I’ve been busy this month doing the final edits on my dissertation, so I’ve put off posting some personal observations about the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly’s recently defeated proposal for electoral reform. For those of you who don’t know, the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly gathered randomly selected voters from around the province of Ontario to meet for eight months to learn about different electoral systems, consult with the public and decide whether Ontario needed a new voting system. After months of hard work, the Assembly members recommended a new Mixed Member Proportional electoral system, similar to one used in New Zealand. This proposal was put to a public referendum and defeated a couple of weeks ago by the rather large margin of 37% in favor; 63% against. I observed the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly at work and was in Toronto during the referendum campaign, interviewing participants in the Assembly. As an Ontario resident, I also got to vote in the referendum!
Jim Snider (www.isolon.org) has an excellent and thorough analysis of the news coverage of the referendum. He looks at three competing accounts of why the referendum failed: 1) because of the public’s lack of awareness of the issue; 2) because people thought the Citizens’ Assembly’s proposal lacked merit; 3) because people didn’t trust the Citizens’ Assembly. There’s evidence in the news coverage that all three might be reasons people didn’t vote for the proposal. Jim’s conclusion is that we need more media coverage of groups like the Citizens’ Assembly, in addition to the actual substance of their proposal. He argues, and I agree, that understanding the Assembly’s reasons for recommending the system they chose could have changed the debate about the proposal. My colleagues at the University of British Columbia and U Montreal now have evidence that supports Jim’s point: their surveys show that the more people knew about the Citizens’ Assembly AND the proposal, the more likely they were to vote in favor of it.
The problem, as Jim points out, is figuring out who should take charge of generating a public conversation that extends outside of deliberative forums like the Assembly, into the public at large. Since the government, interest groups and political parties have now failed to make electoral reform a public issue after each of the three Citizens’ Assemblies in BC, Ontario and the Netherlands, Jim concludes that we look to foundations to fund these kinds of public conversations. His discussion raises an important and sobering point for all of us in the D&D community to consider - for all the high we feel when we gather people together for face-to-face dialogue and deliberation, how do we connect the outcomes of this work to a broader public?
The answer may lie in foundations, or it may lie in working from the grassroots up. If nothing else, I take heart when I remember that 1.6 million people did vote for the Assembly’s proposal in Ontario. As a student of social movements, I know that is an awfully big organizing base of people interested in change. I predict that the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly’s proposal, while currently down in defeat, is not out of the picture for good.