Dutch parliamentary reform committee misses opportunity

Submitted by webmaster on Sun, 27-01-2019 - 14:14

On december 13th, 2018 the national committee reviewing the Dutch parliamentary system published its findings. Previously, in an intermediate report, the committee announced to investigate Irish style sortition. The final report, titled "Low thresholds, high dikes", is quite disappointing. In this 384 page document, sortition and citizens' assemblies are mentioned only on four occasions.

Page 156:
"The national committee is of the opinion that too little use is made of citizens' assemblies. Citizens' assemblies drafted by lot can play a useful role to make use of citizens' power in elaborating policy options. For specific groups lacking sufficient attention in our representative democracy (e.g. young people), a dedicated citizens' assembly may be instituted."

Well, the expressed need for more sortition based citizens' assemblies on itself sounds promising. But the power of sortition is the combination of diversity and a representative sample of the population. So why focus on specific groups only? In addition to that: why the example of young people? Although clearly underrepresented in parliament - and any other elected body - it is not the first group that comes to mind lacking a strong voice. Those who have lower income and lower education, would be the more obvious group. Apart from that, only organizing input for elaborating policy options, thus not granting actual decision making power to citizens drafted by lot, is a rather poor improvement.

Pages 164 - 167: Citizens' Assemblies
Mention is made of citizens' assemblies, often sortition based, on mainly the local level over the past fifteen years. The three cases of national level citizens' assemblies are briefly discussed:
1) The citizens' assembly on the electoral system (2006; proposal dismissed by the government in 2008). In a footnote the citizens' assemblies for the Icelandic constitution (2011) and British Columbia electoral reform (2005, Canada) are portrayed as failures;
2) The citizens' assembly on health care (2017, advizing the Health Minister and the Health Care Institute);
3) The V-100 citizens' assembly (since 2017, yearly, V for "verantwoording" i.e. accountability, one hundred citizens prepare questions for MP's to direct to members of government).

According to the committee, a recurring problem has been the questionable level of representativeness. Because of this, the national committee is against granting decision making power to groups of citizens drafted by lot. The committee refers to an unpublished document, so it is unclear what exactly the apparently insurmountable probleem seems to be. Obviously, double standards are applied. Could not the same be claimed on parliament, or any elected body for that matter? However, according to the committee, citizens' assemblies only have an advisory role to play, in the early stages of policy formation. The committee assumes that the lower educated will be less likely to show up in sortition based "special interest" citizens' assemblies (e.g. for young people), and recommends to compensate for that. That seems to be quite an inconsistency. All of a sudden, there is a cure for the supposed problem of lacking representativeness.

Pages 167, 168: The Irish Referendum
The committee plays down the attention drawn to the - citizens' assembly triggered - Irish abortion referendum. According to the committee, that attention was rooted in "the typically political-societal Irish context". Apart from that, the committee states that an Irish style referdum could not be simply fitted into the Dutch political system.
One then might ask: why not propose to change the system? Isn't that exactly the committee's job, to make recommendations on issues concerning exactly these?
However, the committee still sees some kind of a role for certain elements of the Irish model. Instigated by a citizens' initiative (i.e. a petition to put an issue on the agenda of an elected body), the House of Representatives could call for a citizens' assembly on the subject. This citizens' assembly would then elaborate policy options. The House should even consider allowing itself to call for a citizens' assembly without a preceding citizens' initiative. But the committee advises against a non-binding referendum on a subsequent decision by the House, as is apparently the case in the Irish model. It is not quite clear why the possibility of a binding referendum has not been considered here.

Pages 308, 309: Sortition based Senate
The committee mentions that elections are seen by some as aristocratic, and lottery would then be democratic. Theoretically, sortition would result in a more representative sample of the population than elections would. However, the committee has five main objections.

1) The Dutch Senate (Eerste Kamer, "First Chamber") consists of only 75 members. For a truly representative sample of the adult Dutch population, a sample of 1,000 to 1,500 citizens would be necessary.

2) It is unclear how to prevent the sample becoming less representative because of self-selection: the drafted citizens' apparently skewed refusal to accept the position. And forcing citizens to accept, would be too large an infringement on people's freedoms. To repeat the lottery process until a representative sample would be reached is impossible, because there is no way of knowing what a fully representative sample would look like.

3) The committee questions whether citizens would feel (better) represented by a body the composition of which citizens would have had no influence on, and that could not be held accountable by means of elections.

4) Research would indicate that a large majority would be in favour of elections and only a small minority in favour of drawing citizens by lot.

5) No other country is known for at least partially selecting MPs by means of lottery.

Let's have a look at this point by point.

1) Why should one compare an admittedly not perfect representation by means of lottery, with the kind of representation that election produces, a way of representation that is obviously a lot worse? Note that the Dutch Senate is elected indirectly: by the elected members of the twelve provincial representative bodies, that by the way do not deal with issues high on most voters' lists of priorities.

2) Yes, this is an important concern, but is it an insurmountable problem? Pay citizens well, give them the support they need for the task they have to fulfill, and give sortition a chance. Citizens have been drafted to serve in the military and fight wars far away from home. Talk about an infringement on freedoms. Freedom comes with responsibilities.

3) You are only going to find out if you give it a try. On top of that: the low and decreasing trust in elections, political parties and politicians is a certainty.

4) Was the research done in a deliberative way? In other words: were the respondents well-informed? Did they have a chance to extensively familiarize themselves with and discuss sortition? Probably not.

5) Ah, "the herd is not doing it, so neither am I". This would have been a perfect excuse not to start abolishing slavery.

What then does the committee propose? Nothing really exciting or positive. Adaptions of the electoral system, binding referenda, an elected coalition broker, a constitutional court, a law on political parties, more democratic knowledge and skills to be taught in schools, and the right of the Senate to send back proposed laws to the House.

Abroad, the Netherlands is sometimes regarded to be a frontrunner of democratic renewal. However, the committee's recommendations are certainly not supportive of this image. In the meantime, a further fragmentation of the political landscape is set to intensify, voter discontent remains high, and the formation of stable coalitions is getting harder and harder. Perhaps a recession, in combination with unavoidable, costly, and unfairly distributed measures to tackle climate change, would force the Netherlands to think again.

Summary of the committee's report in English


See also, on this site (in Dutch):