More free votes? But how? And for what?

Elaine Byrne wrote today that “deep-seated institutional change must rebalance the relationship between the government and the Dáil….by reducing the power of the whip and allowing more issues to be decided by free votes.”

Ireland, like most parliamentary democracies in Europe, tends to see TDs vote along party lines. The assumption is that this is because of the party whip, but of course people tend to join parties because they agree with the philosophy of the party, so it’d hardly be a surprise if all Sinn Féin TDs were to vote to against a motion to invite the English Queen to visit Ireland. Even if TDs do tend to take the lead from their whips, and I’ve no doubt on the many issues TDs don’t bother thinking too deeply about they do take the lead from their party leadership, is it necessarily a bad thing (for voters and the efficient running of the country) if people vote on party lines?

Assuming free votes are a good thing, we still need to think how to achieve them. Elaine doesn’t say how it might happen, but we can think about possible measures. You can effectively achieve free votes through the secret ballot. But isn’t this inherently undemocratic? I’d like to know how my TDs vote on certain issues. If I can’t see it (I’m not going to trust them to tell the truth) how do I know who I’m voting for?

Nor can we legislate for them. You can’t tell TDs NOT to vote on party lines. This is also undemocratic.

The most plausible way I can see us achieve this is by making TDs more independent of their party. TDs will listen to their party leadership because the leadership controls important resources most TDs want. These include jobs (cabinets seats, committee chairs etc.) and access to electoral resources (through candidate selection, campaign finance).  It’s probably the case that the Irish system, which allows voters to prefer candidates from within parties to others, makes our TDs more independent of party leadership than in most other places. We could go a bit further and have open primaries and further reduce the power of the party.

But if we look at the place where the legislature is not controlled by the government, and the legislators are unconstrained by party whips – the US – there we see as much if not more pandering to constituency rather than national interests than anywhere else in the world.

I agree with the need to separate government and the Dail, but I’m not sure that encourgaing free votes might not only be achievable in a way that might have other less desired effects.

Eoin O’Malley

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3 thoughts on “More free votes? But how? And for what?

  1. One of the important ways in which one can measure the relative influence of the executive and legislature is in examining who controls the budget. At one extreme, as in the US, the legislature is a powerful agenda-setter and decision-maker. The annual budget encapsulates the legislature’s wishes with respect to taxation and expenditure policies and both the Congress and Senate have unfettered powers to amend the President’s draft annual budget. The UK with its Westminster style democracy is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Here the head of the executive is both a member of the lower house and the leader of the party with the most seats, a situation that also prevails in Ireland. Here while parliament votes on the annual Budget the executive alone determines its shape and size and the head of state merely signs it into law. Generally between these two extremes lie most of the parliamentary democracies of Europe. These allow varying degrees of power to the legislature. Important variables include first, the extent of the ability of the legislature to change revenues, expenditures and the balance in any direction, without limit while the most restricted legislatures are those that always adopt the budget exactly as proposed by the executive. Second is whether the legislature .merely controls budgetary aggregates (total revenue, debt etc) or the particular allocation of funds. Third is the time which the legislature has to examine the budget and propose changes. What is crucial here is the committee structure and resources such as adequate research capacities. Reforms here could go a long way to allowing the legislature to hold the executive to some account.

  2. As I’ve argued in many’s a forum, the only way it’ll happen in Ireland is if we move to a single-seat constituency model. In the UK and US it’s far more commonplace for a parliamentarian to ‘jump the fence’ on an issue – but unlike in Ireland where the party can hang the person’s political future in front of them, the US and UK parties simply put up with it – to isolate a rogue member or to eject them from the party means losing the entire constituency base in that area, which they can’t afford to do. It’s different in Ireland because even if FF’s Mary Wallace in Meath East (to take an example) jumps ship in offence at something, her party colleague Thomas Byrne is there to capitalise on her more partisan following.

    The only way our parliamentarians will do their own job and fulfill the very essence of a legislative branch of government is if the party whip isn’t the be-all and end-all of their careers, and for that they need to be the sole voice of their party in that area. The only that works is with single-seater constituencies.

  3. One idea I saw somewhere years ago (I think it was in the FT) seemed worth debating.

    We could introduce secret votes in the Dáil (e.g. by electronic means such as cards). Obviously constituents should have the right to know how their TD has voted, so the details of who voted for what should be published after, say, 2 weeks.

    In the meanwhile, a heck of a lot of political dealing could happen, allowing TDs to organise blocs inde[pendent of the whip system. The Govt would be a lot more respectful of TDs’ wishes if it had that much less control over their votes.

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