The following report is from David Hulshuis, a member of the Netherlands Citizens’ Assembly.
Here is another update from the Dutch citizens' assembly. The assembly has moved fast in the last two months and, with only one assembly weekend left, an advice is within reach! It seems that the assembly is being mentioned more often in nationwide media, perhaps partly as a result of other initiatives on democratic reform. Meanwhile, Dutch politicians are busy campaigning and preparing for the national elections on November 22. It sure is an interesting moment to present our final advice, which is planned for November 10.
The assembly has had two more weekend meetings in the last month (on September 29/30 and October (20/21). During the first weekend of September some 30 or so proposals for reform were presented by members of the assembly. The core functions, conditions, and requirements of an electoral system were also established. The last two weekends focused more on working out the different proposals and narrowing down their number.
During the weekend of 29 and 30 September the assembly worked in smaller groups in which members discussed the five main variants of the proposals. Three groups paid attention to other themes, which may be applied to one of the variants: possible influence on coalition formation, an anti-vote, and topical voting. Although there still were significant differences in opinions, there were in-depth discussions resulting in more specific, sometimes reshaped, proposals. By the end of the weekend an indicative poll was held to see which proposals and themes garnered the most support.
In between the weekends, a structured online chat discussion was held among the members in order to elaborate on the arguments for and against the different proposals.
On October 20 the assembly traveled once more to the World Forum Convention Centre in The Hague for another exciting weekend. Some concept texts for the final report were discussed and some political science experts reflected on the assembly proposals, raising some questions and generally giving some useful feedback. The next morning we discussed topics related to the electoral system, including the role and value of abstentions, the electoral threshold, size of parliament, session length, and distribution of residuals seats. After another discussion on the system reform proposals, the assembly went to the vote in the afternoon, reducing the number of proposals to two. The rest of the afternoon was spent on making an inventory of additional recommendations the assembly wants to include in its report. This resulted in a whole shopping list of additional recommendations that definitely will have to be narrowed down during the final weekend as well.
The last two or three weekends were exciting as we now had to turn our general ideas into concrete plans and finally make choices. There seems to be a general consensus that the remaining variants held something for everyone and most members seem to be content with the direction we are going. However, seeing little support for your own proposal or finding out that ideas you advocate will not be included in the final advice, was of course disappointing for some members. This final phase does seem a bit rushed compared to the time we spent on learning about electoral systems and consulting with the Dutch people. To some it indeed seems to go too fast, but I think the majority of the assembly is glad that we are eventually moving towards our advice.
The assembly has gotten more attention in the media lately, at least that is the impression that I get. Often, the assembly is mentioned in connection with other democratization topics. For instance, there has been a "National Convention," a group of 14 independent members, backed by 30 advisors, that looked at the state of politics in the Netherlands and at ways to close the supposed gap between citizens and politicians. The presentation of their report on October 5, in which they recommended a stronger role for parliament and a sharper divide between the cabinet and parliament, yielded quite some press coverage. Hopefully, the citizens' assembly will face similar attention once the advice is ready!
Particularly interesting is the fact that the National Convention advised the government to install citizens' assemblies on important topics more often, as they provide a great opportunity to bridge the gap between citizens and politicians. Also, the Convention said, assemblies give citizens the much wanted opportunity to participate and to give a fresh view of the matter that politicians need. However, they also warn that it should be clear beforehand what role the results of an assembly will play in formal decision-making, as otherwise trust will be let down if results are pushes aside (A risk, I think, of the current assembly too). The Public Prosecution Service seems to lead the way, as it is planning to install an assembly on sentencing in the Netherlands, in order to hear citizens' opinions on penalties, as it is a much heard assertion in media and jurisdiction that penalties do not always fit crimes well.
The final assembly weekend will be held on November 10 and 11. On Friday, the assembly will vote for the final proposal and the additional recommendations. The citizens' assembly will publicly announce their proposal for the first time on prime time national television on the same day. The next day we will spend time on revising and adapting the contents of the advisory report. The weekend will be concluded with a party. In the following days there will be more TV coverage and hopefully a lot of press coverage as well. The actual report will be finished afterwards and presented to Minister of Government Reform Atzo Nicolaï in early December, when coalition formation will be taking place.