I wrote a piece in The Sunday Times yesterday that suggested we think about Citizens Assemblies, a way some democratic jurisdictions (Ireland and Iceland are leading examples) have looked at to increase participation and citizen engagement.

The reaction to the suggestion was, to be kind, cool.

To begin with, this is not the first time Repubblika has proposed Citizens Assemblies. When the authorities looked serious about having a constitutional convention to discuss changes to the Constitution, we argued that changes to the basic contract between citizens and those who govern them should only happen with the fullest engagement possible of citizens. It can’t be that only one side of the contract (the governors) decide among themselves what goes in their contract with ordinary people.

We suggested then that there should be a Citizens Assembly made up of ordinary people selected using the stratified random methods used to select jurors who will decide on the guilt or innocence of people in trials for major crimes. You’d profile the Assembly proportionately to represent the demographic divisions of the country, you’d call for volunteers, and you’d then use lotteries to select members of the Assembly in proportion to the demographic ratios you want to achieve. Call that “sortition”.

There are arguments for and against jurors in criminal trials. But if you consider why we have them at all it is precisely to have the perspective of lay people who are taken briefly out of their regular lives to give a contribution to the well-being of their community.

Citizens Assemblies compensate a bit the inherent weaknesses of elected politics. It’s good to have professional politicians. It is inevitable that professionals (lawyers, doctors, architects, and so on) will be disproportionately represented. It is unfortunate that wealthier professionals get a better chance to make it in politics than poorer ones. It is almost natural that there’ll be far more lawyers per capita in politics than in real life. Nothing against any of that.

But a Citizens Assembly balances out the inherent biases of our political system which are, at least in part, a cause of the alienation many people feel from democratic politics.

The reaction to this that I got can be summed up as follows.

  1. A lot of our democracy is not working. Fix what’s wrong before thinking of adding something new.
  2. Why spend more money?
  3. This is a pipe dream. Why waste time imagining and demanding the impossible?

None of these reactions is entirely without merit.

Malta’s democracy is dysfunctional. The Economist calls it a “flawed democracy”. An American grunt might call it fubar. There’s a lot that needs repairing. We have ostensibly independent institutions, such as the police, that are clearly in the grip of the ruling party. Criminals with political connections enjoy unredeemable impunity. Though some of the time Repubblika recommends ideas on improving our democracy, most of our time is well spent arguing how it should be repaired. Rescued, even.

With the plethora of dysfunctional institutions, and the cost of paying for cronies handpicked by the Labour Party to run those institutions into the ground, why spend more money on anything they can continue to ensure is entirely ineffective?

Indeed, if we are right to say that Parliament has been reduced to a ceremonial role, merely an extension of the prime minister’s will, every penny spent on having a Parliament is a waste of money, isn’t it?

And even the most basic recommendations that have been handed down by a public inquiry set up by the government after Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed are ignored by the government. Why would anyone think it is productive to suggest things – like Citizens Assemblies – which would have the effect of limiting the government’s power and that the government would have to agree with before they can be set up?

I recognise the validity of all those objections. Here are my reasons to argue for improvements to our democratic structures anyway.

We have a flawed democracy. The choice we have ahead of us is either to repair and renew it or to cast it away. Judging by worldwide trends and having read a bit too much 20th century history than is probably good for anyone, the temptation to cast away democracy altogether is growing.

Even well-meaning people who wonder why we spend money on a powerless, part-time Parliament rush to the simple unspoken answer that perhaps we shouldn’t have a Parliament at all.

The alternative answer is to spend more on a powerful, representative, full-time Parliament that is independent and sufficiently resourced to live up to the needs of today’s complex society.

There’s also unhealthy resignation to the disaffection of people with our politics. It seems that we mourn the dwindling enthusiasm for the two-sided politicking of the two main political parties. We’re mourning at the wrong funeral.

A friend of mine recently worked this out. There have been almost as many elections in Malta between the 1921 self-government constitution and independence in 1964 as there have been since 1964. All but one pre-independence elections returned several political parties to the legislative assemblies of the time. None of the post-independence elections returned any MPs but those nominated by the two large parties. The mystery is that the electoral system was the same before 1964 as the one after.

Since independence, when there was no longer the meddling of an external arbiter to our politics, the game was fixed by the PN and the PL. It seems that now, at last, many voters have smartened up. They are pushing back on the game they’re being made to play.

Does that mean they’re rejecting democracy? By equating the combined fortunes of the PN and the PL with the fortunes of democracy we’d be making just the mistake they’ve wanted us to make all these years: to think that there’s nothing but them.

If there’s nothing but them and you want neither, your only choice is to step out of democracy.

How do we avoid that? There are fascists out there getting ready to exploit this disaffection. I’m not imagining this. Look at countries whose democracy you’ve admired all your life and remind yourself that what’s happening to them can and likely will happen to us anytime. To some extent it’s already happening. Watching Robert Abela scream in Parliament about how the judiciary and civil society organisations are in cahoots to undermine his government was a quirky moustache short of a coup.

To save our democracy from the clutches of extremism and of government driven by hatred (instead of merely corruption and mediocrity) we need to fight to fix our democracy now. We need new ideas to ensure the public feel they own this polity. That is how we motivate them to protect it.

We can’t stop denouncing the corruption and mediocrity of the greedy fools who run our country. But we can’t stop at doing that and nothing else either. We need to look beyond Joseph Muscat and Robert Abela and imagine our children living in political conditions that force them to envy us and resent our failure to protect them from the collapse of democracy.

The word ‘utopia’ has been used to describe the basic suggestion that a hundred people are chosen from among volunteers and placed together in a room that reflects the country’s per capita distribution of women and men, young and old, rich and poor, with varying degrees of education, professional profiles, and places where they were born. There they are asked to think about the government’s spending, the prioritisation of frontline public services, the rules and punishments for people who abuse their power, and so on. And their views are considered when elected people make the final call.

To think of that simple process, which is little more than a transparent and formalised, political version of setting up public opinion focus groups, as ‘utopic’, i.e. inconceivably difficult to achieve, like world peace or the overnight elimination of hunger, is to declare our democracy beyond salvation.

Even after Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed, that darkest day I have experienced for our democracy, even when Raymond Caruana was shot and when Karin Grech was killed, when Labour stuck to power with coercion and violence for nearly 6 years after losing the popular vote in an election, when Joseph Muscat and his gang evaded justice in spite of the irrefutable evidence of their actions, even after all that, we did not give up on democracy.

I refuse to start doing that now. The day I give up, I won’t bother insisting the corrupt politicians face consequences. The day I give up, I’d have accepted that the country belongs to corrupt politicians no matter what I think about it. I know you’re tempted to think it is. I’m tempted to think it is, because it’s the easier choice.

I won’t accept that all is lost. In the meantime, how about Citizens Assemblies, ey?