Are citizens’ assemblies little more than institutional band aids?

The following are some excerpts from an article by Tom Gerald Daly, from the University of Melbourne, in Pursuit (a publication of the University):

Australian democracy: crisis, resilience and renewal

Given the global rise in authoritarian populist parties and political forces that are opposed to the key tenets of liberal democracy, Australia’s own democracy appears on the surface to be in relatively good health.

For instance, most democracy assessment indices (although far from perfect as reflections of reality) have not registered any declines for Australian democracy for the past decade.

That said, a dominant view has taken hold that Australia’s political system is in crisis, paralysis and even decline. The public images of both the federal government and parliament has been tarnished by a variety of factors, especially the regularity with which Prime Ministers have been ousted between elections – since 2007 Australia has had six prime ministers, when in the previous 36 years (1971-2007) there were only six.

Some polls suggest that public faith in the political system and democracy has plummeted. A broad survey of polling data in December 2018 showed that fewer than 41 per cent of Australian citizens are satisfied with the way democracy works in Australia, a stark drop from 86 per cent in 2007.

There is a strong case then for some reform of our political institutions.

Australia’s political system is facing similar challenges to many democratic systems worldwide. The political-party system has undergone significant shifts over recent electoral cycles, including declining support for the two mainstream parties (the Liberal-National Party Coalition and Labor), and a rise in support for smaller parties.

The most recent data on voting volatility by the Australian National University shows that in 1987, some 72 per cent of voters always voted for the same party. But by 2016 that number had dropped to 40 per cent.

Many critics of Australia’s political system focus not just on how representative the existing structures are, but on the need for a thorough reform of how we manage citizens’ capacity to be heard. Increasingly, reformers look beyond parliament for solutions. Citizens’ assemblies, in particular, are increasingly touted worldwide as a way of re-energising public participation in the political process and improving policy itself.

Australia has seen a variety of experiments with citizens’ assemblies and participatory decision-making in the past decade, from the Citizens’ Parliament on strengthening Australia’s political system in 2009, to more localised current bodies including the Geelong Citizens’ Jury and Melbourne People’s Panel.

Australian reformers have also noted the global spread of bodies like this.

All of these developments prompt the question of whether the purpose of parliament as a mechanism of representative government needs a fundamental re-think to respond to contemporary challenges.

Regarding the promise of citizens’ assemblies, it is too early to tell whether current experiments will be successful. However, a range of recent analysis gives some pause for thought.

Experts on Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly have been cautious about seeing these bodies as a panacea. They identified multiple deficiencies and limitations in the operation of the Assembly.

Practical shortcomings included difficulties in even securing enough citizens to participate in the selection processes (which wasn’t quite as random as envisaged). More widely, some experts felt that the Assembly itself couldn’t shore up the severe inadequacies of the political system, and that its impact as an exercise in wider civic education is open to doubt.

We also need to consider whether these bodies are simply being used as ‘bypass institutions’ to avoid the difficult and overdue work of reforming existing underperforming political structures like parliament. That is, are we just creating a new body to replicate what, ideally, parliament should do?

Without dismissing the value of citizens’ assemblies out of hand, it is worthwhile to ask whether, to some extent, they are little more than institutional band aids?

For some, the challenge is how to achieve a good marriage of the two – maximising the potential of citizen participation without overstretching its capacity, or displacing the need for collective organs like parliament.

Like political parties, for all we may talk of reform, parliaments are here to stay in Australia, as well as elsewhere. That is all the more reason to seek reform that ensures parliaments can thrive as a truly representative organ worthy of a democratic state.

3 Responses

  1. Experts on Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly have been cautious about seeing these bodies as a panacea. They identified multiple deficiencies and limitations in the operation of the Assembly.

    That’s interesting, as the Irish CA is the template for the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Brexit CA: I’m particularly concerned that the CA is being proposed “in order to avert a no-deal Brexit”, as this could well be seen as a thinly-disguised attempt by Remainers to hijack Brexit, rather than a neutral body. In the words of Iain Duncan-Smith “I generally don’t criticise the archbishop but he shouldn’t allow himself to be tempted into what is essentially a very political issue right now. This assembly is designed to destabilise Boris Johnson’s position. As such I hope he will recognise the deeply political nature of this.”


  2. “Democracy” and “democratic state” are used by the author the same way some people are using “representativeness” for a panel appointed by lot that is far from any “representativeness”. A system of “electoral aristocracy”, even with some “democratic elements” as universal suffrage is no democracy at all. And all the Irish CA can do is deliver proposals to the elected body. And only those proposals who can serve the electoral system will pass. You only need to see what proposals the elected representatives are rejecting, not what they approve.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. […] resulted in increasing scrutiny of the ways in which they are constituted and run, as well as their institutional […]


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