CITIZENS’ ASSEMBLIES FAQ
WHAT IS A CITIZENS' ASSEMBLY?
The Citizens’ Assembly on Climate and Ecological Justice will bring together ordinary people to investigate, discuss and make recommendations on how to respond to the climate emergency. Similar to jury service, members will be randomly selected from across the state – or in the case of a federal assembly – the country. The process will be designed to ensure that the Assembly reflects the while population in terms of characteristics such as gender, age, ethnicity, education level and geography. Assembly members will hear balanced information from experts and those most affected by the emergency. Members will speak openly and honestly in small groups with the aid of professional facilitators. Together they will work through their differences and draft and vote on recommendations.
The Citizens’ Assembly will be run by non-governmental organisations under independent oversight. This is the fairest and most powerful way to cut through party politics. It will empower citizens to actually work together and take responsibility for our climate and ecological emergency.This isn’t pie in the sky – it’s proven practice. Citizens’ Assemblies around the world have shown that ordinary people can understand complex information, weigh the options, and make informed choices. Examples include Ireland, Canada, Australia, Belgium and Poland.
Citizens’ Assemblies are used to address important issues that electoral politics can’t fix on its own. In recent years, Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly broke the deadlock on two controversial issues: same-sex marriage and abortion. The recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly informed public debate and provided politicians cover to make the necessary changes. A subsequent Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change produced a series of recommendations that were incorporated into the Irish government’s action plan.
Even the WA Government has experimented with Citizens’ Assemblies. For example, the City of Geraldton created a deliberative community and collaborative governance using principles of Citizens’ Assemblies.
Australia’s first Citizens’ Parliament was held in Canberra in 2009.
Why is Extinction Rebellion demanding a Citizens' Assembly on Climate and Ecological Justice?
This is an emergency. The challenges are big, wide-ranging and complex. And solutions are needed urgently.
Extinction Rebellion believes that part of the problem is the way electoral politics works:
- Political power in Australia is in the hands of a few elected politicians. Over the last 40 years, this system has proved incapable of making the long-term decisions needed to deal with the climate and ecological emergency. Politicians simply can’t see past the next election.
- Members of parliament are lobbied by powerful corporations, seek sympathetic media coverage, and calculate their policies based on potential public reactions and opinion polls. This leaves many of them either unable or unwilling to make the bold changes necessary to address the emergency.
- Opinion polls often gather knee-jerk reactions to loaded questions. They do not allow respondents to become informed or engage with others with different perspectives. For an issue as complex as the climate and ecological emergency, opinion polling won’t cut it.
Here is how a Citizens’ Assembly on Climate and Ecological Justice can break the deadlock:
- A Citizens’ Assembly on Climate and Ecological Justice will empower citizens to take the lead and politicians to follow with less fear of political backlash.
- Citizens’ Assemblies are fair and transparent. Assembly members have an equal chance of being heard. Briefing materials, experts, and other presenters are vetted by diverse stakeholders and shared publicly. This produces informed democratic decisions.
- Citizens’ Assemblies are especially useful when difficult trade-offs are necessary. For example, experts might propose policies for how to meet a 2025 target for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions and the Assembly could decide which they prefer. They would also consider how to mitigate the impacts of changes on the most vulnerable people.
WHAT ABOUT LOCAL ASSEMBLIES?
Extinction Rebellion’s demand is for a Citizens’ Assembly on Climate and Ecological Justice at state and national level. To address the emergency, we need to make changes that affect our whole society.
Meanwhile, there’s been an explosion of interest in local Citizens’ Assemblies. Ordinary people from all walks of life are coming together to discuss how their communities are run. And councils across Australia are beginning to embracing the idea of participatory processes. This is great news. While only the national government has the power and resources to implement many of the large-scale changes needed, local assemblies can give residents a direct say on local policy.
WHY RANDOMLY SELECT CITIZENS FOR THE CITIZENS' ASSEMBLY?
Members of Citizens’ Assemblies should be randomly selected from the general public for 3 main reasons:
- Random selection treats everyone equally. All citizens are threatened by the emergency. This process gives all citizens an equal chance to help make the big decisions as we try to address the crisis.
- It’s fair. The random selection is done in a way that ensures the Citizens’ Assembly reflects our whole country in terms of characteristics like gender, age, income, and ethnicity. And random selection means no particular group and no particular view is overrepresented or able to dominate the assembly.
- It allows for honest conversation. Unlike elected politicians, ordinary citizens who are randomly selected, have no political debts and don’t have to worry about pleasing a party or getting re-elected. So they can speak honestly, listen to others and decide based on what they truly believe is best for the country.
Citizens’ Assemblies were first used by the Ancient Athenians, who believed that the principle of appointment by lot was integral to fair and impartial decision-making. And it is still applied in our modern legal system, where people are chosen at random for jury duty. Random selection enables people from more diverse backgrounds to contribute to decision-making.
HOW DO CITIZENS' ASSEMBLIES DIFFER FROM PEOPLE'S ASSEMBLIES?
Extinction Rebellion’s third demand is for the Australian federal and state governments to create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on Climate and Ecological Justice. Extinction Rebellion use other democratic processes, such as People’s Assemblies, in order to generate ideas, gather feedback and make decisions. When it comes to real democracy, Extinction Rebellion walks the walk.
Both Citizens’ Assemblies and People’s Assemblies give ordinary people the opportunity to discuss and reflect on important issues. Professional facilitators provide structure to the discussion and ensure no one dominates. However the purpose and structure of Citizens’ and People’s Assemblies is very different.
Citizens’ Assemblies are made up of ordinary people who are randomly selected from the population, similar to jury service. The selection is done in a way that ensures that Assembly members accurately reflect the whole population in terms of key characteristics such as gender, age, ethnicity, education level and geography. This means they will better reflect and represent the interests of the entire population. They also have a structured learning phase in which members hear from experts and different groups affected by the issue. Citizens’ Assemblies are usually focused on informing policy and are particularly useful on issues that are too controversial or long-term for politicians to deal with by themselves. It is a formal process that takes months to plan, and a Citizens’ Assembly can last from a few months to over a year.
In contrast, People’s Assemblies are organised discussion forums open to anyone who would like to attend (i.e. self-selected). A People’s Assembly is a way to structure meetings with a large number of people and can be used to generate ideas, discuss issues and make decisions. People’s Assemblies can last between one and four hours and can take place anywhere — such as in occupied spaces such as roads and city squares. They have often been used in revolutionary movements, for example, Occupy, the Arab Spring, and the Gilets Jaunes. People’s Assemblies were used throughout XR’s April Rebellion in the UK to discuss a wide range of issues, from democracy and inclusivity to how to end the April Rebellion.
Decades of inadequate political action have led to a climate and ecological emergency that poses an unprecedented existential threat to humanity and all life on Earth — “politics as usual” will not meet the challenge we face. A citizens’ assembly provides us, the people, with a way to request radical change, and a request from the people gives a legitimacy to government to act, and allows for cross-party support.
This 30-minute talk is a great introduction to Citizens’ Assemblies and XR’s third demand. Watch it online.
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