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Citizens' Assembly

A Citizens' Assembly, in Canadian politics, is a group of citizens who meet to discuss some significant change, most typically an electoral reform. This because the voting system tends to be very sensitive, and "voting or holding a referendum on reform without full citizen participation could be divisive and fail to achieve the results desired."

"Citizens' assemblies create sites for mass public brokerage because they engage citizens in dialogue. Traditionally in Canada brockerage between different societal interests and ethnic groups have been done through elites (such as the executive federalism of first ministers' conferences). The process of drafting the South African constitution is an example of how one can reconcile the idea of popular sovereignty with accommodation of different groups. Through mass public deliberation one can avoid gut reactions in referenda (a major weakness of direct democracy) and deepen public judgements. Citizen engagement may also strengthen a citizen's sense of collective identity. Finding more ways for individuals to participate in public life in meaningful ways can strengthen their commitment to the national community and perhaps even increase voter turnout. Interviewed following their experience in the BC Citizens' Assembly citizens articulated their greater sense of connection with the larger BC community.

Citizen engagement could also lead to better public policy because it brings an additional range of concerns and perspectives to decisions and leads to more informed decision-making. Including citizens in the policy-making process will reduce the likelihood of unexpected challenges to policies appearing."

A brief history by Cara Camcastle? reports that:

"In South Africa? between January 1995 and April 1996 a citizens' assembly was given the task of drafting a new constitution. This project involved many South Africans in the largest public participation programme ever carried out in South Africa and it was challenging because of the many diverse linguistic, ethnic, and religious groups in the country. For example, South Africa has eleven official languages. The six conferences allowed Assembly's 490 delegates to regularly consult the public. Throughout the process interim reports were released that highlighted which issues remained unresolved, where various parties stood on these questions, and potential options. These reports provided the public with opportunities to offer feedback on unresolved issues.

In Australia? in 1998, a citizens' assembly was charged with the task of deliberating on the question of whether Australia should become a republic. Many of the delegates came from outside the realm of traditional elites. Although the process did become enmeshed in ordinary partisan politics, it did provide an opportunity for members of the public and the government to deliberate simultaneously and to build some consensus.

In the United States? since 1974, municipal government?s have created citizen juries (sometimes randomly selected, sometimes appointed) to read material on an issue, call experts, deliberate and issue recommendations.

In Australia, the Environmental Ministerial Council is an intergovernmental body charged with making environmental policy. Having ordinary citizens as members of the panels that perform the Council's environmental reviews has created more transparency in intergovernmental processes."

In British Columbia, a Citizens' Assembly on electoral reform? recommended Single Transferable Vote.

Similar assemblies have been proposed for Ontario and Nova Scotia.

Green Party of Canada priorities(external link).



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