No one blinked in the mainstream media when the Government announced that there would not be a Citizens’ Assembly in the lead up to New Zealand’s recreational cannabis referendum in 2020. This despite well-known problems with referenda and the success of initiatives such as the Irish Citizens’ Assembly and Oregon’s Citizen Initiative Review Commission as correctives.
Both these initiatives are about redefining politics, who does it and how it is performed. Both are about the real engagement of ordinary citizens – randomly selected ‘mini-publics’ – using approaches from deliberative democracy. Perhaps NZ’s media commentators, politicians and citizenry are blind to the potential of deliberative processes because they have rarely, if ever, seen them in action.
This is not the case everywhere in the world. Lots of Canadians know what a deliberative engagement process is because 1 in 64 Canadian families have a member who has taken part in a one.
Offered below are a selection of videos showing public deliberation in Australia, Ireland, the United States and Europe. There is also a animated video showing how public deliberation can fit with representative democracy.
Australia’s Citizen Parliament
Australian-style Citizens’ Juries
Citizens’ Juries were developed in the US in the 1970s as a 3-5 day process for 15-24 jurors – in NZ, there have been a number of small, US-style citizens’ juries including one on euthanasia at Otago University in 2018. The original model has been pushed considerably in Australia in recent years. Typical processes there include 50-100 jurors and last 3-5 days over 4-6 weeks. The largest so far included 350 jurors.
The use of Citizens’ Juries by local and state government in Australia is normal now. For further information about how they are being used, see the newDemocracy Foundation’s website.
The Irish Citizens’ Assembly
The effectiveness of the Irish Citizens’ Assembly, especially regarding the abortion referendum, is widely acknowledged. Its success stems partly from its clear mandate and the way it is plumbed into the formal Irish political system as highlighted in this address by the Irish Taoiseach/Prime Minister.
Further information about the Irish Citizens’ Assembly is available from its excellent website and its You Tube channel.
The Deliberative Poll
Since 1994, over 50 Deliberative Opinion Polls have been conducted in countries on every continent. Developed by Jim Fishkin and Bob Luskin, it is one of the most established and well researched, large-scale (100-400 participants) deliberative methodologies. For more information, see the website for the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University
The 21st Century Town Hall Meeting
AmericaSpeaks took deliberative democracy to scale with its 21st Century Town Hall Meeting methodology. Designed for 500 to 5,000 participants, these one day events used technology to connect multiple small discussion groups and create supercharged but deliberative events on issues ranging from redeveloping Ground Zero in New York to fixing California’s health system. The methodology has been used in Perth (1,100 participants) and the City of Port Phillip, Melbourne (750 participants).
Deliberative Democracy and Representative Democracy
Perhaps the hardest task for the organisers of deliberative public engagement is to make sure it has influence. This animation shows how deliberation can be incorporated in representative democracy. Of course, there plenty of other ways this might be achieved.
Deliberative Democracy in New Zealand
As far as we know, there have only been a handful deliberative initiatives in NZ. The most notable in terms of national reach were the Commission for the Future’s 1981 Televote and the internationally recognised deliberation on pre-birth testing by Toi te Taiao: the Bioethics Council in 2007/8. Tragically, both the Commission and the Bioethics Council were killed off and one of the other examples was completely undermined by the local government organisation that sponsored it.
PEPtalk is the blog of Public Engagement Projects, a Wellington-based consultancy specialising in deliberative democratic engagement. PEP’s partners, John Pennington and Simon Wright, were part of the secretariat of Toi te Taiao: the Bioethics Council. They welcome comments and questions. And please do share any links you have to favourite videos about deliberative democracy!