Eyes on Canada: site of the next Citizens’ Assembly using sortition?

Canadian FlagJustin Trudeau, who will become the new Canadian Prime Minister next week after winning the  general election on October 19, has promised that the election will be the “last election” based on the first-past-the-post system.

But without it, he would not have won a parliamentary majority, so there will be considerable pressure from within his own party to renege on, or avoid fulfilling, his promise.

What is more interesting, however, is that Canada has a compelling history of using sortition in Citizens’ Assemblies to address provincial electoral reform – it happened in British Columbia in 2004 and in Ontario in 2006.

As argued recently in the Ottawa Citizen, sortition in Citizen’s Assemblies is the “emerging norm” for deliberating on electoral reform in Canada. A critical response to the argument appeared less than a week later, claiming that sortition and Citizens’ Assemblies “threatens representative democracy by taking decision-making power from MPs and handing it to citizens.” Actually, we agree! That’s what we want – for decisions to be handed back to the citizens. It is indeed a convoluted argument that assumes accountability must only involve citizens at election time.

Yet both efforts to reform the provincial electoral systems failed in subsequent referendums. That both Citizens’ Assemblies made near-unanimous recommendations for change (by 146 - 7 in British Columbia, and 94 - 8 in Ontario) shows how wide a gap there can be between the informed deliberation of ordinary people and the uninformed vote of everyone, influenced by emotive media campaigns and the wishes expressed by politicians.

To the Sortition Foundation the solution is obvious: if we trust a random selection of people to come to a legitimate decision – a decision that any (or indeed all of us) would make if given the time to deliberate about it with a diverse range of people in an informed and fair environment – then there should be no need for the recommendation to go to a referendum. Politicians’ decisions are usually not put to referendums – the hope is that they have access to balanced information and have participated thoughtfully in parliamentary debate. So too, our citizens’ assemblies need to be empowered assemblies. Select people at random and let them decide. And let their decision become law. We will then be one step closer to a truly deliberative democracy.

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  • commented 2015-12-10 09:52:32 +0100
    Hi Kevin, I agree that strategically the best option today would be to first campaign for a House of Review (Senate, etc) using sortition. Where I think differently is on the need for this house to meet – I think quality deliberation is crucial. I believe the selected citizens must interact with each other to have their final judgement influenced by a diversity of opinions in an informed environment. I very much like the AmericaSpeaks (now defunct) model of small, facilitated tables of people networked together coming to decisions. Regards, Brett.
  • commented 2015-12-10 04:49:06 +0100
    I agree with most Brett says. I don’t think we can move to sortition immediately but rather implement gradually by starting to use it as a check and balance on the elected assembly. I have been following an excellent blog called Equality by Lot (https://equalitybylot.wordpress.com/) for some years now and they seem to have also arrived at the same conclusion. Since Canada’s Senate is already intended to be a check and balance or “sober second thought” on legislation from the elected House, it is an ideal candidate for experimentation with Sortition. This could get started tomorrow if Prime Minister Trudeau agreed to make all future appointments from a randomly selected list. Further changes to the current Senate membership would need provincial approval but given there is currently just one conservative government in Saskatchewan, now is the time for change. Imagine in future a randomly selected group of anywhere from at least 1,000 (or whatever number is agreed to be statistically significant) Senators tasked with reviewing all or certain key types of legislation put forward by the House. The randomly selected members would hear relevant evidence from scientific experts as well as input from other directly affected parties. Using today’s technology they would review proposed legislation and listen to experts and other directly affected parties via interactive video conference. There would be “knowledge centres” and an office created for them at their closest post-secondary education/training institution. They would not “meet” as their job is not to “debate” but rather provide “sober second thought” on legislation that has already been debated. At the appointed time, they would provide their decision on-line and it would be from the following 3 choices: 1) Approve, 2) Disapprove, 3) Could approve if following changes were made and list those changes. Approval would require a simple majority and Disapproval would need 60%. Anything in between would be an automatic number 3 and legislation would return for changes to make it acceptable to a simple majority in Senate.

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