The questions were posed by a Spanish journalist and answered by Kristinn Már Ársælsson, a member of Alda’s board.
There was some editing, most of which are indicated by brackets [ ].
1. Q: What do you think have been the main successes/changes of the proposal written by the Committee?
A: The Constitutional Council itself is a success story, and an important one. The most widely discussed and known example of a deliberative democratic process on legislation involving only citizens without the intervention of political parties was the Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform in British Columbia. The Citizens Assembly was comprised of 160 citizens selected randomly. The Assembly was a success and proved that ordinary citizens can solve complex problems efficiently, with co-operation through deliberation. Unlike the rather superficial debates between political parties. The Constitutional Council confirms what we already knew from British Columbia, that deliberative democratic processes work.
If we look at the proposals from the Council there are many improvements from the old constitution. There were numerous improvements to the human rights but if we focus on the changes to the democratic system the main changes are: a) Allowing for voting individuals and selecting candidates between parties, b) allowing for the public to call for a popular vote on legislation, c) allowing the public to put forth legislation to the parliament. These changes make it easier for the public to select their representatives, to make the final decision for themselves and an opportunity to be involved in the decision making process by introducing legislation directly.
2. Q: And what have been the main failures or missing elements of the proposal?
A: There are a lot of things the Council should and could have done in a different way which would have moved us closer to real democracy. Alda – Association for sustainable democracy sent the Council numerous suggestions which will [are] available in english [here]. Lets take a few examples. The Councils proposals do not separate the judicial, legislative and executive branches of power. The executive branch is selected by the legislative branch and the judicial branch by the executive branch. Alda suggested that the public would select the executive and legislative branches directly and that the judicial branch would be selected based on definable and professional criteria. And also that the branches of power should be separated. Alda proposed that a number of public representatives in parliament be selected randomly from the public.
Research shows that it is more difficult for some social groups to get elected than others who have easier access to resources and social networks associated with those in power and the mainstream media. One way to increase the probabilities for all social groups to have a voice amongst our representatives is to select a part of them randomly. The Citizen Assembly in British Columbia was selected randomly and was a success. The Councils proposals also do not include opportunities for democratic deliberative decision making processes where the public is given the opportunity to participate in the decision making process and even take the final decision. In Porto Alegre in Brazil the public decides through a participatory budgeting process how to invest the city´s budget. The process has been a success where funds have moved from richer areas to poorer ones and corruption decreased dramatically – to name two highlights. In the Constitutional Councils proposals there are no amendments which make it possible for the general public to call for a deliberative democratic process.
And lastly there are almost no proposals on the economic and private sector, which is bewildering considering that the reason for the Council is a public demand in the wake of the banking crises in 2008. Alda proposed that the economic sector would have to abide, for the first time, by democratic rules – one vote per person.
3. Q: What do you think “about the financial matters restriction on popular vote.”
A: The argument that the general public would never vote to raise taxes and that because California is having financial difficulties is seriously flawed. There is little experience of deliberative democratic processes where the general public makes decisions on taxes and to point to a single case of a state which has popular vote and financial difficulties does not prove anything. There are hundreds of nation states which have financial difficulties and a system of representative democracy – should we then restrict our representatives from making financial decisions? Who would then make those decisions?
There are many examples of states which allow for different democratic decision making processes on financial issues and they do reasonably well. The problems of our economies are not that people have to much to say about how it works and how it is run, but that people have too little to say about it.
4. Q: Do you think the process has been open enough to participation? Do you think that Iceland society has participated enough?
A: The process was not open enough. Important discussion meetings were closed and transcriptions and/or recordings not made available. The time given to the Constitutional Council was too short. When a society changes something as important as the constitution we must hold open meetings all over the country and give ample time for discussion. We need make sure all can put forth ideas and that people are given the opportunity to take part in the discussion. One of the key factors in creating interest from the public is that he receives feedback and while the Council tried to answer all those who sent proposals the replies were often a short ambiguous comment when people need to know why their proposal were accepted or rejected. Otherwise they will in either the short or long run, lose interest and trust in the process. The response needs to be formal without being boring or too technical – deliberative processes are about people talking together.
About whether people in Iceland participated enough I would say yes, given the circumstances. There was little to no experience in participatory processes, little to no media coverage and discussion while during the process, no formal open meetings around the country and the legitimacy of the Council had been damaged during the selection process by technical failures and negative discussion by certain groups. Even though there were flaws in the process, people did participate. And what´s even more important and interesting, which is a common side-effect of deliberative democratic processes, people formed and joined groups to discuss proposals which strengthens the democratic process. So behind Alda´s proposals there were many individuals who made the effort to create them in co-operation.
5. Q: Do you expect that the proposal will be accepted by the parliament and the society? What would happen in case the parliament makes too many changes in the proposal in a way that it looses its essence?
A: It is too early to say whether the proposals will be accepted by the parliament although the feeling is that there is serious resistance there against change. The general public is probably more sympathetic although there are differences which need to be discussed first and then decided upon through a popular vote. The important issue now is that the public make the final decision without the intervention of the political parties who have huge interests in the outcome, in how the powers are organized. [General elections on the proposal in general and certain issues will be held on the 20th of October, 2012. See here.]
6. Q: Do you expect any structural change within Iceland political system and practice because the new Constitution?
A: I expect some structural changes because of the proposals mentioned earlier, on popular vote and the ability to propose new legislation. But because the proposals do not separate the branches of powers I am afraid that the structure and culture of the political field will remain in large part unaffected. Also because there are almost no changes made to the economic field and economic power which has influenced the political parties through e.g. contributions. Structurally the changes do not do enough in distributing the political and economic power.
7. Q: What would have you done differently in that process nowadays that you see how things have evolved?
A: We would have selected at least part the representatives for the Constitutional Council randomly. There would have been meetings all over the country, discussions over a long period of time. Then the Council would make a suggestion and we would give the opportunity for discussion and lastly we would let the public decide, on each proposal. All meetings would be open and broadcasted or recorded and made available.
8. Q: What do you think of the election Constitutional Committee process? And about the Committee itself, is it a fair representation of Iceland society?
A: The selection process and representation would have been better if at least a part of the representatives had been selected randomly. The election were the public selected individuals was a good idea but a lot was made about it being to complicated which I think is an exaggeration. People need to adjust to new ways of selecting representatives but the only way to adjust is to try and participate for yourself.
The discussion about the process in the mass media was overly negative and the technical blunder and the decision made by the High Court damaged the legitimacy of the process. Even in light of these setbacks the process was a success.
9. Q: What do you think about the National Forum 2010 that set up the topics that were going to be revised by the Committee?
A: The National Forum of 2010 should have been one of many such forums all around the country and it should also have been more proposal-oriented instead of being almost only value-oriented.
One of the great things about the National Forum of 2010 was that it was randomly selected and a lot of people got to meet people who they never meet and sit down with them to discuss how our society should look like. I think that for those who participated it was a valuable lesson learnt and also that it shows how we can connect people and get them to deliberate and discuss our social issues.