05 February 2014

The Senate as citizens' assembly?

The best idea I've seen yet about what to to do with our constitutional albatross, the Senate, short of abolishing it, appeared in a recent issue of The Tyee. The article suggests random selection of "ordinary citizens to sit as senators for a limited period of time (perhaps one or two years)." The authors suggest that "with proper support and access to expert opinion, ordinary citizens can tackle complex policy problems. A randomly selected Senate would produce an assembly that is representative of the Canadian population in all its diversity."

The Tyee is talking about a citizens' assembly chosen by lot, a system of direct democracy known as sortition. Sortition was used extensively by the Athenian Greeks who had a certain distrust of elections. It is in fact more democratic than elections and a great deal more representative than the current Senate, or the House of Commons for that matter. 

Free of any grip of party loyalty, allowed to deal with their fellow participants on an equal, open, intimate and informal basis, participants in an assembly are 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.

With the participants brought together as equals, assemblies eliminate social and financial inequality. 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. They can conclude the issues under discussion while building bridges for the future. They escape the isolation that leads to people obsessing on their own world views, constantly reinforcing their own 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 a major ingredient of healthy democracy. It not only ensures better decision-making, it engenders respect for other views and refines the art of compromise. It offers the possibility of a politics of shared goals rather than a politics of angry difference.

There are two essentials for a sound assembly: random selection to ensure that the assembly is truly the people in microcosm, and mandatory attendance to ensure all the people are heard. Selection would still be distorted by Senate constitutional requirements such as regional representation, so unfortunately perfection would elude us.

Citizens would be selected like juries are now, providing a constant rotation. Every citizen would share the prospect of becoming a senator. The possibility would keep people on their democratic toes and create a more aware and confident citizenry. And the sober second thought the Senate was designed to provide would be provided by the people themselves.


  1. I don't buy it, Bill. To start trolling bus shelters on the morning commute, impressing Senators, is total folly. You could spend a couple of years just educating some of the randomly selected on our country, its history and institutions. Compulsory attendance, really? If you're relying on the sort of person who has to be compelled to show up, you're already scraping the bottom of the barrel.

  2. A tad misanthropic there, Mound.

    With random selection, we would have some of the best and some of the worst and everybody in between. Add mandatory attendance and you have, in effect, a jury. I believe juries work rather well because the members are thoroughly immersed in the issue. I should have included that as a third essential.

    The greatest problem would be logistics. The Tyee suggest a term of a year or two. That would be unworkable. Even if paid a senator's salary, most people wouldn't accept taking a year out of their careers. I see, therefore, a more jury-type term, say a month. I suspect almost any issue could be thoroughly reviewed in that time (as long as it wasn’t omnibussed). If an issue took longer, it could be broken up into manageable sections.

    As for understanding our history, etc., we have no guarantee of that now with either our MPs or our senators. Nor do we need it if they comprehensively understand the issues they deal with.

    As a confirmed democrat, I have the greatest respect for the decision-making ability of ordinary people — if, and only if, they are well-informed. If they are not, they are a mob. An assembly of "the people" in microcosm, steeped in the issues in front of them, is the equal of any legislature.

  3. As one of the academics who organised and studied an Australian Citizens Parliament in 2009, involving 150 randomly selected citizens, one from each lower house electorate, I am a fan of the proposal. Of course there ate logistical hurdles to overcome, and political argument over that would probably sink it from the start. But the biggest challenge is in building a social movement for deliberative public participation that overcomes the elitist view held even by ordinary people that jury-like processes should not be trusted.