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.