Public opinion of politicians is that their work produces more hot air than it does decisions. This is particularly true on controversial issues. Most politicians are more concerned with their image, and their chances of re-election, than they are about serving their constituents. The result is that they take decisions on the easy issues, and rarely on the difficult ones. Unfortunately, this problem is neither isolated nor new, and is endemic in all politicians, regardless of political party affiliation, regime philosophy, or country.
A recent article in The Economist magazine reported that a very old idea, Citizens’ Assemblies, has been given new life in several parts of the world because, as the article states, “Politicians….have no understanding of, or interest in, the lives and concerns of ordinary people.”
The article cites the creation of citizens’ assemblies in Athens in 403 BC. Apparently they were created because such a body “would be given time to ponder difficult decisions, unmolested by silver-tongued orators and the schemes of ambitious politicians.”
Things don’t change very much!
Ireland is a great example of how present-day citizens’ assemblies can work. For years, Irish politicians held firm to view that divorce, abortion and same-sex marriage were absolutely taboo. Their stance was based on the dogma of the Catholic Church and it was quite a surprise when it turned out that a huge majority of Irish citizens approved of all three in a country-wide referendum. Being politicians, they quickly changed their minds, when the possibility of losing an election reared its ugly head, and those three issues are now legal in Ireland, despite the Catholic Church’s objections.
Citizens’ assemblies are now active in many parts of the world, and at many levels. The most successful ones are those that have a clear question to debate. Should gay marriage be legalised? How can our City live within its means? What kind of country are we seeking to build?
However, there is a caveat. Such assemblies must have the support of the politicians because assemblies are not authorized to legislate. The politicians must also undertake to give serious consideration to assembly recommendations.
Given that caveat, it is perhaps surprising that many citizens’ assemblies appear to be working well. An implied threat of losing elections might be an effective strategy for assemblies to obtain politicians’ compliance.
There is danger in all this, of course. The assemblies could get too big and too political, and that would create a worse situation. We would then have even more politicians fighting and avoiding hard decisions. Carefully designed assembly structures can avoid this pitfall.
Citizens’ Assemblies are a well-tried remedy to today’s politicians’ inabilities to deal with important issues.
In a way, this concept is a return to the roots and philosophy of democracy.