Citizens Assembly proposed by Fine Gael

A Citizens Assembly? Why?
A Citizens Assembly? Why?

Fine Gael have produced proposals for Dail Reform which include a commitment to forming a Citizens Assembly to “undertake a detailed review of a limited number of key issues over an extended time period”.

This is somewhat similar to the Constitutional Convention, but whereas the Constitutional Convention was composed both of citizens and Oireachtas members, the Citizens Assembly would be composed entirely of citizens.

The remit of the Assembly would be quite limited, in that they would only be able to consider proposals tabled by the Government, and recommendations would only be referred to Oireachtas committees. The types of issues it would consider would include Seanad Reform, Climate Change, the 8th Amendment (abortion), the power of Oireachtas committees and (for some unknown reason) how we deal with old people.

This is interesting on a number of levels.

It shows that there is some concern among the political parties about the gap that is continually widening between the professional political class and ordinary people. That’s welcome.

On the other hand, its further evidence of how deeply flawed Government by elections is becoming. Issues like Climate Change and abortion have been around for decades. Everybody knows what needs to be done. The problem is that no politician who depends on being re-elected wants to deal with these issues, as they know that dealing with them in any meaningful risks alienating vast swathes of the electorate.

The question therefore arises that if elected politicians need ordinary citizens selected at random to provide cover for their decisions, why not just let the ordinary citizens selected at random make the decisions in the first place?

You can view the proposals in full here.

Elected to the Seanad?

Senator Averil Power and her former benefactor, Michael Martin.

The Seanad is the upper house in the Irish parliament, the Oireachtas.

After each election to the lower house, the Dail, an election to the Seanad occurs.

The role of the Seanad is to provide oversight of the decisions of the Dail. For that reason, the membership of the Seanad is drawn mainly from panels of candidates who have recognised expertise. Additionally, the right to vote in Seanad elections is reserved for members of the Dail, County Councillors and university graduates.

There are 60 members of the Seanad. Of these, 43 are elected from “panels” by members of the Dail and County Councillors, 6 are elected by graduates of Trinity College and the National University of Ireland, and 11 are appointed by An Taoiseach.

The design of the Seanad in this manner is (arguably) reasonable. It may appear elitist, but its role is one of oversight only, not law making, and to extend the right to participate in Seanad elections to all citizens would be in effect to create a second Dail.

However, the design and intent of the Seanad is very different from how it actually operates. In fact, the Seanad is a very good example of how a democratic institution, which was designed in good faith, has become corrupted by the electoral process.

Take the example of Senator Averil Power.

After spending some time in the employment of the State to advise Fianna Fail Minister, Mary Hannafin, Power was nominated as a Seanad candidate in 2011 by the new Fianna Fail leader, Michael Martin, and was “elected” to the Seanad from the Industrial and Commercial panel of candidates, which means she was elected by members of the Dail and County Councillors.

During 2015, Power left Fianna Fail, but did not resign her Seanad seat. In the General Election of 2016, she ran as a non-party candidate in Dublin Bay North, but did not get elected. A week later, she announced her intention to seek re-election to the Seanad, but this time from the Trinity College panel of candidates.

This side-stepping from one panel to the next provides an insight into how corrupt the process of electing members of the Seanad has become. If Power was elected from the Industrial and Commercial panel in 2011, it would seem to make sense that she would seek election from that panel again. Why would she switch to a different panel?

The reason is that she was not actually elected in 2011. At each Seanad election, the political parties decide who among their number are to be “elected” to the Seanad. They generally pick former members of the Dail who have just lost their seats in Dail elections, or newcomers with the potential to be elected to the Dail at the next election.

In 2011, Power fell into the later group. Fianna Fail decided that they would like to increase her profile and that a seat in the Seanad would achieve this. Fianna Fail Councillors and members of the Dail were instructed, under the power of the Whip, to vote for Averil Power, and she was “elected” to the Seanad without difficulty. This system isn’t peculiar to Fianna Fail. All of the other parties operate it in the same way. It even goes as far as the party hierarchy examining ballot papers before they are submitted.

Having left Fianna Fail in 2015, Power is not able to rely on the Whip to push votes her way, so there is no point in her seeking election from the Industrial and Commercial panel. Instead, as a graduate of Trinity College, she has put her name on that panel, in the hope that her profile is high enough among graduates to get more votes than the other candidates. She is currently running video ads on Facebook showing her walking across the courtyard in Trinity and claiming to have a reputation for defending education in the hope that such claims will ring true with graduate voters.

Power is not alone in this behaviour. There are currently lots of ex-members of the Dail and other political hopefuls seeking to get the nod from their party hierarchy for a 5 year berth in the Seanad.

The fact that we are so indifferent to to this is symptomatic of the degree to which politics, and government, have become something that is separate from us, which was never the way it was meant to be.

Against Elections – David Van Reybrouck

David Van Reybrouck is a advocate for Sortition in the Belgium, a country that has particular experience with the failures and flaws of electoral representation.

In this video, he talks about his book, Against Elections. He makes the particular point that democracy has been around for 3,000 years, but we’ve only introduced elections in the last 200 years.

Extracts from the book can be read here:

It seems like we have all become electoral fundamentalists. We look down on those who have been elected, but worship elections themselves. Electoral fundamentalism is the unshakeable belief that there can be no democracy without polling, that elections are a precondition, indispensable for defining democracy. Electoral fundamentalists refuse to see elections as a means to implement democracy, but consider them an end in themselves, a sacred principle of intrinsic, indefeasible value

Term Limits may be coming to the US


It seems concerns about the ever expanding class of “professional” politicians have taken root in the US.

The US Term Limits Convention is a mechanism under Article 5 of the US Constitution which allows individual states require that term limits are applied to Congress.

This would mean that members of the Senate and the House of Representatives would not be able to serve successive terms, paving the way for more diverse and widespread representation in Congress.

The inclusion of Article 5 in the US Constitution is seen by many as intent on the part of the founding fathers that the legislature would be composed or ordinary citizens who volunteered for service for a fixed period of time and then returned to their daily lives.

The process for bring this about is daunting. 34 states have to vote to convene a convention to make proposals for term limits, and then 38 states have to ratify those proposals.

That said, the process is under way. In February 2016, Florida became the first state to vote in favour of calling a convention.

How about this for a ballot paper?

Over 1,000 candidates in a local election
Over 1,000 candidates in a local election

This is a ballot paper from a recent local election in Germany. There is an element of humour in this, but there is also a more serious point about the practicality of the electoral process and the results it produces.

How is any voter supposed to use this, and how can the result be in anyway legitimate?

The O’Callaghan / O’Brien Triangle

Jim O'Callaghan TD
Jim O’Callaghan TD, Dublin Bay South

If you’ve read this link Representative Government? Democracy? Oligarchy? you’ll understand that oligarchy is government by the few, while democracy is government by the many.

As it also pointed out in that post, oligarchy does not arise through some secret or malicious intent, but instead through complacency.

A good example of this has surfaced in the aftermath of the 2016 Irish General Election.

In the constituency of Dublin Bay South, the Fianna Fail candidate, Jim O’Callaghan was elected to the 32nd Dail.

Jim O’Callaghan is the brother of one of Ireland’s most influential media personalities, Miriam O’Callaghan, who anchors several current affairs programmes on RTE, who previously had her own talk show and who chaired the final televised leaders debate in the run up to the election.

Jim O’Callaghan is also a Senior Counsel (a barrister), and has represented both GMC Sierra (who install our water meters under contract from Irish Water) and Denis O’Brien, owner of Ireland largest media group, Independent News and Media.

There is no suggestion that any of these people have used their influence to the benefit of any of the others, or that any have executed their public and professional duties in anything other than a legal and impartial way.

However, what this type of relationship does point to is the exclusivity of effective power, and the impregnability of the barriers that exist between ordinary people and the institutions of government.

Democracy is not something than can exist in theory only. For it have legitimacy, it must exist in practice. The use of elections cannot be relied on for this, as evidenced above.

Record levels of funding committed by Oil and Gas industry to US Presidential Election

Sortition Ireland takes no position on environmental policy issues, but this report does indicate the extent to which money influences the outcome of elections.

It is the view of Sortition Ireland that elections are being increasingly influenced by money and that this diminishes the democratic legitimacy of elections as a process of choosing law makers.

Oil and gas industry has pumped millions into Republican campaigns

Study claims that Google can influence the result of elections

Can Google influence elections?

A study by a psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology has determined that Google has the power to create swings of opinion among undecided voters of between 30% – 80%, with the capacity to swing elections. Further analysis suggests, given Google’s dominance worldwide, that the search engine has the power to determine the outcome of 25% of national elections around the world. And it can do so undetected and without leaving a paper trail.

Simple answers to common questions

The most immediate bar to acceptance of Sortition as a viable alternative to elections is the fear engendered by the random nature of lotteries.

Chaos? Really?

Simply put, people cannot accept the idea that a random person should be given a role in the process of law making. They fear chaos.

In promoting Sortition, it is vital that this concern can be immediately and comprehensively addressed. Here are some simple responses that can be offered in response to that concern.

(The common theme is that the concerns people have about Sortition are also concerns they should have about elections.)

In any assembly, established by lottery or elections, power does rest with the individual, but with the assembly itself. A single person, or even a group of people, does not have the ability to unduly influence the process.
The lottery process is only partially random. Members are not chosen from the population at large, but from a list of people who have volunteered to serve. Entry on to the list can be limited. For instance, a person may have to make a donation to a registered charity, or complete community service. A person convicted of a criminal offence, or tax evasion, would not be eligible.
The membership of the list of potential assembly members is available for public review. Any member of the public can review the list and take a view as to what type of assembly it will produce. They can then add their name to the list, or encourage others to do the same. Essentially, the composition of the list is within the control of the wider population.
Statistically, the probability of the assembly membership including a disproportionate number of undesirable people is extremely low, provided the number of members of the assembly is sufficiently large, and that they are drawn from a list of candidates that is sufficiently large.
An assembly chosen by Sortition will always retain the power the regulate its membership based on a super majority (eg 90%) of its members.
An assembly chosen by Sortition would be governed by rules. Members would have to demonstrate participation and not break laws. Members who breached those rules would be required to surrender their position to another candidate from the list.
Our current system of elections does not prevent undesirables from participating in the process of law making. Parliaments throughout the world have members who have been convicted of crimes, tax evasion, fraud, corruption and who do not participate in the actual process of law making.
While there is a remote possibility that Sortition may produce an assembly that is not representative of the population, our current system is almost guaranteed to produce a non-representative assembly. Participation in the law making process is generally only available to people who are wealthy, who are in certain professions, and who are members of political parties, who are involved in community activism, and, most particularly, who are men. And because participation in elections is declining, it is not possible to say that assemblies chosen by elections accurately represent the wider population.
Someone who is undesirable to one person may be desirable to another. We live in a diverse society. Everyone is entitled to representation.

Another frequently expressed concern is that ordinary people, who do not have the support of established political parties, will not have the necessary expertise to perform the function of law making.

To offer this as a barrier to Sortition is a rejection of the most basic principle of democracy, that Government is of the people, by the people for the people. To state that the responsibility of law making can only rest with an elite is fundamentally undemocratic. It is an admission that we do not live in a democracy.
Elections do not guarantee that members of the assembly have sufficient expertise to carry out the function of law making. The election of a member to an assembly is a measure of their popularity, not their ability.
The process of law making, in a system where assembly members are chosen by elections or by Sortition, is dependent on the existence of a competent and experienced civil service, who can provide advice, data and context to the members of the assembly in their deliberations over a particular decision. There is no difference in elections and Sortition in this regard.

People who doubt the viability of Sortition will argue that political parties are necessary to provide long term vision and to frame the direction of legislation, and that this would not exist if members of the assembly were chosen by lottery.

Sortition does not bar or remove the need for political parties. Political parties would still exist in a system where the assembly was chosen by lottery. They would be able to formulate their long term vision and policies and present that to the assembly members for support. If a majority of the assembly members thought that a particular legislative proposal was worthy, they would be able to vote to pass it. Similarly, other groups or political parties would be able to appeal to the assembly not to pass a particular piece of legislation.
In theory, political parties offer a vision based on a particular ideology, but in practice they more frequently react to public opinion and media commentary. The ability to implement long term change is also limited by their requirement to seek a new mandate a regular intervals.

First meeting of Sortition Ireland

The inaugural meeting of Sortition Ireland is booked for 8pm in the Teachers Club, Parnell Square Dublin 1, on Wednesday April 20th.

Anyone interested in attending who cannot attend in person will be able to join the meeting via a Google Hangout link. Details of the Google Hangout will be provided on this page closer to the time.

To attend remotely, please email and we will send you the Google Hangout link. You can email any time up to 7pm on April 20th.

The meeting will be an open forum with no agenda. No decisions will be taken at the meeting, other than to establish the purpose of the next meeting, and the time and date of the next meeting.