Citizens’ Assemblies let the elite skew public debate

‘A Citizens’ Assembly is a useful way for politicians to unload a toxic issue onto 110 random citizens who will never face an electorate’

Melanie McDonagh

Citizens’ Assemblies—right now they’re the answer for every tricky issue, aren’t they? Everywhere from Australia to Holland exciting consultative exercises are underway. In Britain, six Commons committees have recommended establishing a Citizens’ Assembly to consider climate change. It was one of the demands of Extinction Rebellion during its week of action.

It works like this: 30,000 people have been randomly invited from the general UK population to take part and, out of the ones who actually reply, 110 will be invited to go to Birmingham for four weekends in February and March. There they will deliberate on how to meet the UK’s target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and agree policies to put before Parliament. That means they will be thinking about issues like petrol prices that have quite a big effect on a lot of people—the sort of thing that in democracies is usually decided by elected politicians.

Anyone recommending this deliberative innovation brings up the example of Ireland. A Citizens’ Assembly there looked at the fraught issue of abortion, as well as climate change issues. Justice Mary Laffoy, who chaired it, said that it was a model for every other polity addressing divisive issues.

I take a different view: it is a way for part of the elite to skew the debate. To produce a particular outcome from a Citizens’ Assembly, choose with care how you recruit to it, who you get to chair it, and who you allow to present their case to the members.

Undeniably, a Citizens’ Assembly is a useful way for politicians to unload a toxic issue onto 110 random citizens who will never face an electorate. It’s a cross between a focus group—a representative selection of voters—and a parliamentary commission, with expert witnesses.

John McGuirk, one of the leaders of the campaign against repealing the Eighth Amendment to the Irish constitution (which protected the life of the unborn), says the assembly’s purpose was “to do for politicians that which politicians did not have the courage to do themselves”. Very few politicians in 2017 wanted to be seen to propose abortion liberalisation. This was a way of dodging responsibility.

Another problem is how to choose your 110 citizens (99 in the Irish case). Random selection? Balance of age and gender? Geographic spread? Political views? Each produces slightly different outcomes. In the Irish case the brief was to be broadly representative of society. But 11 of the 26 counties were unrepresented: so no regional diversity. In Britain, even with the most scrupulously fair selection, 110 people cannot represent 66 million.

Jury service (the closest equivalent) is mandatory. But who exactly is going to give up four weekends to go to Birmingham? Not those with busy jobs and family responsibilities. People with time on their hands and the politically obsessed—most probably. The partisan are more likely to take part than the average citizen. “All forums like these suffer from response bias,” says McGuirk. In Ireland, a couple of participants even tweeted that they regarded the assembly as a chance to overturn the pro-life amendment.

Everything depends on who chairs the forum and who chooses the bodies that get to speak to it. At one session of the Irish body, pro-life and pro-choice organisations put their case. But in the meetings prior to that, the supposedly neutral organisations giving expert views included the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and the Guttmacher Institute (which derives from the Planned Parenthood Federation).

Patricia Casey, a professor of psychiatry at University College Dublin, refused an invitation, saying that she was being brought in to give an illusion of balance to an agenda that was skewed to the pro-choice side. Six women with abortion experiences came in to testify. As David Quinn, chair of socially conservative think tank, the Iona Institute, observed: “The focus of the evidence was on the situation of women to the detriment of the foetus.” So, the experts on, say, pregnancy after rape weren’t balanced by corresponding experts on foetal development. Judge for yourself: an online site for the Citizens’ Assembly has links to all the submissions.

The same Citizens’ Assembly that proposed liberalising abortion also deliberated on climate change: their recommendations here were radical too, professing a willingness to pay more tax for carbon-intensive activities and suggesting a special tax on greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. This would penalise beleaguered beef farmers who live in deprived rural areas. Ministers have not embraced these suggestions, because unlike abortion, it does not suit them.

If the 110 British citizens are assembled by the equivalent of George Monbiot and addressed by Greta Thunberg plus the Vegan Society, with no corresponding contributions from beef farmers and economists about the impact of the proposals on the cost of living, and moderated by the likes of Caroline Lucas, I think we can guess the outcome.

An assembly is an ingenious fix. But it is no substitute for a much cleverer device that lets citizens of all regions, ages, classes and both sexes express a view on how they should be governed: it is called a general election.

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