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A Citizens’ Assembly on climate change is the coward’s way out

2 November 2019

11:11 PM

2 November 2019

11:11 PM

So is it good news that Citizens’ Assemblies are to sit to decide on how best to address the issue of climate change, one of the most contentious on the political agenda?

The BBC observed this morning that this was something that Extinction Rebellion had been calling for. And that this had already been used in Ireland to determine the abortion issue and in Australia and the Netherlands on electoral reforms.

The proposal which was made by half-a-dozen select parliamentary commissions, will work in the usual way for these things: the organisers will send out letters to 30,000 people to invite them to take part. From the people who accept, 110 lucky individuals will be chosen to decide the way forward about everything from transport to household kitchen appliances. And the result of their deliberations will be put to parliament.

As it happens, I have quite strong views about Citizens’ Assemblies; I think they worked in ancient Athens because the number of actual citizens was sufficiently small to allow for near mass (male) participation; everyone could have a voice. In a polity of modern size, it becomes a means by which a particularly determined bit of the elite manages to present its views as being that of the majority. And I particularly resented the way it was used to manipulate the way politicians managed the abortion referendum in Ireland over a year ago.


One of the most articulate critics of the Citizens’ Assembly was John McGuirk, one of the leaders of the campaign against the Repeal of the Eighth Amendment which had protected foetal life under the Constitution (let me observe in passing that one of the ways in which the two liberalising referendums were skewed was the way the question was framed in Yes/No terms with those in favour of traditional marriage and foetal rights being obliged to campaign for a No (sad face) against the proponents of change who campaigned for a nice positive Yes. The Brexit referendum was fairer.)

His observations about the whole idea seem sound to me. One objection, he said, is principled. The purpose of Irish citizens’ assembly was to do for politicians that which politicians do not have the courage to do themselves. Its purpose is to make recommendations and adopt policies. Back in 2016, very few politicians wanted to be seen to propose abortion liberalisation and so some kind of way of proposing it would have to be found. The Citizens’ Assembly was a way to get people to do what parliament didn’t want to be seen to do.

There was, he said, moreover, a practical objection: Who runs the Citizens’ Assembly? What is it? Who’s in it? The members are drawn up by a polling organisation to produce 100 (actually, 99) people…but the process of producing them is unclear. It wasn’t entirely clear in the Irish case whether it was done on a demographic/geographical basis or whether other elements were involved. Try to imaging getting a representative sample of 100 people on Brexit and see how that would work out. One of the first decisions you’d have to make would be whether they’d be chosen on the basis of age/sex/geography or whether your sample would include balance on Lib/Lab/Tory/nationalist views. These are two equally valid approaches but they do affect the outcome. Certainly in the Irish case, there were three Labour pro-choice activists selected.

Moreover, all forums like this suffer from response bias. The people who are willing to give up six months of their lives are more likely to be activists than normal members of the public. The partisan are more likely to take part than the average citizen. In Ireland, there were a couple of instances of participants tweeting that they regarded this as a chance to overturn the amendment. A couple of pro-choice activists were notably involved.

And then there is the chair, the person in charge of the Assembly, in the Irish case,  Mrs. Justice Mary Laffoy, who played a key role in framing the questions put to the groups as they sat round their tables in a hotel in Malahide. The leader of the Assembly has a crucial role in setting the agenda and framing the way the questions are dealt with. Forty experts on various sides addressed the citizens, over five weekends. A friend of mine, a professor of psychiatry at UCD refused the invitation to take part, because she could see from the start that she was being brought in to provide a spurious notion of balance where none actually existed. If the chair is biased (and if Mrs Justice Mary Laffoy voted for the pro-lifers I would not be surprised so much as completely speechless) there is ample opportunity to guide the discussion in a way that produces the result you want.

That was Ireland. Here, the proposed Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change runs exactly the same risks. The organisers will send invitations to 30,000 random people to give up months of their life to sit in Birmingham to discuss carbon emissions and it’s not wholly clear how the 110 actual participants of those who accept will actually be selected. On what basis? Will they pick names out of a hat? We don’t know who’s in charge of the programme or who’s chairing the deliberations. That can make all the difference.

The same principle applies to all these things. If you are relying on selecting individuals who can give up months of their life to deliberating on climate change you’re not going to get normal people, the kind who actually vote in general elections. You’re going to get activists and campaigners. And this body will have a kind of moral authority which means that when its findings are presented to parliament, they will be treated reverentially as the Voice of the People.

If politicians want to decide to put up the price of petrol, or spend billions more on public transport, or ban powerful vacuum cleaners, fine. That’s what a government is entitled to do. Passing the buck to 110 citizens is the cowards’ way out.


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