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On An Aotearoa Citizens’ Assembly

Press Release – Extinction Rebellion

Assemblies a way to re-engage non-voters As odd as it may seem to those who love democracy, around a third of New Zealanders will choose not to vote in the upcoming election, prompting calls for new ways of voting on important issues. Citizens’ …

Assemblies a way to re-engage non-voters

As odd as it may seem to those who love democracy, around a third of New Zealanders will choose not to vote in the upcoming election, prompting calls for new ways of “voting” on important issues.

Citizens’ Assemblies are a mechanism to engage the public in the widest sense, as they aim to be as inclusive as possible in selecting members to take part – including those not on the roll, or even not of voting age.

As part of its “election roadshow”, Extinction Rebellion (XR) and an allied group, Aotearoa Climate Emergency (ACE), are promoting Citizen’s Assemblies as the best tool to effect true democratic change.

“The concept is really simple,” says Bruce Bisset of XR’s Citizens’ Assembly working group. “You randomly select members of an assembly from those willing to take part, balanced demographically to represent all sectors of society, feed them the best information on the subject under discussion, and let them come up with suggested solutions.

“It is then up to government – at whatever level – to decide whether to implement those suggestions,” said Bisset. “But progressive governments around the world are increasingly using assemblies to drive their policy on crucial issues, such as climate change.”

Phil Saxby, ACE’s coordinator, agrees. “Ireland successfully used Citizens’ Assemblies to solve their abortion and gay marriage debates, which had been stalemated for decades.

“France and Britain are both currently using assemblies to inform their governments on the wishes of the people in respect to climate change. There is no reason why we should not do the same.”

“As much as consultation is a rightly much-maligned word these days, an assembly is the genuine article,” Saxby says. “Because it not only asks the questions, it also derives the answers – direct from the citizens themselves.”

Bisset points out that the concept is based on the original Greek form of democracy, and in modern society acts to go “beyond politics” because it cannot be captured by political parties, lobbyists, or other vested interests.

Part of the attractiveness of the idea is that it looks to draw on as many people who are resident in the country as possible, whether they are on a roll or not. In this way it can be used to engage and revitalise interest amongst current non-voters.

“Increasingly, citizens are electing not to vote, or even enroll, because they feel our version of democracy is failing them,” Bisset said. “And, given the often-rabid partisan politics we are subjected to, it’s hard to argue with that.

“Citizens’ assemblies allow those folk to take a productive part in decision-making and, hopefully, using this tool could work to reverse the worrying opt-out trend which is undermining our electoral system.”

XR’s working group has spent a year studying the methodology and formulating an “Aotearoa/New Zealand-centric” version of Citizens’ Assembly that gives effect to Te Tiriti o Waitangi and starts to address aspirational calls for constitutional transformation.

It has already presented this template to the Climate Change Commission as a tool they could use to inform their decisions on the new emissions reduction regime about to come into force, and is pursuing this idea with the Ministry for the Environment.

Similarly ACE has written to the Prime Minister and various government departments seeking buy-in on the concept. In addition there are several regional initiatives underway around the country, including in Wellington and Nelson.

Both groups are, as part of the “roadshow”, urging politicians to declare their support for the concept in hope sufficient numbers in any new government will see a Citizens’ Assembly on climate change enabled.

Assemblies a way to go “beyond politics”

Just as the Covid-19 pandemic has required a whole-nation response to bring it under control, so climate and ecological change is too large an issue to leave to any one sector – including Parliament – to address.

This is why Extinction Rebellion (XR) in collaboration with Aotearoa Climate Emergency (ACE) have joined forces as part of XR’s “election roadshow on climate” to promote the use of Citizens’ Assemblies as a tool to find solutions to what has rightly been described as the biggest issue of our times.

“The nature of our fight with nature – which, as one might expect, we are losing – is that it demands everyone participate in order to save ourselves from extinction,” says Bruce Bisset, a spokesperson for XR’s Citizens’ Assembly working group.

“Politically, this is a minefield which MPs are naturally hesitant to fully embrace, because some of the measures needed are seen as vote-losing,” he said. “So, let’s use some tools that go “beyond politics” to define what we, as residents of New Zealand, wish to see and are prepared to do to make that happen.”

“The concept is really simple,” says Phil Saxby, ACE’s coordinator. “You randomly select members of an assembly from those willing to take part, balanced demographically to represent all sectors of society, feed them the best information on the subject under discussion, and let them come up with suggested solutions.

“It is then up to government – at whatever level – to decide whether to implement those suggestions,” said Saxby. “But progressive governments around the world are increasingly using assemblies to drive their policy on crucial issues, including climate change.”

He points out that Ireland successfully used Citizens’ Assemblies to solve their abortion and gay marriage debates, which had been stalemated for decades. France and Britain are both currently using assemblies to inform their governments on the wishes of the people in respect to climate change.

“There is no reason why we should not do the same,” Saxby said.

The concept is based on the original Greek form of democracy, and, Bisset explains, is a “perfect vehicle” in modern society because it cannot be captured by political parties, lobbyists, or other vested interests.

“If we thought the pandemic was huge, wait until climate change really starts to bite,” said Bisset. “Even better: don’t wait! Let’s get a robust response off the ground now, to try to avoid the worst of the coming impacts.”

XR’s working group has spent a year studying the methodology and formulating an “Aotearoa/New Zealand-centric” version of Citizens’ Assembly that gives effect to Te Tiriti o Waitangi and starts to address aspirational calls for constitutional transformation.

It has already presented this template to the Climate Change Commission as a tool they could use to inform their decisions on the new emissions reduction regime about to come into force, and is pursuing this idea with the Ministry for the Environment.

Similarly ACE has written to the Prime Minister and various government departments seeking buy-in on the concept.

Both groups are, as part of the “roadshow”, urging politicians to declare their support for the concept in hope sufficient numbers in any new government will see a Citizens’ Assembly on climate change enabled.

“We will be telling voters where their local candidates stand on this,” said Bisset, “so they can vote accordingly. We all have the power to act to redress the climate emergency, and Citizens’ Assemblies are a very valuable mechanism to ensure we do so together.”

Recovery must be driven from the ground up

Climate action groups are calling for the government’s ear-marked “recovery fund” to be used to address climate change – and promoting Citizens’ Assemblies as a way to decide what must be done.

Activist group Extinction Rebellion (XR) has been joined by Aotearoa Climate Emergency (ACE) for an “election roadshow on climate” now touring the country, and both groups say the use of Citizens’ Assemblies as a tool is crucial in finding solutions to what has rightly been described as the biggest issue of our times.

“It’s not just a case of throwing money at it and hoping it will go away,” said Bruce Bisset, a spokesperson for XR. “We have to collectively decide what we need to do and are prepared to do, and because some of those decisions are politically fraught, we need to ask Kiwis direct.

“Running a Citizens’ Assembly on the climate and ecological emergency is the best way we know of to do that. And what better way to kick-start a genuine recovery, than from the ground up?”

For a relatively small amount of funding, an Assembly could produce a roadmap for the country’s future that would then allow Parliament to go “beyond politics” to implement it.

“The beauty of the Citizens’ Assembly concept is that it relies on you and I, as citizens, to work with our fellows to propose solutions,” said ACE’s Phil Saxby. “Members are selected randomly, from as wide a catchment as possible – including non-voters – and sorted to represent all facets and demographics of society.

“They are fed the best information on the subject under discussion, aided by expert panels in their deliberations, and left to come up with suggested solutions.

“It is then up to government – at whatever level – to decide whether to implement those suggestions,” said Saxby. “But progressive governments around the world are increasingly using assemblies to drive their policy on crucial issues, including climate change.”

Saxby points out that Ireland successfully used Citizens’ Assemblies to solve their abortion and gay marriage debates, which had been stalemated for decades. France and Britain are both currently using assemblies to inform their governments on the wishes of the people in respect to climate change.

“There is no reason why we should not do the same.”

The concept is based on the original Greek form of democracy, and, Bisset explains, is a “perfect vehicle” in modern society because it cannot be captured by political parties, lobbyists, or other vested interests.

“If we thought the pandemic was huge, wait until climate change really starts to bite,” said Bisset. “Even better: don’t wait! Let’s get a robust response off the ground now, to try to avoid the worst of the coming impacts.”

XR’s working group has spent a year studying the methodology and formulating an “Aotearoa/New Zealand-centric” version of Citizens’ Assembly that gives effect to Te Tiriti o Waitangi and starts to address aspirational calls for constitutional transformation.

It has already presented this template to the Climate Change Commission as a tool they could use to inform their decisions on the new emissions reduction regime about to come into force, and is pursuing this idea with the Ministry for the Environment.

Similarly ACE has written to the Prime Minister and various government departments seeking buy-in on the concept.

Both groups are, as part of the “roadshow”, urging politicians to declare their support for the concept in hope sufficient numbers in any new government will see a Citizens’ Assembly on climate change enabled.

“We will be telling voters where their local candidates stand on this,” said Bisset, “so they can vote accordingly. We all have the power to act to redress the climate emergency, and Citizens’ Assemblies are a very valuable mechanism to ensure we do so together.”

XR Citizens’ Assembly working group Report

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