Learning to love the Citizens’ Assembly

The Globe and Mail, January 23, 2007

Peter MacLeod

Is the Family Compact alive and well in Ontario? It must be. It’s the only way you can explain why the biggest democratic innovation in the province’s recent history is getting such a drubbing from certain corners of the academy and the press.

Since the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform was created last spring it’s gone in for some rough treatment. The preferred tone is sneering, petty and cynical. But it’s not that the critics are only going after the McGuinty government for creating the Assembly. Their real targets are the people who make up the Assembly and by extension all Ontario citizens, who clearly should be kept far away from politics or be taken to task when they forget their place.

It began when Christina Blizzard asked in the Toronto Sun last May whether “we really want a bunch of people who have so little going on in their lives that they are prepared to spend 18 weekends discussing proportional representation deciding the future of democracy in this province?"

Ian Urquhart from the Star struck a similar note in October when he derided the members of the Citizens’ Assembly as people "looking for some excitement in their humdrum lives.”

Peter Worthington from the Toronto Sun reminded us in December that “all governments waste money… and camouflage their waste with extravagant rhetoric about working in the public interest, for the ‘people.’”

He went on to call a Citizens’ Assembly hand guide for public meetings titled “Citizens Talking to Citizens” “ominous.”

So much for the Sun’s populism and the Star’s vaunted Atkinson principles – which defend among other things the importance of civic engagement.

Now Professor Nelson Wiseman from the University of Toronto is quoted in last Saturday's Star saying that “it’s ridiculous to have the assembly members chosen more or less at random, with many knowing little about electoral systems before their tutoring began last fall.”

Evidently, we now live in a time when Ontario’s academic and media elite finds it acceptable and even popular to mock lesser citizens who, for better or worse, choose to dedicate their time and accept an invitation to participate in public affairs.

They think it’s impossible that the members of the Assembly might be motivated by a sense of public duty, rather than the $150 weekend stipend or passing, minor celebrity.

Presumably they would have had as much contempt for the delegates who had nothing better to do than wile away their time in Charlottetown and Quebec City drafting the BNA Act, or the American patriots who let their farms and shops go idle while they traveled to Philadelphia to write a Constitution. Upstart slackers, the lot of them.

If this is the case, then Ontario needs much more than electoral reform. It needs revolution.

Or at least it needs to remember that it’s been here before.

No one is canvassing for pitchforks near Montgomery’s Tavern but it is time that some of the derision surrounding the Citizens’ Assembly was answered.

Professor Wiseman thinks its incredible that average citizens should be given this opportunity. “If you actually believe this is a way to make public policy, why not just have a random lottery and pick our MPPs that way?” he says.

Of course, no one is suggesting that we do – though the idea isn’t as laughable as Professor Wiseman makes it seem. As he’s well aware, the ancient Athenians used exactly this process to select their legislators who would serve brief terms before returning to private life. The Athenians believed this was the best way to make public policy – ensuring that no faction and no one came to have too strong a hand in public affairs.

And though it may not be our habit to fashion policy with the public’s direct input, the making of justice by a randomly selected jury of our peers remains the cornerstone of our legal system.

Still, Professor Wiseman asks "Who are these people?"

Evidently, being a taxpaying citizen isn’t enough. Nor is it significant that the Citizens’ Assembly is made up of almost exactly equal numbers of men and women – a virtue our Parliament and legislatures will probably never attain. In fact, membership in the Citizens’ Assembly is one of its most remarkable attributes. To read the biographies of its members, drawn from each of Ontario’s 103 ridings, is to see a highly representative microcosm of contemporary Ontario. They may not all have Ph.Ds (a few do), but I’ll put their backgrounds and experience up against the shallow gene pool of aging lawyers in the Ontario legislature any day.

Let’s also remember that the Citizens’ Assembly, much like a Royal Commission, is only permitted to make a recommendation to the government. The government has committed itself to holding a referendum if the Assembly recommends that the province adopt a new electoral system. It is Ontarians, not the Citizens’ Assembly, nor the Legislative Assembly that will have the final say on whether we change the way we elect provincial politicians.

Professor Wiseman says that polls surrounding B.C.'s 2005 referendum on electoral reform showed that most voters there didn't understand what was being pitched.

What he forgets to say is that those same polls showed that the more people knew about the Citizens’ Assembly, the more likely they were to support the Assembly’s recommendation.

Overwhelmingly, British Columbians were inclined to trust the work of a randomly selected assembly of their peers. The more they knew about it, the more they found to like about it. This correlation is great news for democracy – but bad news for politics as usual.

Of course, none of this is to say that there aren’t legitimate grounds for criticism. The government was slow to announce the referendum threshold and it has yet to announce its plans for a public information campaign in the event that a new electoral system is proposed. These are important decisions and they should have been set out at the beginning of the assembly process.

That said, there’s no sense thinking that the government or a new assembly is going to get everything right the first time to bat. The Ontario legislature in its various incarnations has had the benefit of more than 200 years of incremental reform. The Citizens’ Assembly has had nine months.

So why are the likes of Blizzard, Worthington, Urquhart and Wiseman so contemptuous? Why don’t they cut it some slack?

Because for now the real story isn’t whether Ontario gets a new electoral system. It’s the creation of a new political mechanism that bypasses their turf. Comfortable drawing political caricatures and throwing brickbats, they’re confronted with a Citizens’ Assembly that they can’t quite understand and certainly can’t intimidate. So they ignore the differences and caricaturize its members as all the same. Small. Bored. Lonely. Ignorant. Plebes.

What’s most remarkable is how out of step the big provincial press is with their local colleagues. From the perspective of the Windsor Star or the North Bay Nugget, the Citizens’ Assembly is a good news story of local citizens traveling to Toronto to represent their community in this review.

True to form, in Toronto, the story is, “My God, who are these people and why are they here?”

Which is sad because the Citizens’ Assembly is the best reply we’ve had to the growing concern that citizens are increasingly uninterested in politics. It’s a powerful rebuke to those who still believe politics should be an elite sport.

If the work of the Citizens’ Assembly proves anything, it’s that it has great promise as complementary political institution capable of raising public awareness and engaging the public in a non-partisan, inclusive deliberation on long-range issues.

Right now I’d be very interested in what a provincial Citizens’ Assembly on Energy Security or a National Citizens’ Assembly on the Environment or Childcare might conclude.

It’s with a sense of great potential that I hope that this will be Ontario’s first Citizens’ Assembly. Its critics clearly hope it will be our last. Without condescending to the citizens who have stepped forward to serve their province, perhaps they could tell us more precisely why?

Peter MacLeod is a convenor at the Students’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, a non-partisan parallel initiative that is working with Ontario high school students to review Ontario’s electoral system. www.studentsassembly.ca