The earliest system of democracy in the western world, established in the ancient Greek city state of Athens, was a citizens' assembly. The "boule," randomly appointed by lottery, handled governance, wrote and revised the laws, and managed foreign policy. The assembly, comprised of all citizens over 18 who were not slaves or women, voted on everything. Aside from unfortunate exclusions, this democracy represented all classes of free Athenians. It abolished political distinction between the aristocrats and working-class people. There were no politicians, no political parties, no powerful ruling families. All decisions were made by the people.
In modern times, citizens' assemblies have been used to make decisions where the political system is unable to move forward due to deadlocked party politics and electoral fears. The most recent example unfolded in Ireland. To deal with the contentious issue of abortion, the government of Ireland created a citizens assembly and committed to accept the assembly's decisions. That assembly overthrew the ban on abortions and replaced it with laws to regulate and legalize abortion. The successful Irish citizens assembly was modeled after the B.C. citizens' assembly on electoral reform of 2005. (The resulting referendum in B.C. showed close to 58 percent support for electoral reform.)
The only selection criteria for the 99 randomly selected citizens making up the Irish citizens' assembly were numerical representation of gender, age, locations and social class. They had access to experts and submissions on the subjects from the public at large.
The Irish citizens' assembly had many issues to resolve; abortion law, fixed term parliaments, referendums, population aging, and climate change. Over the course of 18 months, they successfully reported on all of them. They met only on weekends. They received no monetary compensation other than a per diem.
The current Yukon government has had a difficult time establishing a committee to study electoral reform in Yukon. The last committee dissolved in disarray. There has been a public tussle between the Liberal government and the opposition parties over how a committee could be formed. The current proposal to establish an all-party select committee to study electoral reform was sent back by the office of the clerk of the legislature because it lacked a way to break a tie vote.
I believe that the only way we can form an effective, non-partisan committee on electoral reform is through a Yukon citizens' assembly.
Here are the arguments in favour of such a structure:
- One randomly selected representative from each of the 19 electoral ridings in Yukon would ensure that there could not be a tie vote.
- We could establish criteria to fair representation in the assembly.
- A citizens' assembly on electoral reform, chosen by lottery, would be non-partisan. It would also be seen as non-partisan thereby improving citizen trust in the process.
- Ordinary citizens have shown that, given time, respect and educational resources, they can come up with reasonable solutions to complex problems.
- The members of the assembly could be paid stipends, per diems, and where necessary, travel allowances, similar to those paid jurors. It would be affordable.
- Because of Yukon's jurisdictional differences, a one-size-fits-all electoral system might not be practical. A citizens' assembly could harvest enough information from across the territory to craft a made-in-Yukon solution that deals with our unique circumstances.
- Once the assembly's considerations were complete the government could, most courageously, accept those recommendations and pass them into law. Or, carry out a referendum with clear choices determined by the Yukon citizens' assembly on electoral reform.
- The assembly would also provide the necessary educational component for Yukoners participating in a resulting referendum.
Linda Leon is an artist and writer living in Whitehorse.
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