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Participatory democracy

Event to discuss how public opinion is a resource, not a risk

By Janet Harron

In 2015 same-sex marriages were officially recognized in the Republic of Ireland; in 2018 abortion services were offered legally in the country.

The seismic shift in Ireland’s sociocultural political axis can be traced directly to a Canadian innovation known as a citizens’ assembly.

Canadian example

In the 2001 B.C. provincial election, the Liberal Party won almost every seat, even though 34 per cent of voters chose the opposition NDP and Green parties.

Because of this disproportionate result, the government established Canada’s first citizens’ assembly — in this case, a jury made up of 161 randomly selected volunteers — to review the province’s voting system and suggest changes.

Since then, this approach to participatory democracy has been used successfully in dozens of countries, leading to real systemic change on both the local and national levels.

“It’s unfortunately too typically Canadian that we don’t know our own stories,” said Peter MacLeod, the principal and founder behind MASS LBP (Lead by People) and one of the world’s foremost experts on citizens’ assemblies.

Mr. MacLeod will be visiting St. John’s this week to speak on the topic of Democracy’s Second Act: Productive Publics and a Future Beyond Polarization, as part of a Harris Centre public policy forum in partnership with the Department of Political Science.

Please register for the event here.

Since 2006, when he became part of the team that established the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly, Mr. MacLeod has facilitated almost 50 smaller assemblies across the country.

“The participants look like the communities they belong to – half men, half women, there are rich people, poor people, professionals, newcomers, long-time residents, homeowners, renters, seniors and youth,” he said.

Mr. MacLeod rejects the current discourse of division. He believes that polarization is largely a byproduct of our political system and the media.

He characterizes this as a result of “the public opinion industry” that looks to highlight the differences between people and focuses excessively on personal preference and self-interest rather than the public good.

“We don’t have a political culture that tries to find the common ground,” he said, acknowledging that, to date, citizens’ assemblies have been happening under the radar in Canada. “With majority rule, where 50 per cent plus one decides, too often almost half of the people, or their representatives, feel left behind. We need to be more ambitious about finding common ground. In this way, the Irish example galvanized Europe. Politicians could see that if you can take on gay marriage and access to abortion in a country like Ireland, then citizens’ assemblies could really make a difference to what often feels like intractable issues.”

‘This isn’t as good as it gets’

Mr. MacLeod says the citizens’ assembly model would be a good fit for Newfoundland and Labrador’s unique political culture.

“You know you are all in it together; you have a history of making the best of things and being practical.”

Mr. MacLeod is quick to point out that citizens’ assemblies are only one of the ways that people can re-engage with their governments.

This, he says, hinges on changing the perception of the public as risks to be managed rather than as resources to be tapped.

“Spaces where ordinary people can come together, learn about a policy and/or a problem . . . leads to better and more enlightened and informed decision-making.” — Dr. Sean Gray

His presentation explores our current moment as democracy’s “second act.”

In the inaugural Maclean’s Ideas Summit in 2023, he expressed the concept thus:

“I think we face two simultaneous challenges. We have to secure the democratic gains we’ve made as a society, but we also have to go far beyond them. Because this isn’t as good as it gets. It’s not, as many suppose, that democracy is in decline. It’s that, at best, our democracy is in its adolescence. We’re at the midpoint, not the end state . . . This is what I mean by democracy’s first and second act.”

Co-presenter Dr. Sean Gray, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science who is working with the Harris Centre, agrees.

“Deliberative spaces where ordinary people can come together, learn about a policy and/or a problem in-depth and discuss it, leads to better and more enlightened and informed decision-making,” said Dr. Gray, who is part of a global team behind Participedia, a crowdsourcing platform for anyone interested in public participation and democratic innovation.

Democracy’s Second Act: Productive Publics and a Future Beyond Polarization takes place Thursday, Oct. 26, from 3:30-5 p.m. in IIC-2001 in the Bruneau Centre for Research and Innovation and is presented by the Harris Centre in partnership with the Department of Political Science.

The presentation will be followed by a panel discussion featuring Jen Crowe; Choices for Youth; Bettina Ford, Community Sector Council, Deputy Mayor of Gander; and Katherine Dibbon, former chair, Premier’s Youth Council, and a Memorial University political science student.

For those who can’t attend in person, a livestream will be available.

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