Dozens of Ontario citizens will soon be told they have been selected for jury duty. But rather than decide the guilt or innocence of accused criminals, they will be asked to deliver verdicts on the state of the province's finances.
Called citizens juries, the panels of ordinary people represent an attempt by Premier Dalton McGuinty to end the apathy that kept nearly half of Ontario's voters away from the polls in October. Serving on the panels will not be mandatory.
The plan is similar in intent to the citizens' assembly re-examining the democratic process in British Columbia. But it differs in design.
Instead of one large body of 158 members that will meet repeatedly over the course of the year, Ontario will ask many juries of 18 or so people to convene for a day or two -- usually on weekends -- to reach consensus on specific aspects of the spring budget.
They may be required to determine whether the province should continue to run a deficit, for instance. Or should more money be directed to health care? Or to the debt?
The project, based on experiments in Britain, Australia and Denmark, will be guided by Matthew Mendelsohn, a political science professor at Queen's University in Kingston, who, on Jan. 19, will become the province's first deputy minister for democratic renewal.
In an interview this week, Prof. Mendelsohn gave two reasons to introduce citizens juries to the prebudget consultation process.
"One is to always have the public's perspective front and centre in decision-makers' minds," he said. "The other goal is to allow the public to have a better appreciation of the challenges that the province is facing."
People recruited to be part of a citizens jury will have the option of declining and if they accept, will receive information from experts and perhaps even hold public hearings. Then they will make decisions.
But how much clout will these panels actually have?
Prof. Mendelsohn said that's something he can't answer.
Citizens juries can take various forms, he explained. "Sometimes they are more integrated into the policy process. Sometimes less. Sometimes they have more clout. Sometimes they have less.
"Sometimes they are run by more independent organizations. Sometimes they are run straight out of the president's office."
In all cases, they tend to be just one component in a larger process. But the Ontario Liberals have yet to decide how much weight their judgments will bear.
Ontario Attorney-General Michael Bryant, the minister responsible for democratic renewal, said the final budgetary decisions will rest with the elected politicians and it would be difficult to ignore campaign promises, even if the juries conclude they are wrong-headed.
On the other hand, Mr. Bryant also suspects voters would ultimately punish a government that pays no heed to the recommendations of a citizens' jury. So the decision to create the juries was not the easiest political option, he said.
But not everyone sees the merit in citizens' juries.
While Democracy Watch, a citizens' group advocating democratic reform, is in favour of asking large study groups to examine the problems facing government, co-ordinator Duff Conacher said juries of 18 people cannot possibly provide a statistical cross-section of society.
"They are talking about a system that the government will be able to skew in its favour, or that will not be representative at all, and that's not a good way to move," he said.