Interview with Liz Farmer of Governing Magazine in the United States, December 2012

1)   One issue that is of concern in the U.S. is resources to support such an endeavor. You mention in your account that the CAC received 323 formal proposals, all of which were considered. In addition, the CAC received more than 3,600 written comments, many/most answered by the CAC representatives. This is most impressive! What resources was the CAC given in order to manage such a commitment? Did council members take a sabbatical from their full time jobs? Were you given a stipend? How big was your staff? Additionally, am I correct in saying that the process of developing the new constitution proposal took about a year (from the election of the CAC to the constitution’s submission to the Althing)?

The CAC received a modest budget allocation from the parliament to pay for the salaries of the 25 elected representatives plus a staff of 15 persons as well as office space. The salaries of the council members were set at the same as level as the salaries of Members of Parliament, or about $3,900 per month for four months. This means that several council members, most of whom took a full or at least partial sabbatical from their ordinary jobs to serve on the council, took a substantial salary cut. From start to finish, the drafting of the bill took four months, just as in Philadelphia in 1787. But then it needs to be kept in mind that the CAC stood on the shoulders of several constitutional committees in parliament in past decades as well as of the seven-member constitutional committee that produced a 700-page report to prepare the CAC for its work. The constitutional bill, unanimously adopted by the CAC with 25 votes against zero, was delivered to parliament at the end of July 2011, eight months after the CAC election held in late November 2010. As it turned out, the CAC did not use up its modest budget allocation; at the end of the day, a significant surplus was returned to the parliament.

2)      In your conclusion, you say the broadest lesson learned was to, “Treat people with respect and they will respond in kind. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I have never been to Iceland (although I have heard great things from a friend who visited!) so I don’t know what the pop culture is like there. But in the U.S., the “masses” can often be viewed with skepticism. The Occupy Movement in 2011-12 was a good example of that:  many young people used social media to band together but were then unable to create a strong message leaders would listen to. In your opinion could the lesson learned on the CAC translate to other countries or jurisdictions? Or is this uniquely for Iceland which is a very wired country with traditionally high voter turnout?

The Icelandic banking system’s spectacular crash in 2008 necessitated an emergency rescue from the International Monetary Fund and the Nordic countries. This traumatic experience, including popular yet peaceful demonstrations in Reykjavík’s Parliament Square that triggered the resignation of the government presiding over the crash, helped convince the new post-crash government elected in April 2009 of the need to accede to the demonstrators’ demand for, inter alia, a new or revised constitution. By so doing, the parliament decided at last to honor its almost 70-year old promise to overhaul the provisional constitution from 1944 and, further, to outsource the work to a constituent assembly. To this end, the parliament appointed the afore-mentioned seven-member constitutional committee whose role was, among other things, to convene a National Assembly of 950 individuals selected at random from the national registry so as to ensure that every Icelander 18 years or older had an equal opportunity to take part, and the conclusions of the National Assembly constituted an essential input into the CAC’s work. Without much exaggeration, it can be said that the CAC viewed its task as being essentially that of translating the conclusions of the National Assembly into the format of a constitutional bill. A key hallmark of the bill is that it does not in any significant way – except in one or two instances to preserve internal consistency – depart from the conclusions of the National Assembly. I see no reason why other countries, following comparable events triggering demands for constitutional amendments, could not replicate this democratic process and have the people rather than politicians rewrite constitutions. Even so, some of the details of the process, including the crowd sourcing, may be another story. Experience shows that nations rarely choose to revise their constitutions out of the blue, that is, without some sort of an upheaval triggering the revision.

3)      Expanding to the U.S., would a “ground up,” crowd sourcing process like Iceland undertook work for a city or county in the U.S.? (I say city or county because they are more comparable to Iceland’s population.) Perhaps not a constitution for a city or county but maybe a significant document like school reform or campaign finance reform? Could something like that even be done on the state level or do time and resources start becoming an issue?

In the context of cities and counties, the answer would seem to be Yes. Whether the same process would work as a model for revisiting the US constitution is another matter, though not necessarily because the US population unlike that of Iceland is large and heterogeneous, but rather perhaps because US politics have become so polarized. Besides, without a crisis, many US citizens would no doubt fail to see the need for revising the US constitution. In Iceland, the thoroughly discredited political parties and special interest groups chose to lie low following the crash of 2008, and did not field candidates in the constituent assembly election, perhaps because such candidates would not have had much of a chance of being elected. This probably helped strengthen the cohesion and harmony that resulted in the unanimous adoption of the bill by the CAC.  

4)      Lastly, what were one or two of the biggest challenges that the CAC or you personally faced during the process?

The CAC consisted of a diverse group of good and interesting people: doctors, lawyers, priests, professors, artists, and so on. Six of the 25 representatives hold doctoral degrees. Several have musical talent, as it turned out, as professionals or amateurs. Mindful of the cohesive power of singing, we ended many of our meetings in song, led by one of the country’s premier entertainers, a council member and environmentalist. Several members of the CAC formed a music band that rehearsed during coffee breaks and performed at office parties. In short, most of us had good fun. This, no doubt, kept some potential challenges at bay as intended. Even so, toward the end, it seemed possible a couple of times or so that the final vote on the bill as a whole might not reach 25 against zero, but we always found a way to keep everyone on board. We did this not by watering down the bill but rather through respectful argument, resulting in amicable agreement. We took seriously the task thrust upon us by the people and by parliament at a crucial juncture in our nation’s history and we understood that unanimous consent might significantly increase the likelihood that the parliament and the people would accept our proposal. This may help explain why the parliament decided by 35 votes against 15 to hold a referendum on the bill on 20 October 2011 and also why 67% of the electorate said Yes to the main question posed in the referendum: “Do you want the proposals of the Constitutional Council to form the basis of a legislative bill for a new Constitution?“ The parliament has until March 2013 to pass the bill in time for the parliamentary election to be held in April. If all goes according to plan, all that will then remain is for the new parliament elected in April 2013 to pass the bill, from which time Iceland will have the world’s newest constitution.