Sunday 20 October 2019

Open debate is still democracy's best bad idea

The usual suspects stretched their lexicon to accuse the Citizens' Assembly of a 'stitch-up', writes Eoin O'Malley

Health Minister Simon Harris
Health Minister Simon Harris

Eoin O'Malley

Citizens' assemblies are the best bad idea being touted to save democracy. At a time when there is elevated distrust in politics, involving citizens directly, and asking them to make decisions, gets around this problem. We don't trust politicians, but we trust 'people like us'.

But Ireland's Citizens' Assembly ran into a little bit of difficulty last week. This is the body that was set up by the Government in 2016 to deal with issues that the Government didn't want to have to deal with directly. Like the Constitutional Convention before it (which I served as an academic adviser), these 'deliberative publics' are handy ways of getting difficult issues off the agenda when negotiating a programme for government.

And they work. Citizens' assemblies have helped governments to tackle issues that most are instinctively scared to. The Constitutional Convention aired the debate on same-sex marriage and in its report forced Government to deal with it.

It showed that when ordinary people - 'people like us' - considered the issue they didn't have a problem with same-sex marriage. This gave politicians more confidence to hold a referendum, and more confidence to air their own views in an atmosphere that isn't as highly politicised as had it been a normal government proposal.

But now the Citizens' Assembly process has been called into question. It turns out that seven of members of the assembly were selected by less than random means - they were acquaintances of a recruiter working for the polling company RedC. The seven have been removed from the assembly, and the chair of the assembly, Mary Laffoy, says these seven were not involved in the only controversial topic the assembly was asked to consider, abortion.

This caused a row in the Dail as anti-abortion TDs accused the Government of overseeing a 'stitch-up', and demanded that the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment be postponed until after a full inquiry. They argue the whole process gets its legitimacy from the randomness of the membership, and when that randomness is compromised, "the whole process is compromised".

Of course, this is nonsense. Health minister Simon Harris must have tried to suppress a yawn as the usual suspects stretched their lexicon beyond breaking in a desperate attempt to create controversy. They know that nothing makes the news like screaming, so scream they did.

The Government went full belt and braces when it conceded the Citizens' Assembly to Katherine Zappone in exchange for her support. They added in an Oireachtas committee.

The purpose might have been to delay things further. But while the Government might have been surprised at the result of the Citizens' Assembly, it must have been shocked at the outcome of the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth.

Conservative Fianna Fail and Fine Gael TDs came out in favour of repeal, and in favour of legislation considerably more liberal than the position they started out with.

The problems with the assembly are irrelevant to the Eighth Committee. It considered its own evidence, in far more detail than the Citizens' Assembly did or could have. The evidence and witnesses were distinct and independent of the assembly's, and so any flaws in the Citizens' Assembly are irrelevant. Harris was right to say that the whole process has moved on.

The other accusation levelled at the assembly was that it is not representative. They're right, it wasn't. But only the most naive supporters of these types of mini-publics could think that 100 people could be representative of the country's views.

You'd need more than 1,000 people in the assembly to achieve that. Even then it wouldn't be representative, because only certain types of people are willing to give up weekends to discuss political issues. This was a problem we found in an earlier experiment I and some colleagues carried out, called We the Citizens. It was difficult to get young mothers to show up, and even if you got the assembly to 'look' representative, it wasn't. The people who show up have much stronger views than an average citizen.

Managing the assembly can be tricky, and the chair has the difficult task of having to be faithful to the idea of respectful, open deliberation, of being seen not to favour one side of the argument, and the tight timeframe they're usually given. There is a natural tendency to want to move things on. There's also a natural desire to produce a report that Government could take seriously. Left to its own devices, an assembly would simultaneously announce support for tax cuts and spending increases.

That desire to move things on put me in an unusual position a few years ago of feeling sorry for Senator Ronan Mullen. When the debate on same-sex marriage had obviously concluded that it was in favour of the legalisation, opponents, perhaps cynically, but I felt sincerely, raised the issue of teachers being forced to teach a version of marriage that didn't accord with their views. It had been discussed, but the debate about having an addendum to the report that indicated that religious freedom should be respected was shut down a little too quickly.

The choice of experts was also significant. We found that when experts agreed, the members tended to follow the expert judgment.

While an assembly, I'm sure, doesn't set out to fix things by picking certain experts, they aren't always alert to the fact that they might be doing just that.

Too many of those involved in these democratic experiments act as uncritical cheerleaders of the process. Last week's news shows that these won't be perfect.

We have taken the right approach in giving them the power to suggest. But Government and the Oireachtas retain the power to ignore them. It's helpful then, that their proposals are given full critical attention. A referendum can do that, albeit imperfectly.

Eoin O'Malley is director of the MSc in Public Policy at DCU

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss

Editor's Choice