Thursday, May 17, 2007


And the winner is MMP

We talked about this and I think there was a large agreement that this would be a good choice both in terms of the ideal system for Ontario and in terms of the pragmatics of the system actually being adapted. MMP offers a more proportional system of representation while still allowing for regional representation, an important thing to have in a space as big and socio-environmentally diverse as Ontario. I am curious to see what those at the Public Issues Forum have to say about this.
Of course whether or not this gets buried in the media or in politics is another story. However, there is currently an ammendment to the Election Act in committee right now which, if I am sifting through the legal mumbo jumbo correctly, adds:
"New section 114.1 authorizes the Chief Electoral Officer to implement public education and information programs and provide the public with information about the electoral process. Also included is a requirement for a program of public education in preparation for the referendum that is to take place in October, 2007 under the Electoral System Referendum Act, 2007." If that is the case and it goes through then I would say that is certainly a positive, regardless of whether or not you like the CA's reccomendation, in that education can be seen as dealing with the criticisms that surrounded BC's referendum. However, that there was no real education campaign on the CA process itself might render such an effort, if it indeed happens, too little too late.
I am curious to hear everyone's thoughts and to hear what people think at the Public Issues Forum.

Sunday, April 15, 2007


Public Issues Forum: The Ethics of Electoral Systems

The Centre for Ethics announces a Public Issues Forum on the recommendations of the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. Our speakers will examine normative considerations that are relevant for the evaluation of electoral reforms and discuss the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly in their light. The event, which is open to the public, will take place on Thursday, May 24, 3pm-5pm at the Vivian and David Campbell Conference Facility of the Munk Centre for International Studies (1 Devonshire Place, Toronto) and will be followed by a reception. The participants in the roundtable are George Thomson, John Ferejohn, Joseph Heath, Andrew Stark, Melissa Williams, and it will be chaired by Amit Ron.

For more information, see:

Saturday, January 13, 2007


CA Consultation Meetings in Toronto

Hi all,

The Assembly is currently hosting public consultation meetings all across Ontario (until Jan 25 2007) for anyone interested in coming out to public consultation meetings in Toronto:

1)Wed Jan 17 7-10 pm
Ryerson University
**The George Vari Engineering & Computing Centre**
The Atrium
245 Church Street

*exact location at ryerson corrected*

2)Sun Jan 21 2:30-5:30
Yonge and eglinton area
Northern District Library
40 Orchard View Blvd.

3)Thurs Jan 25 7-10 pm.
Metro Central YMCA
20 Grosvenor Street.

Aside from the meetings in T.O there are upcoming meetings in Etibocoke, Chatham, Kenora etc.
for a full consultation meeting schedule (and more information) please see:


Thursday, December 07, 2006


Democratic Theory Seminar: on Ontario Citizens' Assembly

A Call for Further Participation and Deliberation in Ontario


This paper is intended to be my final word to my peers and Citizens’ Assembly members concerning all the material, both theoretical and practical, that I have covered on this forum thus far. That being the case, I am writing this paper to be both theoretical and practical, and especially sneaky. Yes, I said sneaky. I will outline my plan right here, so there should be no confusion as to what this paper is actually saying (both on the surface and between the lines).

Theoretically, and on the surface, what I am speaking to in this submission, and the position that I am advocating myself, is the prescription made by deliberative democratic theorists, that citizens’ juries are one way to further realize democratic values. Deliberative democracy is a topic that has been explored in some depth on this forum. So, it may come as no surprise that the thesis of this paper is that systems of competitive representation alone (hint: read ‘first past the post’) do not realize as fully as may be possible the democratic values of political responsibility, political equality, and political accountability. Furthermore, I am arguing that that a more deliberative democracy, made manifest by the increased use of citizens’ juries, may be better able to realize these principles.

In support of my claims I am looking to the model set by the Citizens’ and Students’ Assemblies on Electoral Reform, which I take to be prime examples of what deliberative democratic theorists call, “citizens’ juries.” The claim made by these scholars, and I believe this is true of the Citizens’ Assembly and Students’ Assembly, is that citizens’ assemblies and citizens’ juries build on the “distinctive practical competence that citizens possess as users of public services, subjects of public policy and regulation, or residents who have contextual knowledge of their neighborhoods and ecosystems.”[i] The idea, and it certainly isn’t a new one, is to draw on these competencies by bringing ordinary citizens into deliberation over certain public issues.

As I mentioned earlier however, this paper also has a practical prescription imbedded between the lines. After all, this is a forum dedicated to an institution that may change the face of Ontario. When read between the lines, what this paper is meant to convey is an argument for a change from the conventional ‘first past the post’ electoral system – ideally a more deliberative change.

This paper makes many references to “competitive representation.” The reader should note that although all electoral systems may be classified as falling under this rubric, in the context of this paper – written to be read by a Democratic Theory class and members of the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform – the current electoral system in Ontario, which we may also label as our “conventional” method of “competitive representation” is to be read as heavily featured in this regard.

As an aside to members of the Citizens’ Assembly – perhaps a system of forcing political parties (which after all are simply cliques within a larger body politic) to cooperate with each other, in say, coalition governments which are the product of, let say, a more proportionally representative electoral system, might actually make parliament more deliberative in the construction of its policies than, say, the system we have now, where deliberation between parties is meaningless in the face of a single party majority government; government made up by a single party within which deliberation is also meaningless because of a political culture of party discipline – but you’ve all heard enough about that, I’m sure.

That having been said, lets now move back to the topic of the viability of citizens’ juries and how they may serve the function of better realizing certain principles of democracy:

The Normative Foundations of the Citizens’ Assembly

At a theoretical level, it is essential to understand the deeper sentiment behind the Citizens’ Assembly. I am not referring here to campaign promises made by Ontario liberals. Rather, what I am speaking of, and I have argued a similar point in earlier submissions to this forum, is that there is a palpable sentiment in Ontario regarding the perceived legitimacy of our current legislative institution. In fact, it has been documented that in no region of the country does more than a bare majority find the workings of the present electoral system acceptable.[ii] In my understanding of the situation, the move to employ a citizens’ jury to deliberate and adjudicate on the concern of electoral reform reflects a combination of skepticism about the regulatory capacities of the Ontario provincial government and a more general concern about the capacity of conventional democracies to engage the energies of ordinary citizens.[iii]

By “conventional democracy,” I mean the modern liberal democracy, a government of competitive representation, in which citizens are endowed with political rights, including such rights as free speech, free association and universal suffrage. In liberal democracies, citizens may advance their interests by exercising their political rights; in the form of voting for representatives in regular elections. These elections are organized by competing political parties for whom electoral victory means control of government. This gives winning parties and candidates the authority to shape public policy through legislation and control over administration.[iv]

I argued in my first major submission to this forum that any contemporary democracy would need to be organized at least in part as a system of competitive representation. This, I posited, is a basic fact of contemporary political life due to the ever increasing scale, complexity and interconnectedness of modern society.[v] However, for me, as is the case for some academics, the ideal of turning to citizens’ juries and of harnessing the capacities, interests and perspectives of citizens represents a seeking of a fuller realization of democratic values than competitive representation alone can attain.[vi] This is where the literature on deliberative democracy features as a new trend of contemporary political thought.

Indeed as some scholars note, “The ambitious aim of deliberative democracy is to shift from bargaining, interest aggregation and power to the common reason of equal citizens as the dominant force in democratic life.”[vii] And ideally, in the exercise of this common reason no power is at work “except that of the better argument.”[viii] This is the normative foundation upon which the Citizens’ Assembly is founded. The Students’ Assembly mirrors this experience also.

For me, the organization and practice of the Citizens’ and Students’ Assemblies, and citizens’ juries in general, represents a general commitment to broader participation in public decision-making as a confrontation with the perceived shortcomings of conventional forms of competitive representation. The idea that citizens should have greater direct roles in public choices or at least engage more deeply with substantive political issues and be assured that officials will be responsive to their concerns and judgment is not new. It started with the Greek democratic tradition. What the rationale of citizens’ juries does, is emphasize a more deliberative democracy, one in which citizens address public problems by reasoning together about how best to solve them, instead of simply acquiescing to a politics of power and interest.

The Shortcomings of Competitive Representation

Members of the Citizens’ and Students’ Assemblies will attest to the fact that their work began with an articulation of values and principles against which they would hold to scrutiny the different electoral systems to be studied. I, in a similar manner, want to focus on three principles of democracy, and the normative values they represent, and hold traditional forms of ‘competitive representation’ to scrutiny against these values. These three values are: responsibility, equality, and autonomy.[ix]

1. Political Responsibility. Is a democratic government organized solely as system of competitive representation as responsible in the practice of governance as could be possible were there some inclusion of broader citizen participation in public decision making? Notice, that I am not saying that the existing system is broken or insufficient. In fact, it is notable, especially in Canada and Ontario, that the existing electoral system of competitive representation has played its part in producing and maintaining one of the highest qualities of life on earth. What I am saying, is that the current system is not as responsible to all citizens as might be possible were it to include some form of citizen deliberation and broader citizen participation as part of the legislative process.

Jean Jacques Rousseau said, “As soon as public business ceases to be the citizens’ principal business, and they prefer to serve with their purse rather than with their person, the state is already close to ruin.”[x] Here, he is expressing the idea that the balance of reasons sometimes speaks strongly in favor of performing a task oneself rather than delegating it, especially if a task is of great importance, its performance (both initiation and execution) demands judgment, and the consequences of misjudgment are serious.

Such thought advises against relying excessively upon representatives to make consequential political choices.[xi]

As I noted earlier, competitive representation is not totally deficient. It does provide opportunity, in Ontario, once every 4 years, for citizens to judge for themselves, usually in hindsight, the merits of alternative laws and policies and hold representatives accountable in light of those judgments. However, this is a very limited tool for ensuring official accountability and almost guarantees that citizens will be tempted to leave the hard work of substantive policy judgment to professional politicians. Consequently, the capacities of citizens may in turn atrophy. In light of this, the argument can be made that citizens, lacking democratic skills and habits, may refrain from judging public business except under dire circumstances, and then too, judge poorly.[xii] Participating in deliberative institutions like citizens’ juries, may be one way in which a society can be sure to maintain in its citizens the skills of political participation and judgment.

2. Political Equality. Is a democratic government organized solely as system of competitive representation as equal in the practice of governance as it could be possibly were there some inclusion of broader citizen participation in public decision making? Again, I am not saying that the existing system is completely insufficient. What I am saying, is that the current system is not quite as equitable to all citizens as might be possible were it to include some form of citizen deliberation and broader citizen participation as part of the legislative process.

One great achievement of modern representative democracy is the idea that people should be treated as having equal importance in the processes of collective decision-making.[xiii] Ideally, the political institutions of a modern state will reflect this principle so that ‘formal political equality,’ or suffrage rights, will not depend on property qualifications, gender, race, or social status. Members of the Citizens’ and Students’ Assemblies will remember, however, that despite such legal equality, social and economic inequalities do still shape opportunities for political influence within systems of competitive representation. For example, it has been shown that a ‘first past the post’ system is less conducive to women’s representation in public office (the amount seats which are filled by women vs. that amount filled by men) than is an ‘open list proportional representation’ system.[xiv]

My point here is one that is made by academics also, that even with the principle of political equality in place, social and economic inequalities shape opportunities for political influence within systems of competitive representation. It should come as no surprise to anyone that economic advantage is one important source of political advantage.

Additionally, scholars note that since it is easier and more practical to mobilize small groups of individuals rather than large ones, competitive representation tends to favor concentrated interests, in which few actors gain large benefits on some policy initiatives, over diffuse ones, where many actors gain small benefits.[xv]

Expanding and deepening citizen participation and engagement in public governance may be the most promising strategy for challenging inequalities stemming from asymmetric concentrations of interests and traditional social and political hierarchies in society. This is why scholars recommend participation and deliberation to increase political equality. Deliberation blunts the power of greater resources with the force of better arguments. Likewise, citizen participation is the most promising cure to the influence conferred by wealth because it implies a shift from organized money to organized people the basis of political contestation.[xvi]

3. Political Autonomy. Is a democratic government organized solely as system of competitive representation as conducive to fostering citizen self-governance as much as possible were there some inclusion of broader citizen participation in public decision making? Again, I am not implying that the current system is completely broken. What I am saying here is that the current system does not foster citizen self-governance to the degree that might be possible were it to include some form of citizen deliberation and broader citizen participation as part of the legislative process.

Scholars assert that systems of competitive representation fail to realize the central democratic ambition to foster political autonomy by enabling people to live by rules that they make for themselves.[xvii] Even though, as was argued in other submissions to this forum, it might be futile to expect all the citizens of a pluralist democracy to achieve political consensus, still John Locke’s concept of self-government remains possible – that citizens agree either by overt or tacit consent to live by the laws of a society, and insisting on the protection of ‘rights and freedoms within that society.’[xviii] What we see in systems of competitive representation however, is that political outcomes result from “differential capacities to mobilize popular constituencies, balances of interest backed by voters or money, complex deals of legislative law-making, or narrow interests capturing the division of government that most concerns them.”[xix] In this sense, competitive representation falls far short of citizen self-governance – it legislates to interests (money), not to citizens’ calls for political autonomy – and reflects bargaining among competing interests, not Locke’s ideal of self-government (choosing to be free within a society).

Theoretically however, in citizens’ juries, laws, policies and prescriptions are the result of processes in which citizens defend solutions to shared problems on the bases of what are generally acknowledged by their fellows to be relevant reasons. I can state from my own experience with the Citizens’ and Students’ Assemblies, that these two examples of citizens’ juries closely resembled this ideal. As I argued upon returning from facilitating the Students’ Assembly in particular, (and I will use this example because the Citizens’ Assembly has not yet begun its deliberation in earnest) the reasons articulated at this particular citizens’ jury expressed such widely shared values as fairness, legitimacy, accountability, liberty, equal opportunity, public safety, public consultation, pragmatism, respect for tradition and the common good.[xx]

It is quite probable that different citizens might interpret the content of ‘shared values’ differently and assign them different weight. It is also quite probable that citizens will disagree on matters of fact. I saw this happen at the Students’ Assembly as well. Scholars too note that, “In the allocation of scarce resources, different citizens might, for example, assign different importance to advantaging the least advantaged, advantaging those who would benefit most from the resources, and assuring equal chances for access to those resources. Disagreements might also occur over acceptable levels of risk, and about when assurances of freedom of expression are excessively damaging to the equal standing of citizens.”[xxi]

My point here echoes the argument I made in my return submission from the Students’ Assembly. Scholars, who emphasize the importance of reason, still do not expect self- and group-interest to disappear as political forces and aim to ensure that political agreement and appeals to interests are framed by considerations such as fairness, equality and common advantage.[xxii] The literature on deliberative democracy tells us, when citizens take these political values seriously, the political judgments they make are not simply the product of power and interest. Rather, and this is something even citizens whose views do not win out will be able to see, political decisions are supported buy good reasons.[xxiii] Applied to citizens’ juries, and namely our Citizens’ Assembly, what this means is that, despite disagreement, all participating members may regard their conduct as generally guided by their own reason. According to deliberative democratic theory, establishing such political deliberation will realize an ideal of self-government under such conditions of plurality.

In fact, the ideals of responsibility, equality and autonomy may themselves be understood to represent a particular account of political legitimacy. That account, is concordant with the claim made by some political philosophers and political science scholars that, “outcomes are legitimate to the extent that they receive reflective assent through participation in authentic deliberation by all those subject to the decision in question.”[xxiv] The ideal is that all those subject to collective rules should have helped to make those rules.

What “is” Deliberation?

It is possible to further conceptualize how deliberation may better realize political legitimacy by analyzing how scholars conceive of the process of deliberation – what it actually “is.” The conceptualization of how deliberation further realizes political responsibility is rather straightforward – citizens who are part of the process of public policy making are, consequently, politically responsible not only for the inception of new norms, precedents and prescriptions, but are also responsible to their fellow citizens as together, they will live under those same prescribed policies.

Conceptually, deliberation better realizes the ideal of political equality by demanding of any deliberative group, such as a citizens’ jury or assembly, the assurance that public reason and not private power dominates public discussion. Therefore, there must be an insistence on equality between participants. In an inclusive franchise that is meant to deliver decisive decisions, participants must agree to reciprocity in their discussions and give each other equal speaking time and enforcement power (the only limitation to this rule that I can think of, are the personality types and comfort levels of the participants).[xxv] Perhaps then, it is better to think of the process as ‘democratic deliberation’ (not simply, ‘deliberation,’ without the modifier), the focus of which is the making of collective binding decisions, covering all the stages of the decision-making process from problem definition and agenda-setting to discussions of solutions, decision-making and implementation.

Finally, deliberation may also be conceptualized as better realizing the ideal of political autonomy, because the process of deliberation demands not to be removed from questions of agendas, interests, decisions and actions. Democratic deliberation requires that participating members’ arguments for and against certain views be made public if they are to persuade other members. Their views must then be examined and challenged by those others. In this process, “preferences which may be more or less vague, unreflective, ill-informed, and private, will be transformed into more firm, reflective, informed, and other-regarding ones through the deliberative encounter.”[xxvi]

Of course, two prerequisites for such a transformation of ideas are, 1) that participating members are communicatively competent, meaning that they will understand and critically assess the arguments of others and make sound arguments themselves; and 2) that participating members “are willing to be persuaded, to have their preferences transformed in the face of a better argument, and thus to set aside strategic concerns and behaviour in the pursuit of those [transformed] preferences.”[xxvii]

As many theorists note, “voting-centric views see democracy as the arena in which fixed preferences and interests compete via fair mechanisms of aggregation.”[xxviii] I am arguing that citizens’ juries, the Citizen’s Assembly being a prime example of these, are deliberative forums that “focus on the communicative processes of opinion and will formation.”[xxix] They are a mirror of what happens, or what should happen – in an engaged and lively democratic constituency – between citizens before voting actually takes place; they precede voting. Here, “accountability replaces consent as the conceptual core of legitimacy.”[xxx]

This notion of accountability should be primarily understood in terms of “giving an account of something; that is, publicly articulating, explaining, and most importantly, justifying public policy.”[xxxi] In this way, deliberative democracy, and its use of citizen’s juries, is an expansion of our consent and voting-based competitively representative democracy. It is also notable that the whole idea that deliberation might better realize democratic ideals rests on the conception of ‘democratic deliberation’ that I have described above. In fact, many of my prior posts to this forum have argued much the same point.[xxxii] This exposition then (the reader will note) draws together much of my research and thought over the past four months within the context of a final draft.

Conclusion and Prescription

I have argued thus far that deliberation and the broader participation in societal governance that it calls for, may better realize for society, the democratic values which presumably, we all share. It fact, it calls us to greater participation in society and governance – since we are the ‘citizens’ to which deliberative democracy makes so many references. It is a thought that harks back to the Greek Tradition of Democracy – the topic on which I made my first lengthy submission to this forum – that citizen participation in the governance of the polis (Citizens’ assemblies and citizens’ juries) builds on the “distinctive practical competence that citizens possess as users of public services, subjects of public policy and regulation, or residents who have contextual knowledge of their neighborhoods and ecosystems.”[xxxiii] It is interesting that in today’s day and age, it has taken the work of so many scholars to suggest that society renew its commitment to draw on the competencies of citizens by bringing them back into deliberation over certain public issues.

That having been said, (and I intend this next section especially for Citizens’ Assembly members) perhaps a more deliberative legislative institution would also be able to better realize the ideals of democracy. Now the Citizens’ Assembly certainly isn’t going to change the whole organization of how legislation is passed in Ontario. Certainly, even an electoral system of proportional representation is still considered to be “competitive representation” broadly defined. What is important, I am arguing, is how closely the process of government formation and discussion of legislation in the Ontario Parliament resembles and approximates democratic deliberation.

For example, by forcing political parties to form coalition governments, through an electoral system of, say, List PR, policy prescriptions that may have been more or less one sided and partisan may be transformed into more inclusive legislation as different parties, representing the views of ‘different thinking’ Ontarians, deliberate over policy initiatives and government management. Or, here’s another example, ballots that are categorical in nature may be conceptualized as “stepping into the public forum, shouting ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and leaving.” Contrast this idea with an ordinal ballot that represents the ordered preferences of each citizen brought into dialogue with the preferences of every other citizen. (By this estimation, choosing to mark an ordinal ballot in a categorical way would only represent a deliberate choice the part of the citizen to keep certain preferences private, or to refrain from fuller public participation. Already so many citizens make the conscious choice not to participate in public governance by not voting.)

I have now, at the end of four months, finally put down my opinion of electoral reform in Ontario. Hopefully, I have also articulated a convincing argument (hopefully someone important is reading this) to export the idea of citizens’ juries to other public policy issues as well (and to other places). Whatever outcome the Citizens’ Assembly prescribes, I believe that already, a tremendous service has been done to the political culture of Ontario. Perhaps this won’t be the last Citizens’ Assembly that we witness.

[i] Joshua Cohen and Archon Fung, Radical Democracy,

[ii] André Blais and Elizabeth Gidengil, Making Representative Democracy Work: The Views of Canadians, Vol. 17 of the Research Studies, Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, Toronto, 1991, p. 79.

[iii] Joshua Cohen and Archon Fung, Radical Democracy,

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Scholar84, The Greek and Republican Traditions of Democracy, posted on Sept. 29th 2006,

[vi] Simone Chambers, 2003, Deliberative Democratic Theory, Annu. Rev. Polit. Sci. 6: 307-26, p 308.

[vii] Joshua Cohen and Archon Fung, Radical Democracy,

[viii] Jurgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis, Thomas McCarthy (Trans.), Beacon Press (August 25, 1975).

[ix] Joshua Cohen and Archon Fung, Radical Democracy,

[x] Jean-JacquesRousseau, Social Contract, Book, III, chap. 15

[xi] Joshua Cohen and Archon Fung, Radical Democracy,

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Simone Chambers, 2003, Deliberative Democratic Theory, Annu. Rev. Polit. Sci. 6: 307-26, p 308.

[xiv] Alan Cairns, "The Electoral System and the Party System in Canada, 1921-1965," Canadian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 1, No. 1, March 1968, p. 55-80 and William P. Irvine, Does Canada Need a New Electoral System? Kingston, Ontario, 1979.

[xv] William P. Irvine, "A Review and Evaluation of Electoral Reform Proposals," in Peter Aucoin, editor, Institutional Reforms for Representative Government, Volume 38 of the research studies, Royal Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1985, p. 71-109.

[xvi] Joshua Cohen and Archon Fung, Radical Democracy,

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, Chapters 7-2, 18

[xix] Joshua Cohen and Archon Fung, Radical Democracy,

[xx] Scholar84, The Possible Future of Citizens’ Juries, posted on Nov. 24th 2006,

[xxi] Joshua Cohen and Archon Fung, Radical Democracy,

[xxii] Scholar84, The Possible Future of Citizens’ Juries, posted on Nov. 24th 2006,

[xxiii] Joshua Cohen and Archon Fung, Radical Democracy,

[xxiv] John S. Dryzek, Deliberative Democracy and Beyond: Liberals, Critics, Contestations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000

[xxv] Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, Democracy and Disagreement, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996

[xxvi] Joshua Cohen, "The Economic Basis of Deliberative Democracy," Social Philosophy and Policy, vol. 6, no. 2 (Spring 1989), pp. 25-50

[xxvii] John S. Dryzek, Deliberative Democracy and Beyond: Liberals, Critics, Contestations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000

[xxviii] Simone Chambers, 2003, Deliberative Democratic Theory, Annu. Rev. Polit. Sci. 6: 307-26, p 308.

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] Ibid.

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] Scholar84, CA Observation Report, posted on Nov. 3rd 2006, and Scholar84, Class Presentation Response, posted on Sept. 22nd 2006,

[xxxiii] Joshua Cohen and Archon Fung, Radical Democracy,

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


Comment: In response to Scholar84 on deliberation

In this comment on the CA, I’d like to address a question Scholar84 posed to me (Response to Young Ontarian Nov 11) on how, as a member of the CA, I view the deliberative process and its potential results.

First, as Scholar84 started with a personal note; I’m compelled to do the same. I’ve really enjoyed being part of this class and have learnt a lot from my classmates that has made being in the CA a lot more meaningful. I started out with no background on democratic theory and have finished having learnt a great deal so thanks to everyone especially Professor Ron!

Now, to steal Scholar84’s line- back to business! I agree with Scholar84s conception of deliberation as a process that includes the ‘synthesis of two or more opposing arguments’(Scholar84) in a forum of ‘free and public reasoning of equal citizens.”(Bohman pg 402) with the goal-through the public transformation of interests- of determining the common good. Although I have a lot of faith in the deliberative process and its ability to produce a common good, I am cautious to support the theoretical view that Scholar84 presents that “at the end of the CA’s deliberations, all the members will be wholly convinced…or I should say, wholly in support of the decision.”

In his article, “The coming of age of deliberative democracy", Bohman highlights that prominent deliberative democratic theorist Habermas focuses on a procedural ideal of deliberation. As Bohman highlights, ‘the problem is that this account does not show why the reasons for any such decision are good reasons.(pg.402) I think that this is an especially relevant concern, (Thrysamachus addressed this in his post “Validating the Non-rational”) as members of the CA haven’t been specifically trained in how to present rational arguments which conform to the substantive criteria of reciprocity, publicity and accountability outlined by Guttman and Thomas. Put simply, how are we to insure that, in the end, the reasons the CA give for choosing one electoral system over another are the right reasons? I think this is an especially valid concern considering the limitations that the CA is facing, mainly the constraints of a tight timeline and incomplete information (as highlighted in Bohman pg. 3).

During the deliberation phase, the CA will have only three to four weekends to make a decision on whether to keep the current system or recommend a new one. I express concern that this amount of time, even if the deliberation does follow a perfect procedure (and all participants do adhere to the principles of reciprocity, legitimacy, and accountability-a theoretical dream and practical impossibility), may not be enough time to properly transform interests through the deliberative process in order to ascertain the common good. Secondly, the assembly is dealing with incomplete information as, due to the complex nature of electoral systems, it is impossible to know exactly what the effects of a certain electoral system will be when you implement it within the culture of Ontario.

Considering this, I think that (while I'm wholy in support of consensus decision making) it isn’t necessary that all members end up in support of the decision solely because it is a product of deliberation. I do think however, that any assembly member who would vote ‘no’ to a proposed option in a referendum should make their concerns known through the proceedings and, if their preferences remain untransformed for whatever reason, they should vote against any proposed change within the assembly. In fact, in the BC assembly’s final vote; 11 people voted to keep FPTP and in a second vote asking whether or not STV should be recommended to the people of BC, 7 people voted no.(2)

A final thought; not wanting too sound cynical, due to the reasons mentioned, I think it would be worrying if, in the end, the CA votes unanimously for one system or another. I say this because due to the nature of the question (as Scholar84 highlights) it is highly unlikely that there will be a unanimous decision. Further, if a unanimous decision were to result; I would wonder whether or not that was a result of the true opinions of assembly members or whether or not it arose due to a faulty process that did not protect against the psychological pressures to conform to the group (groupthink) I think that, even at the end of deliberation, there is a role for dissenting opinion.

Hope that answers your question Scholar84!

(1)James Bohman. "The coming of age of deliberative democracy". The Journal of political philosophy. Vol 4 No. 4, 1998. (pg 400-425)

(2)"Making every vote count; the case for electoral reform in British Columbia". Citizens' Assembly Final report, 2004, pg 15.


Representation and Electoral Systems

In this post (my final essay), I will examine a topic that has been central to our course; the nature of representation. The question of representation is undoubtedly one of the central issues in the work of the Citizens’ Assembly (CA) in that, ultimately, the assembly is trying to decide which electoral system best represents the interests and values of Ontarians. In this post, I will argue that the current First Past the Post (FPTP) system is, compared to other electoral systems, inadequately representing the population of Ontario. On examining the ways in which FPTP is inadequate, I present a mixed system, mainly Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) as a viable alternative that the CA should strongly consider during deliberation.

Defining representation

Before considering what electoral system may best represent Ontario, it is critical to ask, how does one define representation? Hanna Pitkin, whose seminal work, Representation (1972) started our semester, defines representation as simply “to make present again.(1) By extension, this definition says that political representation entails making citizens’ voices present in the process of public policy making (Dovi Pg 1). Although this definition seems deceptively simple; Pitkin argues that the complexity of the concept lies in the paradoxical nature of representation which, by definition, entails having the voices of the electorate, simultaneously both present and absent in the legislature(2). The crux of Pitkin’s argument is that the concept of representation can be defined in numerous, sometimes contradictory ways. To take one of numerous examples, a political representative can be seen as either a delegate or a trustee. The delegate view sees the representative as directly expressing the preferences of the constituents whereas the trustee view sees the representative as someone who’s been elected to employ their own understanding of the best course of action (Dovi). This example serves to highlight Pitkin’s assertion that “there is no agreement to what representation is or means.” (Pitkin,pg 7). She argues that the best way to view the concept is to accept the multiplicity of definitions by looking to the appropriate context in order to understand what is meant by the term. (Pitkin pg. 8).

Representation theory applied to Queen’s Park

Considering representation is such a complex, multifaceted concept; which definition(s) best help us understand how we Ontarians are represented at Queen’s Park? Studlar and McAllister discuss that parliamentarians in Westminister-style democracies (Canada, U.K ,Australia and New Zealand) view their role as “locals, who focus on articulating local concerns and interests; partisans, who see their role in party political terms; and legislators, who emphasize the parliamentary role of an elected representative.” (3). This definition highlights the multiple facets of representation and how this complexity translates into a multiplicity of roles for the representative. Given the representative role of MPPs; which theory of representation best defines how we view our representatives? MPPS (and more generally parliamentarians in the Westminister democratic tradition) can best be described using the representatives as trustees model (Pease,pg 22). Although voters vote for a specific representative due, in part, to their ideology and stand on important issues; the representative as a trustee model is fitting because, due to the complexity of today’s issues, the electorate do not necessarily have the interest or the specialized knowledge to delegate their will on every specific issue that arises in parliament. For that reason, we entrust our representatives to represent us by using their best judgment.

There is also an alternative, modern interpretation of the role of the political representative that also applies to how we view our MPPs. This view, that developed due to the rise of importance of the modern political party, sees parliamentarians that are within major parties “as (neither) trustees nor delegates of their voters, but as partisans(Pease, pg 27)." This points to the complexity of the conflict that parliamentarians can often face when pressure to represent their political party (or colloquially, to ‘tow the party line’) is in direct conflict with the pressure to act as a trustee on behalf of their constituents. Given how we can best define the general representative role MPPs, the question of importance to the Citizens’ Assembly that follows is how well does the current electoral system represent Ontarians? I argue that, compared to other electoral systems, the FPTP system fails at adequately representing Ontarians in two ways; Firstly, the amount of seats a party is awarded after the election is not representative of the proportion of citizens who voted for that particular party and secondly, the current legislature does not adequately represent the demographics diversity of Ontario’s population.

FPTP and inadequate representation

a)FPTP and lack of proportionality

The first reason FPTP fails to adequately represent the voice of Ontarians in Queens Park (and the major criticism of the FPTP system), is the fact that the number of seats a party gets in parliament is not representative of the number of votes that the party got during the election. FPTP exaggerates the proportion of seats for the parties with the most support while underrepresenting parties with less support. For example, in the last provincial election, the Liberals got 46.5% of the popular vote and 66.6% of the seats at Queen’s park (72 of 103). Conversely, the NDP got 14.7% of the vote and was awarded 6.7% of the seats (7 of 103)(5) This discrepancy is a result of a high volume of ‘wasted votes’; wasted votes referring to ballots cast
that aren't used to elect a representative. The traditional argument for FPTP is that this disproportionality in the votes to seats ratio is a necessary trade off as it produces majority governments known for their stability. This argument, however is weaker than it may first appear (a discussion on stability being saved for another time) and, although admits to the inadequacies of representation, the argument doesn’t address how problematic the issue of inadequate representation really is.

Another related issue of representation arises from this discrepancy between how many votes a party gets and how many seats it gets. That is that voters, frustrated by the high number of ‘wasted votes’ characteristic of FPTP, are less likely to vote in the first place therefore making parliament representative of fewer Ontarians. Although there are numerous factors that affect voter turnout, (for example culture and education) the fact remains that countries using a proportional representation electoral system have a higher voter turn out than those under FPTP. Blais and Karty (1990) show that the higher turnout rate holds even when controlling for other variables aside from the electoral system. The representative nature of the legislature has been criticized due to the low number of voters who turn out for elections.

b) FTPF and lack of demographic diversity

The second reason why FPTP is inadequately representative is because it does not properly reflect the demographic diversity of the electorate. For example, although women make up just over 50% of the population, Queen’s Park currently has 17 MPPs who are women representing just 16.5% of the legislature. Visible minorities are also grossly underrepresented at the provincial level. It has been a common argument within the assembly that it doesn’t matter what demographic the representative belongs to as long as they are good MPPs who serve their constituents well. Although this is not incongruous with the trustee model of representation, it doesn’t take into account the institutional element of marginalization and how this has served to create a unique voice for historically marginalized groups such as women and visible minorities. In her widely acclaimed book Voice, Trust, and Memory (1998), Melissa Williams presents her theory of representation as mediation in order to provide a theoretical framework for why marginalized groups are best self-represented in the legislature(6). In her theory of representation of mediation, Williams’ expands on Pitkin’s assertion that representation is a complex, multifaceted concept by saying that, “The complexity of representation arises from the fact that its institutions and processes mediate between citizen concerns and governmental decisions in several ways.”(pg.8). (For a more detailed discussion of Williams' reprenstation as mediation please see my post: underrepresented groups and the CA) Williams argues that underrepresented groups are best represented by members of their own group in the legislature because of two factors; voice and memory. Williams’ posits that marginalized groups are best self-represented in the legislature because only members of that particular group have the ‘distinct voice’ that stems from the experience of systemic discrimination (pg 13). Secondly, she contends that the most effective legislature-constituent relationship for marginalized, underrepresented groups is to have a representative from their own group as this fosters trust in the representative that is difficult to cultivate, because of a history of discrimination, if the representative is a member of the dominant group(pg 9). Williams’ concept of representation as mediation provides a theoretical framework useful for understanding the faults of the argument that demographics aren’t a relevant factor when choosing representatives. Her theory, based on the experiences of marginalized groups in the U.S, helps us understand why a more equitable demographic representation in the legislature is critical.

A more representative alternative

Considering the inadequacies in our FPTP in terms of demographic representation and the lack of proportionality for political parties; what alternative electoral systems can the Citizens’ Assembly explore in order to better represent Ontario? I argue that the Assembly should strongly consider MMP because, as a mixed electoral system,MMP has the capacity to address the inadequacies of FPTP concerning proportional representation and the lack of adequate demographic representation. Further, unlike the most proportional national List PR system, the mixed nature of MPP incorporates the geographic representation element that is deeply ingrained in Ontarian democracy.

A Case for MMP:

Proportional representation

The key difference that would make MMP more representative of Ontarians is
the added proportional vote (designed to compensate for the discrepency in proportionality resulting from the FPTP ballot) on the MMP ballot. A PR system has the ability to address both the failings of representation presented by the FPTP system; the discrepancy between votes a party obtains in an election and seats they are awarded as well as the demographic imbalance in the legislature. Proponents of proportional representation, dating back to prominent political philosopher John Stewart Mill have argued for PR systems because they contributes to ‘citizen efficacy’ due to the lack of ‘wasted votes’ characteristic of FPTP. The more proportional a system is the more ‘citizen are able to identify a representative whom they have had some role in electing’. (Williams, pg 218). This fact bore out in New Zealand where a switch to MMP diluted the strength of the two major parties and gave seats to smaller parties, with 8 parties winning seats in the 2005 election. (7) Voter turnout was also positively affected by a switch to MMP in New Zealand; although the results are not as dramatic as one may have hoped, it’s shown that the adoption of MMP has, so far, stalled the decline in voter turnout. (Vowles,pg13). This shows that that there’s empirical evidence that a more proportional system more adequately represents the diversity of views of the electoral and also tends to represent a larger number of voters than FPTP.

Demographic representation

In terms of improving demographic representation, first, it’s important to note that studies show that the single most important variable affecting cross-national variation in the number of women and minorities in parliament is the electoral system (Arseneau) This supports Williams’ argument which focuses on the role of institutions, like the electoral system, in mediating the relationship between constituents and government decision-making (pg 16). It highlights that institutional barriers play an absolutely critical role in determining who represents us. (please see my comment on the Sept. 30 meeting of the CA for a discussion on direct vs. indirect barriers to entry into the legislature.) In her discussion on institutional design, Williams highlights that PR electoral systems are seen by advocates of marginalized group representation as ‘the most promising direction of institutional reform’ (pg. 215). Regarding MMP in particular, it’s noted that, compared to FPTP the MMP system ‘enhances the legislative presence not only of minority political parties but also of women and ethnic minorities'(pg 217). The case of New Zealand, a Westminister- style parliamentary democracy such as Ontario that made the transition from FPTP to MMP, shows that the adoption of the MMP model significantly increased the amount of women in parliament. In 1996, there were 35 women MPs representing 29% of the legislature (25 of which came from the party list as opposed to constituency MPs) .Further, in the first MMP election in 1996, 15 Maori MPs were elected which was roughly proportionate to their population (Arseneau, pg. 3.) It’s important to note that these gains in the representation of women and visible minorities in MMP were made through the party list. The party list element is what increases the representation of women and minorities in part because political parties, having to produce a comprehensive list of candidates, want to visibly appear to be inclusive because “it’s a statement of how the party sees itself and who it represents; failure to present a “balanced ticket” is more highly visible (Arseneau pg.10)Party lists can vary in being open or closed, both of which have their tradeoffs in terms of representation. Because of space constraints, and the fact that this is a design element within the electoral system, I will leave the discussion of open vs. closed lists and their tradeoffs in representation to another time. For the scope of this paper, it is suffice to say that research supports that a list-PR element is shown to increase the demographic representation of marginalized groups.

My discussion of increased proportionality and demographic representation in the MMP system leads to the conclusion that it’s a much more representative electoral system for Ontario. Knowing that national list PR is the most proportional system due in part to its high district magnitude and focus on party lists, it must be explained why MMP is a better alternative for Ontario than list-PR. The reason, which adds a further layer of complexity to representation, is that it incorporates the Westministarian tradition of geographic representation (in the form of ridings) whereas national list PR does not.

Geographical representation

Any discussion on representative institutions within the Westminister tradition involves the central role of geographic representation. Ontario has a history of
dividing voters into constituencies based on what region they live in, whether it be northern and rural or southern and urban. Constituency case work is seen as one of the central roles of MPPs meaning that the thing that they are representing in the legislature as a trustee (in theory at least) are the voices of people within their geographically based constituency (Pease, pg. 27) Recently, it has been questioned whether or not geographic representation is necessary especially in a modern context where may issues transcend the communities represented by geographic ridings. Williams’ explains that list PR systems are favourable because they allow people to form ‘self-defined constituencies’ without being bound by arbitrary geographical boundaries. (pg 215) Further, Although the The Law commission of Canada (2004) concluded the a geographical representation element was critical in determining a more representative electoral system for Canada they acknowledge that, “the limited research on geographic representation suggests that the link between constituents and their elected representatives may not be as important as we initially thought" (Pease,pg 28) (8). Although recent work suggests that geographical representation may not be a necessity, I, and numerous others, maintain that in Ontario (at this point in time) any electoral system chosen must maintain the tradition of geographic representation.

William’s concept of listening (pg.12) to marginalized groups in order to determine what their needs are (on which she based her representation as mediation theory) is useful in understanding why geographic representation still matters to Ontarians. First, from the geographic representation working group presentation, it is evident that citizens from Northern Ontario already feel marginalized at Queen’s Park (there is a perception that the legislature is too focused on issues concerning urban southern Ontario) and that any move away from strong constituency representation of the North would be seen as unacceptable. Secondly, from discussions within small groups at the assembly it is clear that people value having a regional representative, who they can go to, should they wish, in order to express concerns. People feel that the fact that the MPP is elected to represent a riding makes he or she directly accountable to the people that are being represented. This accountability is best expressed by a common saying that if you don’t like how you’re being represented you can directly, “vote the bums out”. This sentiment seems to be echoed in the consultation meetings throughout Ontario; assembly members are reporting back from their consultation meetings that many Ontarians are advocating for MMP because of their desire for ‘the best of both worlds’ (meaning both proportional and geographic representation). This shows that, in listening to Ontarians, geographic representation remains an important element in how Ontarians conceptualize how they’re represented in parliament.

MMP and unresolved issues of representation

Although MMP is better representative that FPFP; MMP, (like all systems) is imperfect, and has its own complex issues of representation. Within the assembly, there has been much debate over the fact that MMP produces two different types of representatives; constituent representatives and party list MPPs. It has been argued that list representatives aren’t directly accountable to the voters and in fact, there has been some problems in New Zealand where unpopular constituency candidates who didn’t win constituency seats were awarded seats by political parties through the list-PR component of the system (Vowles pg.11) If Ontario were to adopt MMP, this issue could be resolved by stipulating that candidates must choose either to run as a list candidate or constituency candidate but not both. Another issue raised with MMP is how to define the role of the two types of representatives. Clearly, this transition to the dual nature of MPPS would change the role of representatives as defined by parliamentarians in the Westminister system. In their transition, New Zealand experienced some conflict where it was perceived that, in some cases, list-MPs were trying to provide similar services to communities as constituent MPPs (Vowles, pg 11). When this issue was discussed in the assembly it was argued that two types of MPPs would likely better represent Ontarians if they accepted two distinct roles. Constituent MPPs would continue to focus on their local role whereas List MPPs would focus on their legislative role. They could be chosen on their expertise on certain issues of importance to Ontarians, i.e advocating for recent immigrants or the environment. In this way, Ontarians could have representatives in parliament that focused on representing local concerns as well as well representatives that were responsible for issue based advocacy.


In this paper, I have argued that the MMP system should be seriously considered by the assembly because it addresses some of the inadequacies of FPTP. Although the Single Transferable Vote (STV) alternative also incorporates geographic representation and PR (and is arguably more representative because of a higher district magnitude within ridings; known to allow for more equitable representation of women and minorities) I contend that this system would not be as efficient in the geographical representation of Ontarians because, in order not to increase the size of the legislature to a size that would be unfavourable to Ontarians, the geographic ridings would have to be significantly increased across the province. In listening to members from the North, it is evident that this alternative would be unacceptable to Northern Ontarians who already have large geographical ridings. On the other hand, MMP could increase proportionality by maintaining similar riding demarcations and adding a modest realm of list seats, perhaps around 30.(9)


In this paper, I have examined the concept of political representation and how it applies to how we Ontarians view our MPPs at Queen’s Park. I have reviewed FPTP and
have concluded, like many others before me, that it doesn’t adequately represent Ontario. I have argued that the CA should seriously consider the MMP system during deliberation as it is better suited to effectively represent the people of Ontario. MMP is better representative because the list PR portion of the system will correct the inadequacies of representation in FPTP while maintaining geographic representation.

It is important to highlight that I have examined the current electoral system and a possible alternative using the framework of representation. There are, of course other criteria in addition to an electoral system's ability to represent the voice of people which can be used as an evaluative tool. The CA, for example considers among its values effective government, legitimacy and accountability as some of the other dimensions of importance. This means that, examining the electoral system with a focus on another value (and a willingness to compromise on proportional representation) may well yield a different result. Further, as the CA’s mandate covers only the electoral system, I have not extended my discussion to include how well MPPs are able to carry out their day to day work as representatives in parliament. For example, in New Zealand, although a higher proportion of women were elected under MMP, there are mixed results over how much power this more equitable representation actually gave women in the legislature (Arseneau). This highlights that, in order to get a complete picture of the nature of effective representation for Ontarians, it would be important to extend the discussion to how well representatives can carry out their representative roles once elected into the legislature. This indicates that the electoral system is only one piece of the puzzle and that although many gains in representation can be made by electoral reform, there are of course limitations to what electoral reform can and can’t accomplish.


(1)Susan Dovi. "Political Representation". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Jan, 2006.

(2)Hanna Pitkin. Representation. New York: Atherton Press, 1969: 16.

(3)Therese Arsenau. "The Representation of Women and Aboriginals under Pr: Lessons learnt from New Zealand"; 1997.

(4)Pease, Hilary. "Geographic representation and electoral reform". Canadian Parliamentary Review; 2005.

(5)"Tories toppled by Liberal landslide" Ontario Votes 2003. CBC, 2003.

(6)Vanessa Williams. Voice, Trust and Memory: Marginalized groups and the failings of liberal representation. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998.

(7)Jack Vowles et. al. "Forecasting and evaluating the consequences of electoral change in New Zealand", 2005.

(8)Is is worthy of mention that the Law Comission of Canada recommended MMP on a federal level. "Valuing Canadians: the options for voting system reform in Canada"Law Comission of Canada,2005.

(9)Jonathan Rose, in teaching the assembly about electoral systems, highlighted that research shows that a 25% increase in the size of the legislature would be sufficient to increase proportionality.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


Comment on Glaucon’s November 25 Observation Report

As always, Glaucon’s reasoning is logical and informative. Here I intend to build on Glaucon’s idea that there are inherent difficulties in the design of deliberative bodies.

The working groups that Lang recommends are a proposed solution for the central problem she outlines earlier in her paper:
“Many deliberative processes continue to suffer from a tension surrounding who will control the parameters, substance, and structure of discussion” (Lang, p. 2).

Given that there is no ‘correct’ answer to the sorts of problems suited to mini-publics, any system will inevitably be criticized for failing to give enough consideration to one facet or another. For example, Glaucon criticizes the Assembly for its failure to spend adequate time considering women and minority representation in the political system.

If the Assembly did spend ‘adequate time’ on the issue (whatever length of time that might be), it would have to find the time somewhere. Perhaps it would take time away from Dr. Rose’s presentations on the various electoral systems, when members learn the characteristics of the designs they are considering. Perhaps the sessions would run later and take time away from Saturday evenings, when numerous observers report that some of the most enlightening informal discussions take place. In any case, there would be some who would criticize the Assembly for failing to give adequate time to one aspect over another.

Beyond the limitations in time, there are also limitations in structure. If, as the designer of a mini-public, you believe that minority rights have primacy, then surely you will believe in the value of a mini-public structure that encourages minority voices. If so, who should design that structure? And should the process of that structure’s design not include minority voices as well? Where does it end?

In the case that Glaucon addresses, the practical problem is building reflexivity into the agenda-setting process. If we accept the importance that Lang puts on agenda-setting, the Assembly members must be given more say in the agenda-setting process. But as Glaucon suggests, what is to be done if the agenda-setting process is not adequate? Is taking Amy Lang’s suggestions enough, or do we need to develop a process for designing the agenda-setting process?

Bohman’s survey paper points out that this kind of circuitous search for first principles is an inherent problem in the design of deliberative bodies:
“Deliberative democracy seems caught on the horns of a dilemma: if it establishes its moral credentials of legitimacy via an ideal procedure, it cannot underwrite its epistemic claims; if it establishes its epistemic claims, they can only be underwritten by standards that are not only procedure-independent, but also independent of deliberation” (p. 413).
Based on his observation, I do not disagree with Glaucon’s proposition that the Assembly’s working groups, as they are structured, are not adequately empowered to put minority issues on the table. But to address the problem we must first understand the challenges involved in trying to develop a mini-public structure that does give minority issues their rightful voice.

The task at hand lies in the Bohman article as well. While there is no perfect design for deliberative bodies, “a fuller realization of deliberative democracy awaits the many experiments that will produce a ‘proliferation of institutional designs” (p. 417).


Bohman, J. (1998). The coming age of deliberative democracy. The Journal of Political Philosophy, 6, 400-425.

Lang, A. (2006). Agenda Setting in Deliberative Forums: Expert Influence and Citizen Autonomy in the BC Citizens’ Assembly. Madison, WI: Department of Sociology.


Comment on Publius’s Assembly Report for November 25, 2006

Attending a breakout group on the results of the mixed system simulation, Publius describes “two exhibitions of representation becoming visible here, but they have both been muddled by the procedure which the Assembly has been mandated with”. He goes on to describe how the Assembly as a whole does not fit into any of the visions of representation outlined in Pitkin’s seminal essay “The Concept of Representation”.

Publius’s argument is sound. It is difficult to neatly match mini-publics like the Citizens’ Assembly with any of those conceptions of representation. Brown describes the general problem in this way:

“Citizen panels present a genuine conundrum for theories of political representation. Both conceptually and institutionally, they fall into a gap between the informal deliberative institutions of the public sphere and the formal decision-making bodies of the states”. (Brown, p. 1)

When we limit ourselves to the historical range of perspectives surveyed in Pitkins’ 1969 piece, however, we impede innovative experiments in representation like the Citizens’ Assembly. Democratic theory is not a dead science like alchemy. For as long as human relationships and decision-making continue to evolve we will have to develop new ways of describing them.

Mark B. Brown’s model approaches representation as a collection of elements that different political bodies exhibit in different amounts. Each institution can be described as a balance between five distinct elements: authorization, accountability, expertise, participation and resemblance. Brown encourages us not to aim for some unattainable ‘best’ vision of representation, but instead to examine how each political institution inhabits its own place in the spectrum.

Looked at through the lens of Brown’s model, the Assembly’s resemblance to Ontarians doesn’t have to preclude its expertise. The two can co-exist simultaneously in the balance of elements that characterize the Assembly.

In Brown’s model, the trained Assembly may not resemble Ontarians’ level of democratic expertise as well as a random sample of untrained people would, but it does represent them (in this sense) better than a group of political science professors. And while the Assembly does not fulfill the expertise element of representation in the same way a collection of ivory tower-dwelling political science professors would, it does much better than the random sample. The Assembly is somewhere in the middle, with a strong allotment of each element.

In fact, the Assembly is a good example of where Brown’s model can prove useful. The technical and political components of the Assembly’s mission are very much intertwined. Trustee representatives (the political science professors) would be accused of failing to share the laypeople’s interests, and descriptive representatives (the random sample) would be accused of being uninformed. A large part of the assembly’s merit lies in the fact that it attempts to combine technical training and a representative sample of Ontarians to arrive at the best flavour of representation for the job.

Perhaps the most useful part of Brown’s model is his replacement of competing systems for representation with a garden of democratic institutions, each one suited to its own purpose. Citizens’ Assemblies do not replace the participation of groups of average citizens, who are captured by polls. They do not replace issue experts, who are consulted in Royal Commissions. Instead they add to the variety on offer. Brown’s vision is that:
“The various institutions and practices of representation are best evaluated not with reference to the concept of representation as a whole, but in terms of their specific contributions to a larger system of representative democracy” (Brown, p. 207).


Brown, M. B. (2006). Survey article: Citizen panels and the concept of representation. The Journal of Political Philosophy, 14, 203-225.

Pitkin, H. F. (1969). Introduction: the concept of representation. Representation. ed. Pitkin, H. F. Atherton Press.

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