Prime Minister Justin Trudeau left no doubts in Canadians’ minds during the election campaign, having said more than once that the 2015 election would be the last one held under the first-past-the-post system. His plan is to convene an all-party Parliamentary committee to examine different reform options over 18 months.
“Illegitimate!” cry the critics. They insist that, without the seal of public approval offered by a referendum, no such sweeping change to our democracy could be considered legitimate. Others voice the concern that the Liberals will lean towards preferential or “ranked” ballots — a system that might give them a political advantage — rather than proportional representation.
What we haven’t talked about yet is whether ‘ordinary’ citizens will get a say in this debate. They should. Trudeau has an opportunity to demonstrate his commitment to change by democratizing the decision-making process.
A ‘citizens’ assembly’ on electoral reform could be comprised of randomly selected people who represent Canada in terms of geography, gender, age, minority and socio-economic background. Assembly members would be given the time and the resources to weigh different types of electoral systems and propose the one they think would be best — not for a specific political party, or for one part of the country, but for Canada.
The assembly would have access to evidence and experts to inform them and help shape their decisions. An independent organisation — for example, MASS LBP, which runs citizens’ assemblies across the country — could be responsible for running the operation.
These are people who don’t have to worry about re-election, who won’t fret about what one system or another might do to a particular party’s election prospects.
There could be reasonable justification for making participation compulsory. Many of us, as citizens, have lost our sense of civic duty, often emphasizing only our rights. Perhaps this could be one way for government to try to reinstate our sense of responsibility. This process would lead to a naturally representative sample of Canadians. Voluntary participation could be arranged through a system similar to the one used to pick juries in other countries.
As I argue in my recent book, The Populist Signal, having a non-partisan, diverse and representative group of people giving politicians advice on such an important subject brings many benefits. These are people who don’t have to worry about re-election, who won’t fret about what one system or another might do to a particular party’s election prospects. Of course, it’s unreasonable to expect that there would not be some members thinking along party lines, but this risk is small. Party members make up less than two per cent of the Canadian population; the rest are floating voters, individuals who tune in at election time, or those who don’t bother about politics at all.
A vast amount of research shows that diverse groups tend to make better decisions than more homogenous ‘expert’ groups. Although Trudeau wants to include members from all of the parties in the proposed working group on electoral reform, he’s still talking about taking advice from only one sphere of society — politicians. It may have gender balance, or even be representative of minorities — but it’s unlikely that any all-party group can represent the true diversity of Canadians’ experiences, education levels and economic statuses.
So why not have a referendum? Those who argue in favour say all Canadians should have a say in this decision. Why, they ask, should we leave things up to a small representative group when we can just ask everyone?
This is why: Referenda tend to squeeze complex issues into binary, yes-no questions that people answer before they’ve had the time to consider all the factors that go into an informed decision. The average person isn’t going to spend hours poring over political science texts, or seeking out experts for advice, and won’t have the time to weigh up the costs and benefits of various systems.
Evidence also shows that it tends to be the best-educated and the most well-off in society who participate in political activities — voting, protesting, campaigning or community organizing. By leaving the process ‘open’ to all Canadians, a referendum would only end up consulting the ‘usual suspects’ — the ones who already have a political voice. Marginalised groups like the poor, minorities and young people often need an extra push to get involved. Their views should not be discounted.
A citizens’ assembly, on the other hand, slows the process down — creating the time and space for a group of representative people to reflect, deliberate and decide together.
Note: This article was originally published on iPolitics.ca