembly convened and issued a recommendation to the adult citizens assembly. Here is its interim report. The student assembly website is located at The Student Citizens Assembly recommended a shift from the current system to a mixed member system of proportional representation. A handful of the students involved in the assembly were profiled in their local newspapers. Next, the students who participated in the citizens assembly are expected to take what they learned and share it with their classmates back home. More than 150 schools have already signed up to hold their own deliberations and formal votes on the electoral system. The results of both the students’ citizens assembly and all the local school votes are to be included in a final report sent to the adult citizens assembly next February.

Proposals for citizen assemblies continue to crop up elsewhere in the world. But only in California would I place a “likely” for something substantial to happen in the next 12 months. The New America Foundation’s California office conducted a poll of California citizens in part to assess their attitudes toward such an initiative. The poll found overwhelming support for such a proposal, and the results were cited in a Sacramento Bee opinion column. The Sacramento Bee covers Sacramento, California’s Capitol, and is widely read by journalists throughout California who cover State politics.

Three First Person Accounts of the Ontario Citizens' Assembly

Please note that, unless explicitly stated otherwise, all first person accounts are simply that; they do not represent any type of official position. The following first person accounts written specifically for this blog are from: 1) Pat Miller, 2) Arita Droog, and 3) David Proulx

1) From Pat Miller, Member of the Ontario Citizens Assembly

Observations re the progress of the Ontario Citizens Assembly

The Citizens Assembly has been a wonderful experience for me as I had been retired for a number of years. At the age of 72, I wondered if I even had the capacity to take in and understand what I needed to make any useful contribution. Surprise, surprise! I found that, having a fair amount of time available during the week, I have been able to cram many months –(or even years) of study into that time. I was very computer literate to begin with and had an interest in politics from my teens. I am at the stage now when I feel confident in expressing the pros and cons of the various electoral systems.

As for the assembly meetings, the organization has been so well managed by the Secretariat that we have been enabled to learn as fast as we are able. The format of plenary sessions and small group meetings has worked well on the whole.

There are different learning styles apparent that impact on our ability to work as efficiently as possible. While the selection of each candidate was at the final stage literally a name pulled out of a hat, the people who accepted the initial request to be considered had to fit certain demographics. Also it was important they were able to commit to the time necessary.

There are about a third of us that are retired, and are more affected by the long days than others. Another difficulty for the older members is the environment in Osgoode Hall at York University. We have several staircases to go up and down to the washroom facilities and the lunchroom at the lower level. For the small group meetings we retire to individual rooms scattered on 5 or 6 levels. Again that poses some difficulties for older and handicapped members. There is one small elevator but it is away from the central area.

The plenary sessions are in Moot Hall and we are seated in a theatre layout. We look down on a stage where teachers and guest speakers address us from. We see little of our fellow members in this kind of seat arraignment. The BC Citizens Assembly met for their plenary sessions in a hall with a circular layout where the members could face each other. I think we are disadvantaged by not having that ability.

I have some concerns about the composition of the small groups; but would prefer to wait till the end of the meetings in May, 2007 to forward you my impressions.

Now for the relations between a) the Assembly members and b) the members and the secretariat

a): With very few exceptions, we have gelled as a team faster than I would ever have imagined. There is a strong effort on everyone’s part to make this assembly successful. The difficulties that arise occasionally have been handled professionally by the secretariat and particularly by the facilitators of the small group meetings. I would like to commend particularly the younger members, most of who have put out an enormous effort. Since I like to think that older members have been bestowed with some wisdom that life (and living it) teaches you, we tend to allow for youthful impatience and sometimes disrespectful behaviour. There has been so little of that from our youngsters; most of them show a maturity beyond their years.

b): The Administrative support (the secretariat and the facilitators) are all, without exception, so wonderfully supportive and considerate towards us all. It shows that they have been carefully selected for their roles

I must make special mention of our Chair, George Thomson. He has the gift of making us feel comfortable while keeping us on our time-lines. He is a concensus maker; the perfect type to get us to final decision in my opinion. Also, Dr. Jonathan Rose is an excellent teacher; his presentations are clean, clear and delivered with energy and enthusiasm, so important to keeping our attention.

We have met the leaders of the Student Assembly, but not the whole group. This meeting is planned for early next year. We have followed their activities and some of the students have attended the public consultation meetings. .

I have attended the two meetings last week and had good input from the public. It is useful to hear first hand how important most of the presenters feel that there is a need for change. At both meetings, there was only one individual who strongly felt that we should stay with our current system.

The most disappointing aspect of this Citizens Assembly is the apparent indifference of the press. There has been little coverage by the major newspapers, and what there has been is often negative reporting.

2) From Arita Droog, Member of the Ontario Citizens Assembly

I have been sitting here at my desk for several hours now trying to come up with an article that is clear and concise. Something that you folks can sink your teeth into but, the more I try, the more I feel I need to explain. So here goes the final draft.

My experience so far with the Citizens’ Assembly is just what I expected it to be. I expected that it would be difficult to get into an electoral mind set. I expected that it would take me some time to be comfortable with the language. I expected that I would need to do lots of homework. And I expected that people would be interested its future.

So far my expectations were right, all except that people would be interested. Don’t get me wrong, once I explain what I’m doing they are interested and ask questions, but usually more of a political nature than an electoral.

I think we need to get more press out there to explain to people exactly what is going on. We have been promised that if we do decide to make a change to the system there will be an educational program set up to inform the public. But in the meantime, we need the press to come to our sessions to see what we are doing, what we are learning, so that there are no misconceptions about it. We have received some rather unfavorable press from some big city papers, if only these reporters had come to see for themselves, then they could report the facts not their perceptions.

Non-partisan teachers, facilitators, professors and many a political scientist have schooled us. We have been challenged to learn from the best. From my way of thinking these folks cannot even agree on a definitive system, so our task will not be an easy one. I don’t think there has been a weekend where there were less than 100 of the 103 members, that’s what I call dedication.

The only thing that I can see that will improve what we are doing is to have a meeting room at the hotel, where we can openly discuss our thoughts on various topics like: values and principles, representation for women and minorities, voter turnout etc., just so we can hash it out amongst ourselves. I believe come next session such a space will be at our disposal. This should help get things out in the open before final decision time.

In conclusion, I feel that this journey we are on will not end when we hand in our final report. I believe, that should we recommend a change, we will be in the thick of it for years to come. I look forward to the challenge.

--Arita Droog, Representative for the riding of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound

3) From David Proulx, Member of the Ontario Citizens Assembly

Now that the learning phase is complete I feel a little more comfortable in discussing electoral systems but am still far from being a scholar or political scientist. Professor Jonathan Rose provided us with the adequate amount of information to help us make our final decision.

The help that we received from the secretariat team, from transportation to extra information or anything else that we needed, was excellent. The one area that I was disappointed with, and I don't feel that it was the secretariat team's fault, was the lack of media coverage. Something this important was barely covered in the media.

My public meeting isn't until Jan., 07, and maybe by then the media coverage will be more adequate. I just hope that the posters and word of mouth will provide a good turnout for the meeting. From what I have heard there has been fairly good turnout and response in other meetings.

I hope that I was able to provide you with some useful feedback and will try to keep in touch as I progress through this very important democratic process of getting the citizens involved in the electoral system design.

Thank you,

--David Proulx