Friday, 28 June 2019

I'm Not a Socialist, Just a Discerning Citizen

If I bundled all my views on various issues, the bundle would probably be labelled social democrat. I am certainly a democrat, but I don't think of myself as tied to any particular political philosophy, socialist or anything else. I am as much an atheist politically as I am religiously. The word "progressive" might work but only to describe the general direction of my thinking. It requires neither ideology not dogma, just a willingness to favour constructive change.

If I have any political philosophy at all, it's that no one person or group has all the answers. Indeed the notion that one person or group has all the answers has led to the greatest mischief that humanity has gotten up to, politically and religiously.

I like to think of myself simply as a discerning citizen. I try to listen to everything on offer, do my research, think the issue through, and then choose the best ideas. I listen to charismatic leaders and zealous groups, certainly, but I maintain a certain sceptical distance.

I make my choices based on two criteria: one, are they practical, will they work; and two, will they result in a kinder, better world. Ideology and dogma have no place in the process. Based on these criteria, I find the left consistently has the best ideas. The welfare state, for example, a socialist construct, is perhaps the greatest social idea in history. It allows us to create a thoroughly decent society even while exploiting the wealth-creating, but destabilizing, potential of capitalism.

Conservatives, on the other hand, seem to consistently lack better ideas. For example, the federal conservative party's plan to deal with global warming. It has its moments, but rejects some of the best approaches, e.g. a carbon tax, and overall is hopelessly ill-equipped to do the job. It betrays a lack of understanding of the seriousness of the threat or perhaps an attempt to create a plan that appropriately serves conservative dogma. I believe former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper once said, "Ignore the experts, go with your gut," suggesting a commitment to ideology that is unpalatable to me.

I don't mind being called a socialist, or a liberal, or a progressive, or even a conservative for that matter. I'll select ideas from anywhere if I think they have merit, so at any moment in time I may be any one of these. At the end of the day, however, I will probably be stereotyped as in the socialist camp, but don't blame me for that, blame the ideas.

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Is Anglosphere Democracy Becoming an International Joke?

Not long ago, if one were asked to name the world's two leading democracies, the answer would probably have been the United States and the United Kingdom—the United States largely due to its power and the UK because of its long democratic traditions. Today, both of those countries are becoming an embarrassment to the cause. Indeed, they are both becoming a bit of a joke.

The hilarity begins with their leadership. In 2016, the Americans elected a buffoon as their president. A bigoted, misogynistic, vulgar, lying narcissist. And now it appears the Brits, or at least the British Conservative Party, is going to elect a buffoon as the UK's prime minister. Their odds-on favourite, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, is a nicer buffoon than the American president, and he has at least a good sense of humour, but he too has shown himself to be a bigot and an habitual liar. (And, curiously—apropos of nothing—he also has a weird head of blond hair.)

Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. has largely abandoned its role as a world leader and decided instead to become a major mischief-maker. Trump intends to exit the Paris climate accords, thereby abandoning his country's responsibility to do its part in combating global warming. He has quit the nuclear agreement with Iran while imposing brutal sanctions on the country thereby dramatically increasing tensions in the Middle East. He has engaged in a host of arbitrary trade measures, destabilizing world trade in the process. And he does all this ignoring, even alienating, America's closest allies. According to Washington columnist George Will, Trump keeps his base happy “by breaking all the china.”

Britain hasn't gone quite so wildly off the rails. It has focused on embarrassing itself by voting to leave the European union without the slightest idea about how to go about it or what it's going to do when it leaves. And now, in the words of journalist and author Max Hastings, it "is about to foist a tasteless joke upon the British people—who will not find it funny for long." As Boris Johnson's former boss at the Daily Telegraph, Hastings knew Johnson well and has publicly called him a bully, a coward and a "a cavorting charlatan." He states that Johnson's elevation to prime minister "will signal Britain’s abandonment of any claim to be a serious country."

We shall have to wait until 2020 to see if the United States will regain its claim to be a serious country. As for Britain ...

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Democracy Speaks and Turkey's Strongman Takes a Hit

A list of strongmen leaders running pseudo-democracies to justify their autocratic rule usually includes Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He has expanded the power of his presidency and increasingly curbed human rights and suppressed the media. His government uses financial and other leverage over media owners to influence coverage of politically sensitive issues. Turkey has more journalists in prison than any other country, including China and Egypt.

Recent elections, however, indicate democracy is far from dead. In a general election in March, Erdogan's party lost the mayorship of the country's two major cities: Ankara, the capital, and Istanbul, the largest city and centre of the country. The loss of Istanbul was particularly grating for Erdogan, his home town and the place he started his political career when he served as mayor. He exploited a close vote to obtain a rerun, perhaps assuming the people would come to their senses this time around. No such luck. The rerun was held on Saturday and the winner once again was the opposition candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu. This time convincingly.

The importance of this election is hard to overestimate. One Turkish journalist (who was fortunate enough not to be in jail) predicted, “If İmamoğlu wins again, there’s going to be a chain of serious changes in Turkish politics. It will be interpreted as the beginning of a decline for AKP and for Erdoğan as well.” We can only cross our fingers.

Earlier in Edogan's rule, he was considered the major hope for Islamic democracy. He reduced the powers of the intelligence agencies and initiated an effort to improve democracy and human rights. However, he has since sunk deeper and deeper into authoritarian ways.

The victory of the new mayor restores prospects for a fully democratic Turkey. Imamoğlu focused his campaign on uniting Istanbul's divided peoples and spoke about defending democracy including the integrity of future elections. I wish the Mayor-elect, and Turkish democracy, the best of luck.

Sunday, 23 June 2019

The Spirit of Democracy Shines in Hong Kong

The condition of democracy is much in debate these days as fascist-tinged populism manifests itself from the United States to South America to Eastern Europe. It is, therefor, encouraging to see people in some places at least rising up against arbitrary rule in the name of democracy.

In Hong Kong, the territorial government proposed legislation that would allow for extradition to mainland China. Critics, including human rights and business groups, claimed the legislation would erode Hong Kong's judicial independence, result in criminal suspects being subjected to torture and unfair trials, and allow China to extradite political opponents. Given the state of Chinese justice, their concerns are well founded. One of the signs at the protests read, “First: Canadians Kovrig and Spavor. Next: you and me?”

In response, a million citizens from all walks of life marched through the streets in protest. (The population of Hong Kong is 7.5 million.) Chief Executive Carrie Lam responded by announcing the bill would be suspended. Citizens rejected her offer, convinced it would simply be reintroduced later, and the protests continued as again a million marched. Lam has now apologized but offered no further concessions. The bill will likely die, but the people remain alert.

Looming over the dissension is China. Hong Kong's constitution allows military intervention by the Chinese army in a state of emergency, including turmoil which is beyond the control of Hong Kong's government or when the city’s leader requests its help. China would no doubt prefer to avoid direct intervention, but Xi Jinping is not a man to be thwarted and he no doubt wants this extradition law to further his control over the former British colony. Let us hope he doesn't turn this into another Tienanmen.

The commitment of the people of Hong Kong to liberty is exemplary. Their commitment in the face of a great power is courageous, an inspiration to democrats everywhere.

Friday, 21 June 2019

PR Isn't Enough

Advocates of proportional representation (PR) make a powerful case. They claim that our current electoral system, first-past-the-post (FPTP), is not democratic. They are right. More often than not a political party that gains less than half the popular vote wins the election. In 2015, for example the Liberals, with under 40 per cent of the popular vote won a majority government. Similarly, the Conservatives governed over the preceding decade without ever winning 40 per cent support. Our system grants 100 per cent of the power to parties most people oppose. We have an electoral system, but not a democratic system. A PR system would rectify that lingering flaw in our democracy.

But PR isn't enough. It would ensure we are fairly represented in our legislatures, but it would not ensure we are all included in the decision-making process, and that should be the true goal of democracy. Fair representation in governance would mean that ideally citizens are represented proportional to the popularity of their view. For example, if 75 per cent of the people supported view A and 25 per cent view B, then a piece of legislation would ideally consist of 75 per cent A and 25 per cent B. This, however, is generally impractical as issues do not tend to be neatly divisible. Nonetheless, all citizens should be equitably represented in the decision-making.

Even under PR, many citizens are not. Supporters of the party or parties who form the government are represented, but the supporters of other parties often are not, even though they are represented in the legislature. Unfortunately, legislatures are often more rubber stamps than governors. Governance is left for the most part in the hands of cabinet, i.e. the executive, a body chosen by the prime minister or premier. Other legislators, on both sides of the house, become spectators to the process, obediently casting their votes yea or nay as instructed by caucus.

How then do we involve all legislators in governance?

First, we can allow them to vote their consciences in their legislatures as opposed to demanding strict party discipline. Western democracies exhibit a wide range in their tolerance of legislators’ independence. In this country parliamentarians almost invariably defer to caucus and vote as party blocks while in the U.S. Congress, representatives and senators are allowed considerable leeway in their yeas and nays. The latter not only have greater opportunity to vote their consciences but also greater opportunity to represent the interests of their particular constituents.

Our representatives deserve the right to state their views openly and freely, to vote on them just as openly and freely, and we deserve the right to measure their performance as our, not their parties’, representatives. They should not become mere ciphers.

Elected members do owe a loyalty to their parties as it is largely through their parties that they get elected. And there is at least one caution in allowing freedom from party discipline and that regards the business of lobbying. Party discipline helps protect legislators from the undue influence of powerful lobby groups. Lobbying requires stringent rules at any time, but especially when representatives are unleashed from party discipline. The influence of lobbies can be significantly reduced by banning political contributions from corporations and limiting those from individuals.

Providing greater power to committees would also enhance the influence of representatives. They could even initiate legislation rather than the executive branches of government. Committees can bring a personal touch legislatures lack; the individual legislator can assume a greater importance; committees can be less partisan, less strident; and committees can be more efficient than the often cumbersome legislatures.

Legislatures use committees now: standing committees on everything from Human Resources to Finance to National Defence; legislative committees appointed to review bills; and special committees set up to investigate particular issues. They do a great deal of important work. Ultimately, however, they are subject to the whims of the executive, which is inclined to ignore any committee recommendations it frowns upon. This ultimate impotence need not be the case. Not all legislatures are little more than debating clubs—representatives in the U.S. Congress are quite capable of making law.

Giving committees teeth would require transferring law-making power to them. Standing committees could be responsible for initiating legislation in their areas, special committees for issues that arise outside of the regular jurisdictions. Committees could bring other appropriate government business under the rule of the legislature as well.

Parties would be allocated committee membership proportionate to their share of seats in the legislature. Committees could then choose their own chairpersons, the choices to be approved by the entire legislature. The chairpersons of the committees would become the cabinet. Currently, the prime minister, who is chosen not by all the people but by his party, selects the cabinet, which in effect becomes the government. Currently, cabinet ministers are chosen from the legislature, but they have no more of a mandate from the people for their portfolios than does the prime minister. If cabinet ministers are to be responsible to the legislature, to the representatives of the people, they must be chosen by the legislators.

Strong legislative committees, combined with free votes, would give legislators the power they deserve as the people’s representatives.

Legislative committees as law-making bodies would allow all parties in the legislature to participate in governance and therefore allow all citizens to be represented in governance. All legislators would make law. By holding open hearings and accepting written submissions on proposed bills, committees could incorporate the views of a cross-section of individual citizens and interest groups. Bringing more views into the process would result in better legislation, reduce friction, facilitate the acceptance of legislation, and create a climate more amenable to new ideas.

By bringing all the political parties together, as well as other social groups, the process of creating our laws, and indeed governing ourselves, would become a much more co-operative, less adversarial, process. The very concept of official opposition, loyal or otherwise, would be diluted, and the hostile, macho, obstructionist behaviour it instigates subdued.

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

The Senate—No Solution to Regional Alienation

Canada has always been a highly regionalized country—the Maritimes, Quebec, Ontario, the Prairies, B.C., all with varying interests and economies and, with Quebec at least, culture. One particular complaint is that the country is run from the centre, i.e. Quebec and Ontario dominate with the other regions struggling to be heard. An oft-peddled answer to this problem is giving the provinces equal representation in a more powerful elected senate, aping the U.S. Senate.

This Made in America solution is a very bad idea. The elected part is good, the equality not so much. Equal representation of states in the U.S. Senate (two senators per state) has utterly corrupted American democracy.

Consider recent events. Most Americans voted for Hillary Clinton for president—they got Donald Trump. Over a period of six years in Senate elections, Democrats won the popular vote by more than eight per cent—but the Republicans control the Senate. Senators supporting Bret Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court represented only 44 per cent of Americans, but there he is, wearing the robes. The system not only corrupts representation in the Senate itself, but it also corrupts presidential elections, via the Electoral College, and supreme court nominations.

The problem is that the system represents states, not people, while democracy is for citizens, not jurisdictions. The corruption is best illustrated by the ridiculous fact that a voter in Wyoming (population 578,000) enjoys roughly 70 times more influence in the Senate than a voter in California (population 39.6 million). A majority of Americans live in just nine states. They have 18 votes in the Senate, while the minority holds 82 seats.

The more densely populated a state is, the more it tends to lean left and Democrat. Furthermore, the more heavily populated states tend to have a higher degree of racial diversity. Not only are liberal or left-leaning citizens short-changed, but so are blacks and Latinos.

Most Americans want universal single-payer medicare, stronger gun laws, and a higher minimum wage, but they aren't getting any of these things. Addressing some of the most serious issues in the country, including reducing discrimination against minorities and dealing with global warming, is becoming increasingly difficult. And this is getting worse every day as large states continue to add population while the smaller states continue to shrink. It is hard to imagine how the U.S. can avoid a constitutional crisis.

There is no solution here for our regional squabbling. We might, however, look to amelioration by changing our voting system. Our current system, first-past-the-post (FPTP), aggravates regional alienation by over-representing parties in some regions and under-representing parties in other regions.

For example, consider one of the most regionally divisive events in our history, the Alberta energy wars. On a dark day in October, 1980, the federal government under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau instituted the National Energy Program. Many Albertans continue to think of it as ruining the oil industry of that time and it continues to reverberate in this province's politics to this day.

Under a proportional representation system (PR), this sorry business would probably never have happened. At the time, Alberta had no MPs in Ottawa, no one to speak for the province, even though in the 1979 federal election, the Liberals had received twenty-two per cent of the Alberta vote. Under PR, this would have put five MPs into the House of Commons. With five Liberal MPs, not only would Alberta have had a voice in the federal caucus but, considering Alberta’s importance in energy matters, one of those MPs would very likely have been appointed the Minister of Energy. (In 1993, Alberta elected four Liberal MPs, and one was indeed given the energy portfolio.)

No federal energy minister from Alberta would have tolerated an NEP like the infamous act of 1980. If an NEP were enacted at all, it would most assuredly have been much more sensitive to the views of Albertans. There would have been no day of infamy, no alienation.

Whereas FPTP aggravates regional alienation, PR would ameliorate it. And, for the icing on the cake, it would provide us with a far more democratic voting system in the bargain.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Western Alienation? What Western Alienation?

It's one of those times. Alberta is enduring an oil bust so "Western alienation" is back in the news. The word of interest here is "Western." Although some Albertans may disagree, Alberta is not the West. The alienation occurring out here is generated primarily in Alberta with an echo in Saskatchewan. We don't hear much whining from B.C. or Manitoba. Indeed, why would we: B.C.'s economy is humming along nicely and Manitoba is the second largest recipient of equalization payments.

A recent survey by the Environics Institute reported a lot of alienation going around with those Canadians living in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Saskatchewan and Alberta, particularly Alberta, being the most disenchanted. Regional alienation of one kind or another is of course part of the Canadian tradition, with much of the ire directed at Ontario. And the Environics survey did indeed show Ontarians to be quite content with their place in the federation.

Personally, despite being an Albertan, I feel I have exactly as much influence in the country's affairs as I should have. (I'll leave our ridiculously unfair voting system for another day.) I have one vote, each Ontarian has one vote. That's democracy—political equality.

Of course, if you aggregate the citizens of Ontario then they have much more influence than the aggregate of Albertans simply because there are many more of them—3.5 times as many. They should, therefore, have 3.5 times as much influence. That's how democracy is supposed to work: 3.5 citizens have 3.5 times as much influence as one citizen. Democracy is for citizens, not jurisdictions.

If Albertans aren't happy with the democratic process, then perhaps they should leave. Then they can listen to Red Deer and Drumheller whine because they don't have as much influence in the Republic of Alberta as Calgary and Edmonton. And so it goes. We are forever tribal.

Friday, 14 June 2019

The Business Levy or Why I Support the Fraser Institute and You Do, Too

Two institutions hold the keys to the money vaults of the country. One is concerned about the welfare of society generally, the other about its own welfare only. One is concerned about compassion, equality and democracy, the other about profit. One is democratic, the other is not.

The first is government, the second is business. Most of the money most of us will ever have we will eventually hand over to one of these two. Governments collect their share by taxing us. This is the way we pay for the services government provides us, or perhaps I should say the services we provide ourselves—communally. We are very much aware of these taxes. We fill out an income tax form every year and the media and a variety of politicians and think tanks hardly let us forget it.

We are very much less aware, and it is never discussed in the media, that we are also “taxed” by business in order to support its social and political pursuits. Every time we buy a pair of underwear or a box of cereal, we pay the cost of manufacturing, transporting and retailing the product; we pay for a profit; we pay for advertising; and we pay a tax or levy—a little something extra for business largesse.

Hidden in the price of everything we buy are all the expenses that business incurs, including the expense of funding its friends and favourites. Via this levy we support a host of business associations, lobby groups and public relations firms (there are now more public relations professionals in North America than journalists). We support political parties. We support arts and sports organizations whose sponsorship is seen by business as amenable to their image. And we support those right-wing think tanks that serve up views flavoured to satisfy their business patrons.

It is impossible to avoid. You may prefer not to buy products from companies that contribute to groups you don’t approve of, but because this is private business, you can never be sure who contributes to whom. And almost all businesses contribute to one or more of the sorts of organizations mentioned above. Even discovering who owns a business can be a challenge, corporate ownership has become so vast and complex. Short of retiring to the north woods and living off nuts and berries, you will consume goods and services, you will pay the business levy and you will support a panoply of business-approved special interest groups. You are not free to choose.

Conservatives often criticize government funding of special interest groups. They ask why taxpayers should have to support groups they may disapprove of. A good question. But they don’t ask the same question on behalf of consumers, even though we pay a great deal more to support special interest groups as consumers than we do as taxpayers. I doubt that this inconsistency—I won’t say hypocrisy—is intentional, that conservatives overlook this coerced subsidization of business-approved special interest groups because they share an economic philosophy. I suspect they simply haven’t thought it through. We can’t blame them. The invisibility of the business levy is one of its most insidious features. It is so embedded in the cost of consumption that we simply never think about it. We can only speculate with dark amusement about how many Marxists fail to realize they support a host of capitalist organizations every time they go shopping.

Government grants merely ensure that some nonbusiness-approved special interest groups have a voice in public debate. This is a modest, almost trivial assurance compared to tapping into the business levy, but at least some balance is achieved. The balance is strictly limited, however. Groups receiving government grants are expected to serve a public interest, not a political one, such as promoting equality for women or improving the prospects of the poor. For those groups that are too partisan for government help but on the wrong side of the philosophical spectrum to partake of the business levy, raising cash means slogging from door to door, or from mail-out to mail-out, accumulating small contributions, and facing a huge disadvantage in public debate and political influence.

This distortion of public debate and political influence by the business levy is one of democracy’s biggest and most intractable problems. The tax allows the business community, most disturbingly the corporate community, to propagandize us and influence our leaders, all with our own money, and often in ways that are difficult to discover and understand. We pay to undermine our own democracy.

But what to do?

Dealing with this problem is extremely difficult because it involves freedom of speech. We don’t want to infringe on this basic freedom, yet we do want to give every voice a roughly equal opportunity to be heard, the very thing the business levy undermines. Freedom isn’t enough, equality is essential too. Freedom untempered with equality advantages not democracy but he who can afford the biggest voice. It can pervert democracy into a tool for the wealthy to preserve their power.

To begin with, we might stop granting charitable status to business levy-funded organizations whose job is to wave the corporate banner. Further, we should restrict contributions to any organizations that have a political component. Contributions to a group that isn’t transparently charitable or serving some other apolitical purpose should be limited in amount and restricted to individuals. If an organization engages in any political activity—broadly defined—it should lose its charitable status and no longer be allowed to accept money from organizations, only from citizens and only in modest amounts. Needless to say, it would have to be democratically constituted. Its freedom of speech would in no way be compromised, just the right to have the public pay for it via the business levy.

We could go further yet and politically neuter corporations. The right to incorporate could include a restriction on political activity of any kind. If a corporation violated this restriction, it would be charged with an offence under the law or even have its charter revoked. We might remind ourselves that corporations operate at our pleasure, to provide us economic services, not to involve themselves in our democratic process.

The democratic goal must be to confine participation and influence in public affairs to individual citizens and ensure those citizens a reasonably equal opportunity to play their part. Eliminating the pervasive influence of the business levy is an essential part of that goal.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Referendums or Citizens' Assemblies?

Holding a referendum on whether to remain or leave the European Union was one of the dumber decisions in the long history of the British political class, as is becoming increasingly apparent. Obviously, when David Cameron took his fateful decision, he hadn't the slightest idea of what his Conservative Party would do if the vote was leave. But that just magnified the initial blunder of choosing to have a referendum at all. Referendums are perhaps the worst instrument available in the democratic toolkit.

Referendums are yes/no affairs, and yes or no sucks one of the vital ingredients of democracy—compromise—out of an issue. It also divides, creating an atmosphere of us and them, winners and losers, breeding hostility in the process. Referendums are the hammer of majority rule, more in-your-face than face-to-face.

Few issues are as simple as yes or no. Referendums relieve citizens of the need to think below the surface. Some citizens will research the issue, think it through calmly and thoroughly, and discuss and debate it with others. Some won’t. The ignorance component of referendums can, therefore, be very high. How many Brits, I wonder, understood the economic ramifications of leaving. Or how many understood how it would affect the Irish question. And how many votes had little to do with the EU, but were a slap in the face to the political class over immigration or declining incomes.

One of the powerful advantages of representative democracy is having decisions made by people whose job is to study issues thoroughly before deciding. Referendums short-circuit this advantage. A decision made by elected representatives after thorough consideration might well be closer to what the people would decide if they deliberated rather than simply voting in a referendum. The best solution will almost certainly come from deliberation, not a battle between hostile viewpoints inflamed by sensationalist media.

Referendum also often fail to get a turnout that represents a cross-section of the electorate. Those who are emotionally involved in the issue or those who have a vested interest may be disproportionately represented.

If I am being hard on referendums, I make no apology. Democracy, healthy democracy, requires a great deal more than the people’s voice and the people’s will; it requires fully informed, thoughtful voices and wills, and these are often absent, to a greater or lesser degree, from referendums.

So is there something better? Is there a vehicle that will combine the desire for direct democracy with the need for deliberation? The happy answer is yes—citizens’ assemblies.

A citizens’ assembly simply means bringing together ordinary citizens to decide issues. They are provided with a comprehensive package of information, access to experts and politicians on all sides of the issue, and ample opportunity to discuss and debate among themselves face-to-face in small groups. Only after this immersion do they offer their opinion. The result is not simply what the public thinks but what the public—at least the public in microcosm—thinks after thorough deliberation. We have the opinion of an ideal citizenry.

The participants in an assembly become a sort of mini-parliament. Free of any grip of party loyalty, allowed to deal with their fellow participants on an equal, open, intimate and informal basis, they are also more willing to allow the heartfelt views of others to influence their own. The competitive, adversarial nature of conventional party politics is sharply reduced. By bringing people of all sorts together, assemblies create a more consensual, inclusive democracy as opposed to the hostile, partisan, macho democracy of party politics. In effect, they take the “politics” out of decision-making.

All groups in society can be equitably represented in an assembly, but they are there as individuals, not as representatives of groups, as they are with party politics. Referendums force citizens to take sides, and the majority hammers the minority. As referendums divide people, assemblies unite them; where referendums are exclusive, assemblies are inclusive. And, unlike a referendum, every citizen involved will generally be well-informed.

Assemblies not only bring citizens together as individuals but as equals. They eliminate not only political inequality but social and financial inequality as well. The CEO of a large corporation sits down with the welfare mother; they can get to know each other and understand each other’s views and problems. Not only can they conclude the issue under discussion, but they can build bridges for the future. People isolated in their own domains tend to obsess on their own world views, constantly reinforcing their prejudices.

Particularly important in assemblies is the dialogue between participants. Good talk—vigorous, well-informed conversation, especially debate with those whose views differ from one’s own—remains the main ingredient of healthy democracy. It not only ensures better decision-making, it engenders respect for other views and refines the art of compromise. It both educates and civilizes. It offers the possibility of a politics of shared goals rather than a politics of angry difference.

What criteria then should we apply in constructing an assembly? I suggest two:

First, participants must be chosen by random selection. Anything else does not accurately represent the people in microcosm. Other means, choosing participants as voices of interest groups, for example—labour, business, the handicapped, etc.—would be slipping back to representative governance.

Second, attendance must be mandatory, as it is with jury duty. A citizen who refused to attend without good cause would be in contempt. If we relied on volunteers, the voice of the assembly would be skewed toward those with a special interest or those who simply enjoy political activism. That wouldn’t do. We seek the voice of the people, all the people.

Citizens’ assemblies could even be established as permanent bodies. Assemblies of appropriate size could be brought together to deal with an issue within a set period. Once they had deliberated and drawn up their conclusions, that assembly would be dissolved and replaced by another to deal with the next issue. And so on. Assemblies could be another branch of government at all levels of government.

Citizens’ assemblies, whether as a permanent part of our constitutional system or just used ad hoc, have the ability to transfer substantial decision-making from legislatures to citizens in a wave of direct democracy that would improve citizens as it involved them. Every citizen would share the prospect of becoming a legislator, and if assemblies were part of all levels of governance, the prospect could be very good indeed. Citizens would expect to be called to assembly duty just as they can now expect to be called to jury duty. Citizens would be kept on their democratic toes, creating a more aware and confident citizenry. And, no doubt of some small satisfaction to politicians, citizens would have no one to blame, or credit, for how the country was run, but themselves.