The possibilities and limits of citizen assemblies

School strikers in New Zealand, like adult protesters, have begun to explore the potential of citizen assemblies as a new space for public discussion to address our changing climate.22 Mia Sutherland, for example, has recently argued that political parties are unable to address climate issues effectively because the need to advance the interests of their party gets in the way of finding effective compromises. By comparison, she argues that New Zealand citizens ‘care about the state of our earth, and wc should be able to participate in democracy beyond voting’.23 In early 2020, students protesting with the Thunberg-inspired movement, Fridays for the Future, approached Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven outside his home near the Swedish parliament. They proposed the idea of‘installing a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological issues to make the necessary transformation more inclusive and just and therefore easier to achieve without losing voters’.24 Citizen assemblies have also been given a significant boost since We the Citizens, a civil group in Ireland, successfully used the format to advance community debate about abortion law between 2016 and 2018.25

But the success of citizen assemblies can be mixed. For example in the case of Ireland’s We the Citizens event, critics argued other issues debated in that assembly format, like lowering the voting age to 16 years, were not as successful as the abortion debate because there were no elected representatives prepared to pick up the citizen recommendations around voting age and take it further to parliament.26 Similarly while a representative assembly format can broaden the range of voices included because participants are selected specifically to ‘reflect the age, education level, wealth and gender makeup of the general population’,27 participants are not necessarily typical of their peers because this requires people who are able to give significant time to attend unpaid meetings (potentially excluding those who care for dependents or work shifts on low incomes, for example) and it can be very daunting for people who find public discussion scary or who need time to think about their views.28

The risk of silencing the voices of minorities and ignoring the life experiences of those who are already struggling with the impacts of colonialism, poverty and racism is also a significant potential limitation of citizen assemblies, as journalist and Maori education researcher Nadine Ilura noted in a thoughtful, personal reflection penned after she attended a planning meeting for a citizens’ assembly about climate change in Wellington in 2019.29 Hura praised the way a series of Inti or deliberative community meetings took place in 2012 and 2015 around the country to debate mooted constitutional law changes and their implications for Indigenous Maori, but she expressed frustration at the Pakeha-dominatcd discussion about climate change, which she felt silenced her experience as a Maori in a moral panic about an ecological ‘apocalypse’. Ilura’s concerns remind us that attention needs to be paid to the context of deliberation and who is talking and who is listening. Xiyc Bastida, the 17-year old Otomi-Toltec Indigenous activist and coorganiser of a US-based youth climate strike argues, ‘People say the climate movement started decades ago, but I see it as Indigenous people protecting Earth thousands of years ago’.31 When Indigenous communities or low- income communities feel excluded from deliberation processes about ‘the environment’ and feel that their experiences and stories are not being heard and respected, we need to think much more carefully about the conditions under which deliberation can be truly democratic.

Learning to listen democratically

Another significant criticism levelled at the practice of deliberation as a process of reasoned argument is that this practice risks silencing non-human nature.32 How we listen to nature is a motif that flows through Rachel Carson’s work.33 Her desire to encourage children to listen to non-human nature is captured when she writes in The Sense of Wonder :

Hearing can be a source of even more exquisite pleasure but it requires conscious cultivation. I have had people tell me they had never heard the song of a wood thrush, although I knew the bell-like phrases of this bird had been singing in their back yards every spring. By suggestion and example, I believe children can be helped to hear the many voices about them. Take time to listen and talk about the voices of the earth and what they mean - the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, the sound of surf or flowing streams. And the voices of living things: No child should grow up unaware of the dawn chorus of the birds in spring. He will never forget the experience of a specially planned early rising and going out in the predawn darkness ... In that dawn chorus one hears the throb of life itself.34

Like Seuss, Wilde and contemporary thinkers Clark, Dobson and Latour, Carson reminds us here that the interests and concerns of the physical world are not easily heard in traditional models of public deliberation.35 Moreover, when democratic deliberation focuses on the process of talking alone, Andrew Dobson has argued we risk underestimating the transformative power of listening.36 To change our minds, let alone effect political transformation on a broader scale, we need to listen as well as talk, as young Christchurch protesters remind us in Figure 7.1. However, listening takes time, and for minority groups in particular, this process of explaining their world view to another, and

‘We want leaders who listen’

Figure 7.1 ‘We want leaders who listen’: Christchurch protest at the closure of an outdoor pool, 2020

Credit: Bronwyn Hayward

Decentred deliberation 177

trying to ensure that dominant groups listen, can be very draining on limited resources. But effective listening is democratising. Children are acutely aware of the times when they felt they were listened too. For example, many children at Tree School we interviewed in 2012 expressed frustration over not being listened to by teachers during playground protests about their right to climb trees, commenting after their protests that: ‘They [teachers] never brought it up again and they try their hardest not to bring it up’. However, opportunities to conversation are also valuable ways to nurture democratic listening skills. Many children we interviewed in 2012 had observed the practicalities of public deliberation and were interested in the practise of public debate, as this discussion reveals:

Sam: The School Board of Trustees, they make changes in our school.

Amanda: But how?

Blaze: They talk with the principal and everyone.

Flexi: They talk to the teachers.

(Farm-Sea School, 2012)

Sam: They talk with the whole town!

Blaze: And they have meetings.

Sam: Yes meetings.

Sam: Meetings are on Wednesdays usually.

(Farm-Sea School, 2012)

While these children at Farm-Sea School understood how important deliberation was to making decisions in their small town, one of the most significant challenges they also commented on was the need to deccntre debate in ways that encouraged adults to listen to them and helped people outside their community understand their concern to protect their local beaches. How can young citizens be supported to have their concerns heard in decision-making across space and time, so that their local conversations do not become isolated and irrelevant to wider debate?

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