Citizens Assembly News Digest
March 3, 2007

Ontario Citizens' Assembly Completes Consultation Phase

Since December, the major citizens assembly news has come out of Ontario.  From November 2006 to January 31 the Ontario Citizens Assembly conducted its consultation phase, the document submission part of which continued until February 28.  The consultation phase involved reaching out to the public for feedback.   This feedback effort consisted of face-to-face public hearings, face-to-face group outreach, formal document submissions, a students’ assembly, and classroom students’ assemblies. 

The public hearings got the most publicity.  These consisted of 41 public hearings scattered throughout the province.  Attendance at the public hearings was partially driven by 122 ads in local newspapers taken out by the Citizens’ Assembly secretariat.  A review of about half the public hearings indicates that public participation ranged from a low of 7 people (Dryden on November 27) to a high of 200 people (Toronto on January 17), with the median attendance under 50.    In some cases the public in attendance were fairly homogeneous—e.g., a large group from an old age home. 

The goal of the outreach program was to solicit feedback from important groups, such as the poor, that might not provide feedback via the public hearings.  Group outreach included meetings with disability, business, union, government, and social groups.  The disabilities group meeting included the Canadian Hearing Society, Canadian National Institute for the Blind, Canadian Paraplegic Association, and Helen Keller Center.  The business group meeting included the Canadian Club and CD Howe Institute.  The union group meeting included the Canadian Auto Workers, Ontario Federation of Labor, Canadian Union of Public Employees, Ontario Public Service Employees Union.  The government meeting including the Ontario association of municipalities.  The Social Planning Network of Ontario, an association of social groups including the homeless, government assistance programs, and immigrants, orchestrated five meetings scattered throughout the province.   For reasons not clear to me, the business community’s interest in providing feedback to the Citizens Assembly appeared to be fairly weak.

Members of the Citizens Assembly also did their own informal outreach in the form of presentations to their local Lion’s Club, Kiwanis Club, Chamber of Commerce, and churches.  No data were collected on this type of outreach.

Written comment submissions often overlapped with presentations at public hearings, so it is hard to separate the two.  As of February 24, 2007, 986 comments were submitted, with additional comments being accepted until February 28.  Of the comments submitted, 692 supported a change from the status quo and 78 supported the status quo.    Some newspapers reported the total number of submitted comments at over 2,000 (the citizens assembly website lists the current document number at 2,074), but this didn’t factor in that the document  numbering system began at 1,001, not 0.  One curiosity is that, using the numbering system as the guide, 89 documents--close to 10% of the total submissions--appear to have been deleted or are otherwise missing.

More than 50% of the comments were 1 page or less; the longest, submitted by a German, was 142 pages.  More than 50 organizations submitted comments.  79% of the comments were submitted by men; 21% by women.  A total of more than 3,500 pages were submitted.   A fair number of the comments were submitted by residents of British Columbia, which had its own Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform that convened during 2004.

The software architecture for reading the comments is quite primitive, essentially forcing users to download and read the documents one at a time.    This difficulty contributed to my impression that most comments were not read by members of the citizens assembly.  Indeed, even the small committee of members assigned to read the comments (I believe the committee size is three) didn’t have time to read all the comments before the beginning of the deliberations phase.  The great majority of the comments were submitted during the last two weeks of the consultation phase, and the committee members were overwhelmed.

The Students’ Assembly on Electoral Reform paralleled the adult one and was designed to both educate the general public and provide useful feedback to the adult citizens assembly.   Like the Ontario legislature and the adult citizens assembly, it was made up of 103 members.  It met and deliberated for five days and released its final report to the adult citizens assembly on February 17, 2007.  That report is a very classy document—parts of it brilliantly written—and I’d encourage anyone interested in the Students’ Assembly to read it.

The classroom students’ assemblies came on the heels of the Students’ Citizens Assembly and are expected to continue through the spring.  Every interested teacher in the province was provided with materials to conduct a citizens assembly within their classrooms and submit the results to the Students’ Citizens Assembly.  As of February 15, 2,372 student votes had been submitted to the Students’ Citizens Assembly website.   This is a relatively small proportion (.4%) of the high school population within the province, but in absolute terms is probably larger than the number of adults who personally attended the public hearings.  If classroom students’ assemblies continue through the spring as expected, the number of student votes could well end up exceeding 10,000.

Overall, the outreach was much more extensive than conducted in either British Columbia or the Netherlands.    The single most creative element was the Students’ Citizens Assembly, which in my opinion was a stroke of genius.

A summary of the adults’ Citizens’ Assembly consultation phase was presented to the Citizens’ Assembly members on February 17.   I highly recommend looking at the hour long video of it. It also gives you a good sense of the high seriousness and professionalism of the enterprise.  One of the things I focused on the most was the extraordinary concentration of the 103 audience members during the session.  That told me pretty much all I needed to know: these folks are taking the process very seriously and want to do the best job they can.

I’m often pretty cynical of the typical citizen’s capacity for civic participation.   Watching this video demonstrates that such cynicism should be context sensitive.  In the right setting and with the right incentives, even citizens in the largest political districts (in this case, 12.5 million) will engage in civic participation with high seriousness.

The deliberative phase began on February 17, with important guidelines established at the first meeting.  Dr. Jonathan Rose, the Citizens’ Assembly’s Academic Director, sent me this summary of the first weekend of the deliberations phase.

The first weekend of deliberation was very full.  Over two days, we reviewed our consultation phase, heard from the Students' Assembly on Electoral Reform and the Chair introduced the concept and practice of deliberation.  As well, members made two substantive decisions; first to determine their priority objectives and second to choose a system to work up on weekend two.

I described the priority objectives as making concrete the principles that they discussed in the learning phase. These would be their tool kit for a) determining what system to work up;  b) determining how the components of that system fit together and c) comparing their preferred alternative system to the present system.

After a discussion in plenary as well as in smaller groups, the members decided on three priority objectives: "The number of seats a party wins should more closely reflect its vote share", "Each geographic area of the province should have at least one MPP" and "Voters should be able to indicate both their preferred party and candidate".

The first system members decided to work up to compare to the present system was MMP. Later this week, we will send them documents for them to think about the design decisions for MMP so that they will be ready on weekend two having already given thought about the complexity and number of issues.

In addition to designing MMP, next weekend the members will choose whether or not to design another system (for weekend 3) and if so which one.  It's really quite impressive to watch how cohesive the members are and how motivated they remain for the task. The excitement and energy in the room is palpable and incredibly affirming about the capacity of citizens to engage in complex democratic issues.

I am told that the members’ only area of the citizens’ assembly is quite active.  It’s possible that the online deliberations will end up becoming more important than the face-to-face deliberations restricted to the weekends.  I hope that at some point in the future the record of the online deliberations will be made public.

Local press coverage of the Ontario Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform has continued at a steady clip.  According to Barry Koen-Butt, communications director for the Citizens’ Assembly, coverage included: 1 national television program (CBC News World),  3 province-wide current affairs TV programs, 10 local TV stations, 20+ different radio stations, 50 different newspapers.  This translated into 225 news reports during the consultation phase and 450 news reports since the Assembly began.  In addition, the Citizens’ Assembly website has received 45,000 different visitors.

My own Nexis search found more than 100 articles from mid-December through mid-February.  A large fraction of the stories are of the human interest and letter-to-the-editor variety.  The local public hearings also got a handful of articles.  Perhaps the biggest story was a February 22 front page article in the Toronto Star, the largest newspaper in the province.  The Toronto Star has given the Citizens Assembly lots of coverage, but I don’t recall ever before so prominently.

A remarkable development is the extensive website and occasional on air coverage of the Citizens’ Assembly by TV Ontario (TVO), the local public TV station.  All the sessions of the Citizens’ Assembly have been video recorded and made available online. 

Jon Bricker, an LL.B. Candidate at the Osgoode Hall Law School in Canada, has written a paper raising an important issue that often doesn’t get adequate attention: what type of public education campaign should there be between the time a citizens assembly finishes its deliberations and the public votes on those recommendations in a referendum?  This turns out to be quite a tricky public policy issue.  I’m not sure that Jon has found a compelling answer.  His contribution—after a fairly lengthy introductory section on the citizens assembly movement—is to highlight the question.

Key Websites on Ontario’s Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform

·       Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform

·       TVOntario (TVO)

·       Students’ Assembly on Electoral Reform

Elsewhere, murmurings about creating a citizens assembly appear to be strongest in the province of Alberta, Canada.  Liberal Leader Kevin Taft has endorsed a Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform in his new book presenting his opposition party’s agenda.  An Alberta-based think tank, the Pembina Institute, has also endorsed a “citizens assembly” to deal with certain difficult environmental issues.

The U.K. continues its yearlong string of high profile letters-to-the-editor and op-eds endorsing the citizens assembly concept.  But so far there is no evidence of high powered politicians making this part of their agenda.

Three First Person Accounts of the Ontario Citizens' Assembly

Three members of the Ontario Citizens' Assembly--David Proulx, Pat Miller, and Arita Droog--have contributed the following observations about the recently completed consultation stage.

David Proulx
The consultation meeting we held in Cornwall had a better than expected turnout. Considering that it was held in the middle of January during one of the season's worst storms. There were approximately twenty people in attendance with seven presenters. Each of whom represented themselves and only one of them representing Fair Vote Ontario.

Although some other meetings had fewer people turnout while others had more, I can only hazard a guess for the reason, and I think that if we did it on a per capita basis the numbers would be closer.

I found the meeting to be helpful and it gave me a better perspective on what the people in my area would like to see happen. I have begun reading some of the written submissions, over two thousand, and am getting a clearer picture of what the people of Ontario want.

If only everybody could be as enthusiastic about this whole process as the 103 young people chosen to mirror us for the Student's Assembly. Their presentation was excellent and they made it clear what they want, CHANGE! They reminded us that any decision that we make will affect them the most because they are the future voters and even dare I say politicians.

Now that the first weekend of deliberation is finished, we now know what intense works lies ahead in the coming weekends. And I would like to finish by saying that all 103 members of the assembly want to get this right the first time!

Until next time,

David Proulx,
Ontario Citizens' Assembly member

Pat Miller
As we enter the third and final stage of this Citizens’ Assembly in Ontario, just a few words to give you my impressions of where we are.

The consultation phase, composed of meetings with the general public, outreach meetings with the disadvantaged and written submissions is completed. There was a slow start, at the end of November and the first two weeks of December. Bad weather, and poor press coverage to advertise the meetings translated into lower numbers for the meetings I attended. On December 5th I attended a meeting in Markham (covering Markham and Oak ridges ridings).

Click here for a link to Pat’s presentation, recorded on video, before the Assembly on February 17. Her presentation begins a little before the midway point (about 25 minutes into the video).

Arita Droog
(note: this is drawn from her op-ed published in the Owen Sound Sun Times on February 12)

Hi there. It has been quite a while since I last wrote an article for the paper.

Yes I have been slacking off in the writing department, but not in the learning department.

Since my last article I have been to three public consultation meetings and appeared on cable TV. The consultations were interesting to say the least.

First off, I would like to thank those who came to the meeting on Dec. 4.

I felt proud that we had as many speakers as we did. To me that means that the message is getting out there and people are concerned about what's happening.

Hooray Owen Sound!

You make me proud to be from this area.

As for the other meetings that I attended, the main focus was on change, either to proportional representation or mixed member proportional.

Some speakers did not want change while others advocated whole new systems.

Some preferred single transferable vote while others liked the two- round system.

So as you can see there are many diverse points of view that need to be considered.

After this first meeting I thought I could handle all the information by sorting through it and using it to help me make my decision.

Then I attended another consultation meeting in Orangeville. There again I was bombarded with thoughts, ideas and information.

Again the subject of fairness of representation came up several times, and stronger voter participation was a major concern too.

In Belleville the theme was change, again most suggested MMP or PR with one or two suggesting no change to the system.

I think though that one of the major concerns, should we recommend a change, was the issue of a public education campaign.

At this point in time there are many people who are not yet aware that we are in the midst of this process.
Hopefully they will be aware sometime before they get handed their ballot in October. This is not part of our mandate, but I believe that as part of the process we can recommend or suggest that a public education campaign should be undertaken.

In looking at the hansard (Nov 16/06) it looks like this is already in place should we recommend a change.
Many other issues were also brought up, like:

We should consider how elections are financed. Unions and business should not be allowed to dominate the funding of politics.

The voting age should be lowered.

The referendum should be held separately from the election to create more interest.
A 60 per cent threshold for the referendum is too high.

These are all issues that are beyond our mandate, but we can choose to comment on them in our final report.

The information is starting to stack up and I have yet to come to some kind of conclusion.
So you see where my dilemma is. Everyone has a good point, every system has its good points and bad points and every person has the right to a vote that counts.

To those of you who know me, you know that I will be wrestling with this until the final conclusion.
To those of you who only know me through this column I hope I will have your support on whatever decision I/we make. Until next time.

On the weekends that we are meeting you can see us in action with live web streaming on the TVOntario website, cfmx/tvoorg/citizensassembly/

You can also write the assembly at Citizens' Assembly Secretariat, 1075 Bay St., Suite 830, Toronto, Ont., M5S 2B1

You can also follow along at the website www.citizensassembly.