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Citizens' Assemblies and Political Reform

  • Speaker: Prof. Kenneth Carty, University of British Columbia, Canada

  • Date: Monday 18 October 2010 from 6 to 8 pm

  • Venue: Trinity Long Room Hub, Trinity College Dublin, Dublin 2

kencartyThe Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Constitution has just recommended that Ireland create a Citizens' Assembly to consider electoral reform.

  • But what are Citizens' Assemblies?
  • How are they constructed and how do they work?
  • Can ordinary citizens really be expected to deal with the question of deciding what kind of electoral system a country needs?



In this talk Professor Carty considered the real experience and record of the world's first Citizens' Assembly held in British Columbia, Canada. The Assembly was seen to be so successful it was soon copied in the Netherlands and then Ontario when the political leaders of both those communities realized that they needed to find new ways to consider major reforms to their electoral systems.

Citizens' Assemblies draw on the work and talent of a random group of citizens who commit to serious study of the problems before them. They then ask hard questions about what underlying values need to be the basis for their decisions, and they then work to seek a broadly acceptable consensus. To the surprise of the skeptics, ordinary citizens rise to the challenge. In each case the Assemblies have come to a successful conclusion and made major recommendations that have gone to either a public referendum (the Canadian cases) or directly to the government (Netherlands).

In this talk Professor Carty identified several of the key factors that account for citizens' ability to make these kinds of deliberative assemblies work. These include the method of their selection, the character of their mandate, and the importance of the issue they are charged with considering.

Carty also considered what happens when citizens rather than politicians are charged with sorting out big questions about how a society ought to organize its political affairs. The Assembly experience reveals that citizens are ready and willing to take on the responsibility, are capable of mastering the briefs, prepared to operate in a consensual rather than adversarial fashion, and often see the problems (and so solutions) differently than do the politicians.

In British Columbia, ordinary citizens met and considered how best to organize their electoral process. They decided they wanted a system that combined the best of proportionality, voter choice and local representation so they recommended abolishing First Past the Post and replacing it with STV!

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Last updated 13 June 2014 .