Voluntary registration of lobbying is worthless

By Gary Murphy

Harry McGee the political correspondent of the Irish Times had a very interesting article in Saturday’s paper  Irish political lobbying: who’s who and how does it work

In it he notes that despite the current government pledging in its revised programme for government to introduce a register for lobbyists, so far there have been no movers to make good on that commitment. More worryingly he states that ‘according to sources, the growing preference within Government is for a voluntary register’.

If lobbying is about gaining access to decision makers, all a voluntary register will do, if anyone could even be bothered to sign up to it, is  simply tell the public who the lobbyists are. By not making such lobbyists reveal whom they are in effect lobbying, or what they are lobbying on, the public is none the wiser as to the pressures being brought on decision makers by paid lobbyists. Accordingly, accountability is less likely to be ensured in any such voluntary system.

There was a lot of bleating at the Green party conference last weekend about the corrupt influence of corporate donations with one delegate going so far as to suggest that corporate donations equalled corruption. Well one way of trying to remove the influence of money in politics is by implementing a proper mandatory register of lobbyists. A register of lobbyists should try to capture the information of who is accessing whom, what for, and what monies, if any, change hands. In principle lobbyists should not be against having such a register, and governments should want it, as it should keep transparent what is a legal entity; lobbying of government. In that context what is being regulated is behaviour by interests who have potentially the money to have their expectations met by the access they have.

Registering lobbyists is not about regulating speech, but about preventing undue influence, including abuse of dominant financial position of some interest groups, including private companies. The key is to ensure that what is written into the regulation does not hinder the average citizen from doing what they have always done which is lobby their respective representative. The whole point of a register is to have a system as transparent as possible. This benefits the lobbyist, the legislator and the citizens. Regulation should be something that gives all stakeholders confidence in the system and in that context it must initially be kept simple and not overburden lobbyists with legislation. Finally enforcement of legislation is the key. Any such register should be controlled and monitored by an agency such as the Standards in Public Office Commission. This should ensure public confidence in the process.

Fine Gael’s New Politics document provides a good, if not perfect, framework for a register of lobbyists. Why for instance don’t Fine Gael include politicians, particularly former ministers, as in the case of Tom Parlon, in their cooling off proposals which state that former officials cannot join private companies for at least a year if that company works for, or with the State, in a way that relates to the former official’s work.

Nevertheless Fine Gael’s mandatory register, which is similar to the Labour party’s proposals, would, if implemented, be an important step in showing that the Irish state is serious about informing its citizens as to who has access to decision making and decision makers. If the Greens sign up to a voluntary code they will have missed a glorious chance to make a difference to transparency in the Irish public policy and made a mockery of their own complaints about corporate donations.

‘Democracies die behind closed doors’ Opening up cabinet government in Ireland

[Given to Political Reform in Ireland Conference, University College Cork, 26th March 2010]

If the appetite for political reform emerged as a result of the economic crisis, then we should probably look at what caused the crisis. Power within the political system is centralised to government. It was government decisions that got us here, so we should probably think about how to improve government decision-making and government behaviour. But we should be cautious – we don’t want to go about changing a system that has by and large served us well in the last 90 years without good reason.

On paper the cabinet system is a good one. Proposals are made by ministers, usually on the basis of a point in the programme from government, in turn based on inter and intra party negotiations and subject to scrutiny by the media and maybe even the electorate. The elite of a country’s political system then subject the proposal to rigorous scrutiny, and from their different perspectives, poke at and punch holes in the argument, until bad proposals get rejected and acceptable ones are improved.

Why cabinet doesn’t work The problem is that this doesn’t seem to happen. Why not? One problem is ministerial overload. Ministers are busy with their own departments and don’t have time to start thinking deeply about other ministers’ responsibilities. There is also log-rolling – whereby a minister who wants to get her proposal through cabinet will refrain from questioning another minister’s proposal so they will return the favour and support your proposal.

Another problem is the type of ministers. In juries we think that if twelve people’s opinions converge, they’re likely to converge on the truth. The same assumption can be made of cabinet government. But if jurors and cabinet ministers’ convergence on an issue is to make it more likely that they got the right answer, then their opinions should be independent of each other. In statistical theory two events are said to be independent if the occurrence of one event does not affect the probability that the other will occur. We may assume that cabinet ministers (and jurors) are independent. But we’d be wrong. Most ministers (like jurors) follow what goes around the table. So if a minister’s proposal appears to be gaining acceptance, sceptical ministers might remain silent – what in public opinion theory is known as the spiral of silence.

And why would they be independent when the political system throws up a remarkably homogenous lot? We have six school teachers in cabinet, a couple of lawyer, but not much else. No economists, social scientists, or people with much experience of business. They’re all full-time career politicians, so even the youngest minister in the cabinet, Mary Coughlan, at 44 has been in the Dáil for almost 23 years! All of these people live in a strange world around Kildare Street and while hardly cocooned from the real world, view the real world through an unusual lens, and crucially almost all have the same lens. So instead of having fifteen different points of view – government is centralised into one or two particular points of view.

Lack of oversight That these failures could happen is in part because there is not enough expertise/ diversity of views in government but also because governments, particularly ones in power for a long time, get lazy. When opposition parties have few resources to challenge government research and few mechanisms to challenge government in a timely and effective manner, government can get a bit too comfortable.

But government should not be a comfortable place to be, and if we are to reform our political system it should be with this in mind. People work best if they know everything they do can be observed and is open to scrutiny. Labour finance spokeswoman Joan Burton pointed out at her party’s economic forum last weekend that there was a huge information deficit which prevented real debate about Nama and bank bailouts. When the Minister for Finance controls all the information, and the timing and nature of its release it’s difficult for opposition parties to set the agenda. What we were told would be the most of the Bank Guarantee scheme now seems hopelessly optimistic. How can the cabinet do its job if it doesn’t have access to good information? How can the opposition do its job if the information it receives is misleading/ inaccurate.

Emily O’Reilly recently criticised the government for refusing to accept or allowing the Dáil to debate her report into the ‘Lost at Sea’ scheme. Where government can effectively bury criticism like this, government will be less thoughtful in how it behaves.

Reforms   If we want to reform the political system we need to rebalance power within the political system. We need to enable greater scrutiny of government – to allow the opposition and backbenchers do their job. The public should have greater access to independent information, not spun by government departments.. Government statistics should be generated by independent agencies and government policy could be independently analysed, and tested against their stated objectives. The Dáil procedures should be changed to allow cabinet ministers be subjected to better oversight. At present ministers can dodge questions. Vincent Browne can ask ministers the same question until s/he answers it or made clear to the public that s/he’s dodging it. TDs can’t do this. A minister can answer another question and then the CC will move them on.  Replies to PQs should not be written to protect the minister but to enable the proper accountability of the minister to the Dáil In short we should enable greater scrutiny.

As it is currently structured TDs have neither the opportunity nor the motive to provide robust oversight of government legislation. The political career path for most TDs leads to the cabinet at its summit. One way to do this is to make the committees independent of government by making chairs elected by the Dáil rather than being effectively appointed by the Taoiseach. If ministers were forced to resign as TDs or minsters could be appointed from outside electoral politics the cabinet system might be have the plurality of views and expertise it needs to work. It would also mean that government TDs would be less attached, personally or politically to the government. This would not be without potential costs. It would move the political system in a decidedly presidential direction and may increase the power of the Taoiseach within cabinet.

If democracies die behind closed doors, we can reinvigorate our democracy by (metaphorically) opening the doors of government. By giving the Dáil access to more and better information from government and opening government to people from different backgrounds and expertise we can in the future avoid the type of policy failures that have us in the political and economic crisis we find ourselves in.

Latest opinion poll trends show why government is in for the long haul

by Michael Marsh, TCD

Micheal Martin admitted on RTE today that an election now would devastate FF if current poll estimates proved to be accurate. At the same time, perhaps paradoxically, speculation about the likelihood of a collapse in the government’s Dáil support seems to have intensified. While Green support looks more firm as their votes become more critical – because they can extract real policy concessions – FF’s own cohesion seems more problematic as the criticism of the minimal reshuffle shows little sign of abating. My personal view has always been that this government is there for the long haul because so many government supporters risk losing their seats if they provoked an early election. As the government’s majority narrows, however, the defection of a very small number of FF TDs could prove fatal. If a few such TDs estimate that the best chance of keeping their own seats would be to bring about an early election then the government could fall, but the current standing of the parties would surely mean this was a very high-risk strategy.

Today’s poll by RED C gave FF 24%, FG 35%, Labour 17%, SF 11%, Greens 5% and others 9%. These numbers are broadly in line with what we have seen from RED C for some time, though mark a relatively high point for SF. The Labour vote is lower than recent TNS/mrbi polls, but Greens do much better with RED C.

If these shares were to be realised at an election, what would this mean for the parties? The estimations here are necessarily crude. They assume that the rise/fall in each party’s vote happens evenly across the country – something that never happens in practice. Even so, if some areas resist the national trend, that mean others will bow excessively to it. Only if swings are related in some may to marginality would we be likely to get outcomes that are very different to those suggested here. I have then generally given a seat to a party for each quota of votes won, with additional seats going to the largest remainders.

My best guess is that an election now – on these poll figures – would give FF just 47 seats, as against 69 for FG and 31 for Labour. RED C suggests the Green vote would hold up quite well, enabling it to keep 3 of its six seats, while SF could grow to 11 with Others winning 6. In practice, and following the patterns of recent elections, we might expect to see others do a little better and SF a little worse than this, but there is no reason to assume any major change from these figures.

This outcome would really be devastating for FF who would lose about one third of its seats. It is hard to see it winning any seats at all in some constituencies, such as Kerry N and Dublin SE, and in only a handful of places might it hope to win two seats: Carlow-Kilkenny, Laois Offaly, Cork SC, Louth (with the CC) and perhaps Mayo, and it most of those it won three seats in 2007. In almost three quarters of all constituencies FF would lose a seat, so if all incumbents ran again many would be defeated. In many constituencies FF would have to think very hard about whether it should run more than one candidate and its vote would be just under or just over one quota; in such cases running two could reduce the party’s chance of winning even one seat! It is hard to see the party not selecting all incumbents, but that would mean the party’s electoral strategy could be less than optimal.

In current circumstances, where there is likely to be one seat over which two incumbents are fighting a TD might hope to insulate himself by running against the party, placing some distance between themselves and the party leadership. Could this have prompted John McGuinness’s likely ‘running mates’ in Carlow Kilkenny, the three of them surely chasing two seats now – to row in behind his criticism of the reshuffle? Whether this strategy could encompass bringing down the government, however, is much more problematic. It would obviously force a defector to run as an independent at the consequent election. This might sometimes deliver an additional seat to the FF gene poll if not directly to the party, but it could also be that the defector could win the seat at the expense of their former party, driving FF seat share down still further.

Political reform yes, electoral reform maybe

[The following is an edited summary of my remarks to the Political Reform conference, hosted by University College Cork, March 26 2010.]

It is good to see that political reform is now on the agenda of some of our political leaders. More and more people are calling for large-scale political reform, with an ever-growing list of targets for reform. Electoral reform is frequently mentioned as one of those targets. I certainly agree that it is worth exploring the question of electoral reform, but whether it is one of the political institutions that actually should be reformed is a moot point. I’ll develop this argument in four main points.

1.) Don’t do this in isolation
First, if electoral reform is to happen then at the very least it should certainly not be done in isolation. Let’s start by thinking about what it is about Irish politics that electoral reform is supposed to fix. The charge is that TDs are acting as little more than constituency messenger boys and girls, running aimlessly around their constituency patches chasing funeral hearses and helping sort out welfare and pension payments – all of this at a cost to their role as legislators in the Dáil. What comparative evidence we have does, indeed, support the contention that the constituency focus is greater here than in comparable countries. The accusation is that TDs are in intense competition with each other for personal votes, and the blame for this is laid firmly on the STV electoral system.

But to what extent is it STV that is really to blame for this? We know from comparative work (e.g. a recent survey of MPs in Malta also elected by STV – see http://bit.ly/9UH78d) that politicians in other countries that use electoral systems like ours do a lot less constituency work. Changing our electoral system is unlikely to be enough to fix this problem. Arguably, rather than focusing our reforms on the supply-side (on the service that TDs supply for citizens) reform would be better addressing the demand-side (on the service that citizens demand of TDs) on such things as the strengthening of local government and on improving the interface between public service departments and citizens. In short, whatever reform we go for must be joined-up, large scale and effective.

2.) Will Irish voters support electoral reform?
My second point is that electoral reform is not worth pursuing without fair chance of it succeeding. We need to take account of the particular circumstances of the Irish case, namely the fact that the STV electoral system is enshrined in the Constitution ad can only be changed by referendum (something that has been unsuccessfully attempted on two occasions). If we’re not careful we could waste a lot of time and money designing a spanking new electoral system only for it to be defeated in a referendum.

One of the things that make the Fine Gael ‘New Politics’ document (http://bit.ly/auiSCA) so attractive is the proposal to establish a citizen assembly to look into the question of designing a new electoral system. The point is that there is no such thing as a bespoke electoral system. Any proposed new electoral system would have to be designed from scratch to take account of the particular circumstances of the Irish case. The will place the PROCESS of electoral system design into sharp relief. Any whiff of a notion that the new electoral system is being designed to serve the interests of one political party or another and it will be roundly defeated in a referendum. In short, any process of electoral reform must engage with and actively involve citizens; it must have the stamp of popular legitimacy (for more, see Ken Benoit’s piece in the Irish Times – http://bit.ly/awwzgb).

3.) Do we really need to change our electoral system?
My third point is that, actually, it might well be that on reflection we won’t want to change the electoral system. Let’s look at the alternatives, of which there are three. The first of these is the British first-past-the-post system (or, perhaps the Australian alternative vote), a non-proportional electoral system (which was what Fianna Fáil proposed in the 1959 and 1968 referendums). One of the best-established social scientific laws – ‘Duverger’s Law – states that non-PR electoral systems produce two-party systems. In other words, this electoral system would produce a Dáil with two large parties (FF and FG) and at best a smattering of seats going to a tiny rump of a Labour party (much like the British House of Commons) – hardly a terribly attractive prospect for a modern, inclusive democracy. The second alternative is the PR-list electoral system common across much of Europe. The question then is which form of list system would we opt for. We could adopt the version used in Finland (‘open list’) or Switzerland (panachage) in which voters declare their vote for individual candidates rather than closed lists, but how would this change anything? We would be swapping one electoral system (STV) in which voters vote for candidates with another electoral system (open list) in which voters still vote for candidates. Do we really think that this would change anything? An alternative option would be to go for a closed electoral system such as used in Spain, in which voters vote for a party list and the determination of which politicians win parliamentary seats is decided by the parties who rank-order their candidates on the party lists. The problem with this option is that you may end up doing little more than replacing a constituency emphasis on the ELECTORATE with an emphasis instead on the SELECTORATE: instead of running around chasing support from voters, TDs may still end up running around only this time chasing support from party members.

This leaves is with our third option, the mixed-member proportional (MMP) system used in Germany, and the system that is often referred to as a likely alternative here (e.g. by Noel Dempsey; and also by Enda Kenny in an earlier version of his New Politics document, which talked of a variant of MMP for Ireland). The first thing to note about this electoral system is that it has only been adopted by a small number of countries – many of them barely even democracies – and so its properties are still not fully understood. To date, it has been adopted by: Albania, Bolivia, Lesotho, New Zealand and Venezuela. And before we rush to look at the New Zealand case, it would be well to note that next year they will be holding a fresh referendum with a view to possibly abandoning this system.

One reason why MMP is seen as so attractive is because of the way it mixed two electoral systems – the PR list system and the British non-PR first-past-the-post system. It is seen as a fair compromise between the two extremes, as ‘the best of both worlds’ – for here we can have a mix of constituency politicians (elected in single-seat constituencies) with party list politicians elected to produce a fair proportionality in the election result. But, actually rather than see this mix in terms of a mid-point between PR and non-PR it is more accurate to thing of it in terms of an analogy to a bowl of soup – in which two ingredients have been mixed. The question now is whether the ingredients have been mixed in the right way. Recent academic research into MMP systems has found clear evidence of ‘contamination effects’, in which one part of the system effects the operation of the other half. A good example is in the constituency emphasis of the politicians. There is evidence of the list MPs operating constituency offices and paying close attention to the constituency needs of voters in much the same was as their constituency-MP counterparts: the role of the list MPs is being affected by (contaminated by) the role of the constituency MPs.

In short, a move to a new electoral system may not necessarily improve things.

4.) Perhaps fixing STV is better than replacing it?
My final point is that rather than full-scale electoral reform it might be preferable to introduce some fixes to some of the details of how STV operates. This argument has been rehearsed elsewhere (http://bit.ly/9UTThu) so I will just summarise the gist in bullet points. Of the following items, only the final one would require constitutional reform.
• We could increase constituency size (we used to have constituencies with up to nine TDs in each), which would increase the proportionality of the electoral system, bring in more small parties and reduce the hold over the political system of the larger parties (thus increasing the influence of the Dáil).
• We could change the way candidates are listed on the ballot paper: e.g. to the Malta version in which candidates are listed under their party lists. This might help to reduce some of the constituency emphasis because voters would be encouraged to think more in party terms than candidate terms when deciding on their vote.
• We could make a change in the STV counting rules regarding how surplus votes are transferred. This can quickly get into a pretty arcane world (for an illustration, see http://bit.ly/cVkFn9) but the gist is that by moving to what’s known as the ‘Gregory method’, or the ‘Senate rules’, we would help to reduce the element of chance that currently prevails in Irish elections that can result in the wrong candidate winning the final seat in a close election count.
• One final change to consider is replacing by-elections with other means of filling vacant seats. Ireland is one of the very few proportional electoral systems to still use by-elections, which is an anathema because, by definition, a by-election (an election to fill one seat) is a non-PR election.

Reshuffle shortens odds of an early election

The reshuffle on Monday underwhelmed most observers, partly because Brian Cowen had given indications that there’d be a major overhaul of government. New faces would be introduced, old, tired names dropped and this would reinvigorate the government in the lead into the next election. There was supposed to be a new dawn.

Reshuffles are not common in Ireland and for good reason. They’re not a great idea when you actually don’t have that much choice to get radically different people in. Also, in the UK where reshuffles are common, ministers rarely stay in the same job for a long time. They’ve barely found their way around the place when they’re moved again. But most importantly -as Jim Callaghan the former UK PM observed- the threat of a reshuffle keeps ministers honest for fear of removal and backbenchers loyal in the hope of preferment.  After a reshuffle has taken place there is less incentive to stay loyal.

This is particularly the case in Ireland now, where Fianna Fáil is likely to be in opposition after the next election and will in that case, more than likely choose a new leader. What incentive do the Mattie McGraths or the John McGuinness of this world to be loyal to the party leadership now? Even the hyper-loyal younger TDs such as Michael McGrath and Thomas Byrne will be looking to the next leader of the party. Even they’ll become more susceptible to revolt.

If (especially) older TDs want to save their seats, being critical of the government is probably the best option for them. Why would they want to support a budget that increases taxes and takes more money out of the economy? The reshuffle if anything must have shortened the odds on a 2010 election. I wonder how it might pan out.

Political Reform in Ireland (UCC). Conference Programme


Friday, 26th March 2010
Council Room, North Wing
University College Cork

Conference Programme

10.00 –10.15 Registration
Tea and Coffee

10.15 – 10.30 Conference Opening
Prof Neil Collins – University College Cork

10:30 –12:30: Session One
Reform Please!
Chair: Noel Whelan – The Irish Times

Lord Mayor of Cork, Cllr Dara Murphy
Progressing Regional Governance

Dr Aodh Quinlivan, University College Cork
Options for Reform, Local Government in Ireland

Ciaran Lynch, TD – Labour Party
Central Local Relations

Dr Eoin O’Malley, Dublin City University
Democracies die behind closed doors: Opening up Cabinet Government in Ireland

Fiona Buckley, University College Cork
Women, Quotas and Politics in Ireland

12.30 – 2.30
Launch of Government and Politics Review Journal by Micheál Martin – Minister for Foreign Affairs

Lunch and Poster Presentations on Political Reform

2:30 – 4:30: Session Two
Nation State, Global Crisis: Ireland in Focus
Chair: Paul O’Brien – The Irish Examiner

Dr Mary C. Murphy – University College Cork
Many Ideas, Minor Change: What’s Obstructing Parliamentary Reform in Ireland?

David Stanton, TD – Fine Gael
Twenty First Century Dáil Eireann

Dr Theresa Reidy – University College Cork
Seanad Eireann – In Perilous Danger

Prof David Farrell – University College Dublin
If electoral reform is the answer, what is the question?

Prof Gary Murphy – Dublin City University
“Who really makes policy in Ireland? Explaining why interest group power has corroded Irish democracy”

Each session will begin with contributions from invited speakers. This will be followed by an hour long roundtable discussion on the session themes. Contributions are very welcome and encouraged.