“The desire to be involved, to be part of the decision-making process that affects our own destiny, is so powerful, it’s one of the most powerful human feelings.”
— Daniel Yankelovich (public opinion analyst)
In last month’s column, I mentioned the possible use of a citizens’ assembly to decide on the direction of resource use in Alberta (after also seeing it mentioned in an earlier column written by ATB’s senior analyst, Robert Roach).
But what exactly is a citizen’s assembly? I wrote that it is a random sampling of citizens that makes a recommendation on policy. But how? And why?
A couple of examples have been the Citizens’ Assembl[ies] on Electoral Reform in B.C. and Ontario (from 2004 and 2007 respectively). In B.C., the process included a random selection of one man and one woman from each of the province’s electoral districts (however, it wasn’t quite like jury selection, in that those people who had no interest in the electoral system — or who had no interest in spending 12 weeks studying the intricacies of it — didn’t have to have their name in the hat).
The resulting 161 people then spent those weeks in a “learning phase,” which involved “presentations by experts, group discussions and access to a range of source materials.” (Source: Wikipedia)
And finally, because changing the electoral system was a constitutional matter, the recommendation of the assembly went to a provincewide referendum. And that’s where the major shortcoming of the process reared its ugly head.
After studying the various possible electoral systems (being the existing first-past-the-post, plus a couple of different proportional representation systems), the assembly deliberated. And 93 per cent of them decided to recommend a system of proportional representation for B.C.’s future elections.
The provincewide referendum, however, had other ideas. Only 57.7 per cent of the wider public wanted a change. And that fell just short of the 60 per cent needed for such a constitutional change.
So a random sampling of citizens can study something on our behalf for weeks on end, and make a solid recommendation to us (we, who are mostly sitting at home, watching The Bachelorette and NASCAR races). And then we, in turn, have the freedom to completely ignore their recommendation. Does that make any sense?
However, on the matter of how Albertans want to exploit our natural resources, we are on firmer footing. For example, a citizens’ assembly could discuss whether we want to expand tarsands production from the current two million barrels per day to a forecast five million barrels per day (which seems to be what China and the U.S. and Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants).
And since this isn’t a constitutional question, the recommendation from a citizen’s assembly could go straight into law. Or it could go straight on to Premier Jim Prentice’s desk (who would be pretty foolish to ignore it). But it wouldn’t have to go through the humiliation of a referendum. And I assume that most of us would trust what a random sampling of our fellow Albertans (who are not being distracted by The Bachelorette and NASCAR) would come up with, if they put their minds to it.
But why not just leave such questions to the politicians? Or industry lobbyists?
Because their time horizon is so short. Politicians rarely see past the next election. Lobbyists can’t see past the next quarterly report.
Mind you, our individual time horizons are fairly short, also. Research has shown that we would much prefer to have a dollar in the pocket today than a dollar in the pocket five years from now (i.e., we have a high discount rate).
The question then becomes: what kind of entity would have a low discount rate? What kind of entity would care the most about the kind of province that our great-grandchildren will inherit? Research has shown that local communities tend to see furthest into the future. A citizens’ assembly isn’t exactly local. But like a community, it would have face-to-face patterns of communication, and when you’re dealing with someone face-to-face, it’s harder to ignore them, and it’s harder for you not to imagine yourself in their shoes. And unlike a distracted individual voter in a referendum, participants in an assembly are less likely to ignore important facts (such as the forecast extinction of Alberta’s boreal caribou population, as a result of all of the frantic development up north).
In other words, a citizens’ assembly is exactly the antidote we need for our dysfunctional systems of governance, and our toxic political rivalries.
Evan Bedford is a local environmentalist. Direct comments, questions and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit the Energy and Ecology website at www.evanbedford.com.