Koop: Allotted assemblies allow the elected to renege on campaign promises

Kevin Mooney wrote to point out an article in the Ottawa Citizen. In the article Royce Koop, an associate professor in the Department of Political Studies at the University of Manitoba, argues against repeating the electoral reform process carried out in British Columbia and Ontario provinces.

Koop makes two arguments. The first is the somewhat tautological point that “tak[ing power] from elected representatives and giv[ing it] to the people […] threatens representative democracy by taking decision-making power from MPs and handing it to citizens, [while] representative democracy is best served by allowing MPs to represent the interests of their constituents through their votes, rather than by seizing MPs’ power and handing it to citizens”.

The more interesting argument (which to a large extent is in fact contradictory to the first one) is a much more practical one:

[T]he use of citizens assemblies and referendums would have the effect of allowing politicians to escape from being accountable to the public for their actions.

Note that both provincial electoral reform measures that followed this proposed process failed in referendums. Neither proposal could meet the high thresholds for approval set by the BC and Ontario governments. All the hard work and deliberation of the BC and Ontario citizens’ assemblies was subsequently dashed by the people.

Trudeau is undoubtedly aware of these failures. The Liberal Party was handsomely rewarded by Canada’s single-member plurality electoral system in this election. The Liberals received just under 40 percent of the vote, but 54 percent of the seats. Despite that most Canadians voted for parties other than the Liberals, Trudeau can now govern with a majority government.

Given this, one suspects that Trudeau has developed a newfound affection for Canada’s electoral system, and that his advisors may be considering how he can escape from his promise to change that system. [The allotted assembly process is] the ideal method by which to do so: a process that absorbs significant energy and attention, but which is ultimately probably destined to fail. If this process was followed and a proposed reform was rejected in a referendum, Trudeau would be allowed to escape accountability for not keeping his election promise.

Elected officials should not be provided with this escape hatch. Trudeau […] should introduce legislation reforming the electoral system and Liberal MPs should carry out their roles as elected representatives by voting either for or against that legislation. If they vote against the proposal, then Canadians will know to hold them accountable for breaking their promise.

8 Responses

  1. This is, unfortunately, an argument worth considering seriously.

    McGuinty evaded his promises for electoral reform precisely as described, using the Citizen Assembly process as a shield while doing everything necessary, in collusion with the other parties, we should remember, to not publicize the Citizen Assembly process, thus guaranteeing its ultimate failure by referendum.

    The electoral reform promised in Ontario did not fail because the Citizen’s Assembly functioned badly. It failed because no one knew that it happened.

    If Trudeau appointed a Citizen’s Assembly to propose democratic changes, chances are very good that this Assembly will garner a very large amount of attention. In light of that attention, chances are good that in a referendum on proportional representation, the political parties would have to take a stand either for or against proposed changes. The NDP and Liberal party would find it politically uncomfortable at a minimum to opposed proportional representation in that context, but they might anyway, and we all know that referenda are no guarantee of intelligent decision making no matter what. Proportional Representation would have a real chance of defeat in a referendum, in other words, no matter how model the Citizen Assembly process that created a recommendation for it.

    Tactically, therefore, while pushing for a Citizen Assembly may be the most likely way to get a recommendation for Proportional Assembly in the Commons (and, I hope, random selection in the Senate, either of the Senators themselves, or of a jury to select Senators), the most likely way to get such recommendations implemented may very well be, rather than a referendum, an appeal to the ego/conscience of our new democratically elected emperor to do the deed himself.

    Still, based on his imperial style to date, and the Liberal party support for the concept that the leader alone is able to create party policy, no matter what the views of the membership, it would seem very out of keeping for Trudeau to implement Proportional Representation of his own accord, especially given that he wants to implement a ranked ballot, a move that would seriously diminish the chances of effective democratic reforms such as deliberative assemblies and proportional representation.

    My own view is that an independently organized Citizen’s Assembly duly randomly selected should run a shadow recommendation process to whatever process Trudeau decides to propose. This independent assembly could engage more public involvement and attention, keeping the pressure on Trudeau to act ethically, and it might also be the best vehicle to demand that the government implement Proportional Representation without resorting to a referendum. Further, it might be the best way to legitimize a Yes vote in the event that a referendum on proportional representation does occur.


  2. I certainly agree that the second argument, unlike the first, cannot be dismissed.

    Personally I don’t think that PR is clearly better than FPTP, so I don’t care much about the particulars of this issue, but there is a broader point here when it comes to sortition. If sortition is just another tool in the hands of the elected – who can create an allotted body whenever they want and set it up in whatever way want – then it is not democratic.

    Sortition is not some sort of a magic bullet. Sortition is necessary for democracy but it is very far from being sufficient. Unless the system is well designed, the fact that it has an allotment component – even a significant one – is not a guarantee that it is democratic.

    I think this very important point is often ignored (or denied) by sortition advocates. Those of us who are democracy-through-sortition advocates must be very mindful of this fact.


  3. >My own view is that an independently organized Citizen’s Assembly duly randomly selected should run a shadow recommendation process to whatever process Trudeau decides to propose. This independent assembly could engage more public involvement and attention, keeping the pressure on Trudeau to act ethically.

    That’s very much the strategy that John Burnheim is advocating in his forthcoming book on demarchic committees. These should function in the voluntary public sphere and will constrain the behaviour of elected politicians via the medium of public opinion.


  4. Of late there has been discussion and support on this blog for the idea of first introducing sortition as a source of sober second thought on legislation brought forward by the elected chamber. Canada with its new and improved (hopefully) Liberal government is in an ideal place to experiment by selecting our Senators randomly. I agree there needs to be an independent movement in Canada to get this going. I am not aware of anything at the moment unfortunately. If anyone has any leads on Canadian sortition activists or organizations, please post.
    Thanks, Kevin Mooney


  5. Kevin, I’m in Toronto, you?

    As you may have noticed on this blog, in 97/98 I wrote a series of articles on how citizen juries can make modern societies far more democratic. I returned to that unfinished writing task in September this year, and have finished two articles so far (both published soon after being written). The only sortition “action” I’m taking for now is writing (and reading).


  6. Hi Simon, I’m in Red Deer. I did read your excellent articles – I wish I had known about them back in 97 but then I was busy with kids and career and wasn’t actively looking. I have been retired a bit over a year and spend most of my time with 4 grand kids and the reminder researching and reading. I hope to start writing at some point. I have been very inspired by the Bolivian school age project that is nearing completion of its second year also mentioned on this blog.


  7. Kevin, I’ve not been to Red Deer but was born in Edmonton (not that I have any memory of living there as my parents moved to England for my dad’s next university degree before I was one).


  8. Hey Simon, I lived in Edmonton while completing my degree. Great city and always will be my second home. We go back every year to take in some of the summer festivals. I have been in communication with the Sortition Foundation – http://www.sortitionfoundation.org/ I am thinking of setting up a Canadian Chapter. If you – or anyone else reading this – are interested, please email me at kevmoo@outlook.com. By for now.


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