Can citizen assemblies tackle Trumpification?

How giving power to the people as accidental politicians could help

Robin Brown

Government and governance, Arts, culture & society | Australia

3 March 2017

Countering the rise of populist politics means governments must be more representative of their citizens, Robin Brown writes.

Edmund Burke once said: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” But the success of Trump, Hanson, Farage, Le Pen and their ilk through their willingness to sacrifice good public policy to popular opinion suggests that Burke would have trouble defending his statement today.

While in past years both left and right parties have been able to garner support from working class voters, increasing numbers are voting away from those parties. In an attempt to recover these voters, major parties are forced to embrace populist politics at the expense of good policy, with the US Republican Party nominating Trump the biggest recent example.

So, what can be done? Obviously, major party politicians should shun populism and redouble their efforts to regain the confidence of the working class. Yet perhaps something different is needed.

Can we have ordinary, working class people, who are perceived as such, involved in government through means other than the election of less-than-competent populists? One answer could be to use something like the system of the first democracy in ancient Athens.

An Athens-like system has been proven to work in today’s world. The gatherings of citizens are called citizens’ assemblies or citizens’ juries. Used mainly at the local or regional government level, they have proven they can contribute to better government in countries like Australia and Canada.

In February 2009, 150 Australians met as the first Australian Citizens’ Parliament. They had been randomly selected from every electorate in the country and from all walks of life. I had the privilege of being selected from the electorate of Canberra. The question the 150 agreed to tackle was “How can Australia’s political system be strengthened to serve us better?”

More on this: How the Australian electorate of Indi is ‘switching democracy back on’

The 150 each brought their unique experiences as Australian citizens and left their social status at home. For the most part, they were strangers to each other and came with a range of philosophies, opinions and attitudes. Remarkably, over the period of four days, they came to a high level of agreement on many issues, some of which were quite contentious.

Importantly, many, if not most, had little prior knowledge of national constitutions, voting systems and public administration. And quite a few lacked a great deal of formal education. Even so, after some effective learning sessions, all were able to make strong contributions to the deliberations. Many changed their views quite dramatically. Critical to the parliament’s success was the fact that the agenda was in the control of the participants.

How could using these sorts of assemblies help limit Trumpification? First, such “accidental politicians” would not be seen as elite. They would talk to the population as ordinary citizens, and ordinary citizens would identify with them and could have confidence in them. Second, being ‘accidentally’ in the role, they would not be beholden to populist election promises made in the course of campaigning. Third, they would have only the power of the persuasiveness of their arguments and not the power of electoral supporters.

How might this system be employed? Krystian Seibert suggests a standing citizens’ commission which convenes citizens’ assemblies for particular purposes at the government’s request and reports its findings. A much more effective, and probably more economical, contribution to public policy would be made by an assembly with members appointed for single fixed terms. Such an assembly might meet as often as parliament meets, but perhaps half of the meetings could usefully be held away from Canberra. There would be practical, but surmountable problems, similar to those experienced with court juries.

A standing citizens’ assembly would have to operate alongside the two houses of parliament. It would be entirely autonomous and decide which issues to deal with. It would often debate the same issues as the elected houses, but the character of the debate would likely be quite different – much more policy than politics. Such a body, not beholden to certain political power holders, would be less likely to reject the well-researched advice of the Chief Scientist on climate change abatement or the report of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers.

Over time, a citizens’ assembly would be likely to have as much impact on the wider public debate of issues as the elected houses, and its conclusions better accepted by the public. Often enough, it would come to the same conclusions as the elected politicians and the ensuing public policy would thus be much better accepted by the people than might otherwise be the case.

While a bill to establish and fund a citizens’ parliament seems unlikely anytime soon, a similar body could be set up by citizens. The crowd-funded Climate Council suggests this is possible. Most citizens want to see the quality of public policymaking lifted and do not want to see the Trumpification of the Australian government. With crowdfunding and support from business and community groups, a proposal for a citizens’ parliament could very well fly.

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One Response

  1. Stej says:

    But what power would this citizen’s assembly have?

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