For a couple of centuries, New York City was politically dominated by the Democratic Party machine known as “Tammany Hall”. All-powerful and frankly corrupt, Tammany was the machine through which immigrants, particularly the Irish, rose through the ranks of New York politics. You could almost call it the Fianna Fáil of old New York.
With such unsavory types in charge, it was little wonder that the rich, protestant New York establishment viewed politics with distaste. In the 1890’s they decided something had to be done, and set up “Good Government Clubs” around the city. Well-to-do and high-minded, they brimmed, despite their protestations of non-partisanship, with unacknowledged political and class motivations. Though corruption was the target, the “Goo Goos” as they were known, were essentially objecting to the wrong kind of people (poor, catholic, often recently immigrated) being in power.
After all, what is “good government”? Every political party has it’s own idea of what kind of government is good. Arguing about which kind is best is what we have politics for. “Good Government” is a normative term, a way of presenting your own views as unquestionably true. Others engage in partisan bickering. You are simply doing what’s right.
Our own Goo-Goos have been having quite the time of it recently. Calls for a national government have died away in the wake of the last general election, but the lure of a politics that denies being political is still strong. When the Democracy Now movement failed to get off the ground, some worthies, mostly hailing from academia, decided to effect reform by extra-parliamentary means.
Funded by philanthropist Chuck Feeney, We the Citizens announced a series of events around the country. Citizens were invited to attend and, facilitated by political scientists, air their thoughts on what’s wrong with Ireland. The twitter stream from these events makes interesting reading. There was not one mention that I can recall of the possibility of debt default. Unemployment too, was not a hot topic. What we did get was a lot of reinventing the wheel. Some suggested that county council meetings be held in public (they already are). Another citizen called for a Bill of Rights & Respnsibilities (we already have one). Perhaps most bizarre was the suggestion “parents should quit telling children not to use their brains”. Well, yes. If parents have been doing that, they should indeed stop. But what was striking about the conversation was how institution-focused it was. There was a tendency towards topics like, say, reform of the Seanad, or changes to the electoral system. It was all, dare I say it, a bit Political Science-y.
These events were arranged with a view to setting the agenda for a Citizen’s assembly, to be held after the roadshow had concluded. I was under the impression that I had voted for a citizen’s assembly, Dáil Eireann, a few months ago, but I guess if 100 unelected people in a room want to give themselves that title, then they are free to do so.
In the run-up to the Assembly, some background was given on the We The Citizens website.
Professor David Farrell, Academic Director of We the Citizens, explains that citizens’ assemblies have been used successfully in other countries….
“I have some personal experience of this, having participated as an expert witness to a number of them (in British Columbia, Ontario and the Netherlands), and I’m delighted that we have the opportunity to demonstrate how this method can also work here”, added Professor Farrell.
It’s worth taking a look at the history of the assemblies to which the Professor refers. The Ontario Assembly (from where We The Citizens appear to have pinched their name) was mandated by the Provincial government, and explicitly geared towards a change in the electoral system, rather than a more general remit of reform. Its proposals for change were put to the people in a referendum, and rejected by an impressive 63% of voters. An Assembly member commented, Goo Gooishly, “There’s an awful lack of understanding on the proposition”
The British Columbia Assembly was constituted along similar lines, and though its recommendations gained the support of a majority of votes, it failed to reach the 60% threshold required to pass. In a second referendum (holding second referenda on the same topic is very Goo Goo), support collapsed to 39%.
The Dutch Assembly did not even lead to a referendum. Its report is gathering dust somewhere in the Hague. I disagree with Prof Farrell that these experiences are examples of how citizen’s assemblies have been successfully used, but I imagine he defines “success” differently to me.
So how was the Assembly to be selected? The organizers were a bit fuzzy on this. I asked their twitter account a few times what pool or database they would select membership from, and drew a blank. The standard line was that the membership would be a randomly selected representative cross-section of all areas if Irish life. But “random”, “cross-section” and “representative” do not mean the same thing.
On 8th June, Suzy Byrne reported that one Assembly member was contacted and invited to take part by his friend who worked in MRBI, who carried out the selection for We The Citizens. MRBI said this was a coincidence.
When Fianna Fail activist and commentator Jonny Fallon was invited (he declined), this too was a coincidence.
But look at the selection process and it becomes clear that nothing, at any step of the way, was random. The sample from which the members were chosen was a mere 1,001 people. This itself was, say We The Citizens, “nationally representative, and “was quota controlled using the latest CSO estimates for age, gender and region”. We are already a long way from randomness here. Having chosen this sample, rigged to fit somebody’s definition of “representative” (I would love to hear what that definition is), MRBI phoned them, and asked were they interested in taking part. Those who thus self-selected were further refined for “representativeness”, before the final 100 people being chosen. A bunch of randomers this assembly was not.
And so, this past weekend, 100 anonymous people gathered to tell us how to run the country. In case they strayed off the reservation, We The Citizens made sure assembly members were addressed by plenty of academics. Most of these “expert witnesses” inevitably worked in the Political Science area.
If you asked a randomly selected group of people what they thought was wrong with the country, what would they say? Banks, jobs, too little public spending, or too much? Eroded sovereignty, trouble brewing in the north? All of these things, probably, and much more.
If you spend a year pushing your pet ideas of political reform in the media, (to which you are never short of access), then very un-randomly select 100 people, put them in a room and make them listen to lectures from people in the same academic field as you, what spring to their lips are subjects remarkable for their similarity to those aired on the politicalreform.ie blog.
As to the substance of these recommedations, I do not have a whole lot to say. They’re not even bad ideas, a lot of them – though the eagerness to have unelected experts running the country is very Goo Goo.
So what will happen to the report? Here’s my guess: Having invested no capital in the initiative, but also wishing to be seen as listening to the people, the government will thank We The Citizens for their ideas, and put the report on a shelf somewhere. Having a programme for government of their own already decided upon, they will carry on attempting to implement it. Some of their initiatives (gender quotas, for eg.) will be similar to those advocated by We The Citizens. If We The Citizens wish to take some credit for these, the government will not mind all that much.
And so everyone goes home, feeling an enthused, patriotic glow. The Citizens were engaged. The Ship of State sails uncertainly on. Its deckchairs have never been so rationally and responsibly rearranged.