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

[Repost from http://www.sortitionfoundation.org/canada_citizens_assembly ]

Justin 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.

6 Responses

  1. >the informed deliberation of ordinary people

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding was that both assemblies relied on the voluntary principle. If so then although they may have looked like “ordinary people” it would have been heavily biased towards those wishing to change the status quo. If so, then the decision to reject in the referendum would be more a sign of conservatism rather than ignorance (although it has been argued that both characteristics are synonymous).


  2. Hi Brett,

    In principle you are right that ratification by referendum is a non-democratic procedure which could undermine decisions made by a democratic allotted body. However, unfortunately there is very little reason to believe that a body constituted by elected politicians and their associates for the purpose of reforming elections would be created with honest intentions to make it democratic. It seems much more likely that the setup would be designed to obtain results that are desirable to those who constitute the body. Given that this is the case, it is not clear to me that ratification by a referendum is really worse than not having one.

    Specifically, I don’t think there is much reason to suppose that the reforms proposed by the BC and Ontario bodies would have improved Canadian government significantly. I am not sure that in general “proportional representation” systems or STV systems produce better results than FPTP systems. The fact that the allotted bodies so overwhelmingly supported those reforms raises suspicions of manipulation. Why did neither of them, for example, suggest using sortition instead of elections?

    In general some sort of a process in which an allotted body learns to exercise its power independently of elites and proves itself worthy of the public trust seems an indispensable prelude to assuming that it is in fact a representative of public interest.


  3. Check out Macleans magazine’s stories about sortition and electoral reform in Canada. There were not two but three referenda on electoral reform. The first was in one of the maritime provinces. This article sorts out the elements of the debate, complete with videos: http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/electoral-reform/


  4. John, thanks for the link and correction.

    Yoram, I also agree with you that MMP systems (like in Germany and New Zealand, I believe) and other proportional systems still leave the deliberation to politicians and are therefore not much of an improvement. It is not that I’m arguing for electoral reform, just that the more Citizens’ Assemblies that occur, the more evidence we have that such bodies can work, and that they are considered legitimate forums (even by politicians who mandate them). I think the CAs on electoral reform would have had a very narrow mandate to consider only alternate voting systems.

    Keith, I take your point that any system involving voluntary participation will have some self-selection bias, but the use of random selection to invite participants is completely different to open, self-selected assemblies, and I think this is crucial. I very much doubt anyone attending the CAs on electoral reform in Canada had any idea what MMP was beforehand (I could be wrong of course, but without pre-polling data from participants we can only guess). So I don’t believe the attendees would have only comprised those seeking change.


  5. Brett,

    My point is that depending on how the allotted body is set up, it may not be more democratic than elected bodies, and therefore it should not be trusted blindly by the people. Ratification of fundamental one-off decisions such as changing the way the parliament is selected therefore makes sense.

    It is probably better to first use sortition in the context of less momentous decisions – oversight over elected bodies, a legislative chamber, etc.


  6. Brett:

    >the use of random selection to invite participants is completely different to open, self-selected assemblies . . . so I don’t believe the attendees would have only comprised those seeking change.

    I don’t have the figures to hand but seem to recall that there was a huge gap between those invited and those who accepted the invitation. This would suggest that the second sortition was based on an unrepresentative subset of the target population — if you were satisfied with the status quo, then why would you want to participate in a discussion on fundamental change? I think it would also be biased in favour of those with some understanding of terms like “constitution”, “representation” etc. One could mount an argument that such people should have a privileged place in a convention advocating constitutional change, but it wouldn’t be at all surprising if those participating in the subsequent referendum rejected the proposals (without recourse to arguments on indoctrination by political elites).


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