A couple of things strike me about Fine Gael’s ‘New Politics’:
1. Much of the debate in the last few months concerning political reform has focused on two assumptions: (a) ‘Ireland is broken’ (taken from The Irish Times series on ‘Renewing the Republic’) and (b) the political institutions are responsible for this.
While there is no doubt that at the moment there is definitely something wrong in this country, where is the evidence that institutional reform will right these wrongs?
For example, in the context of one particular institution – the electoral system – which has unjustly been the target of a considerable deal of blame, it is particularly ironic that when the citizens’ assembly in British Columbia assessed all the world’s electoral systems, it favoured our own PR-STV.
The political institutions seem to be used as a scapegoat upon which to lay culpability when things go wrong. However, in this context, the old adage ‘a bad workman blames his tools’ springs to mind. Rather than focusing on the actions of individuals or groups (be it the clientelist culture supported by politicians and voters alike or poor policy choices made by politicians and civil servants alike), we quickly look to shed blame. It’s not our fault, goes the argument, it’s the conditions (i.e. the institutions) under which we work. In this way, neither we as an electorate nor the politicians as a legislature can ever be held truly accountable for their actions.
Think about this. Do we ever thank the political institutions when things go well? Certainly no one in either Canada or Australia, two western countries that have escaped the worst of the global recession, is suggesting that their electoral systems are responsible for this.
2. The lack of public debate about these issues. Even if, as seems likely, Fine Gael leads the next government, to what extent will it have a mandate concerning its New Politics document? This would only be the case if it was the main issue affecting people’s votes. We all know that the length of presidential terms or even the presence of an upper house of parliament will not influence the next election. It’s the economy, stupid.
That is why we should have a citizens’ assembly on these issues (as Fine Gael proposes), but before any such constitution day.
If we rush ahead with changes without fully considering their consequences, we may have another e-voting type fiasco that cost the taxpayer millions.
3. Why is Fine Gael tampering with the presidency? It appears a rather soft option for reform, particularly given that it’s an entirely symbolic position with no real powers. Does anyone really care about the presidency? After all, where was the fuss when there was no presidential election in 2004, 1983, 1976 or 1974? Shortening the term of office and expanding the franchise will certainly not help to create the New Republic to which Fine Gael aspires. If anything, the latter change creates the possibility of a republic headed by a president without a mandate from its inhabitants. For example, could the granting of a vote to Irish citizens abroad, although in line with comparative experience, expand the electorate in such a manner that overseas voters will outnumber residential voters? If so, what if the overseas votes swung a presidential election in such a way that we were left with a president who did not win majority, or even plurality support, amongst voters living in Ireland?
4. I don’t wish to appear pedantic on this matter, but I have to agree with Matt Wall on the typos in the New Politics document. These include:
• Citizens Assembly (sic)
• Fianna Fail (sic)
• Children Rights (sic)
• Peoples’ concerns (sic)
• Private members time (sic)
• the peoples’ representatives (sic)
• Fine Gael will give backbench TDs establish a bigger role (sic)
• whistleblowers charter (sic)
• Fine Gael will register all lobbyists are ensure that their activities are overseen (sic)
• Irish peoples’ trust in government (sic)
• A desire to afford every term it deems important with upper case status. Why not then write the whole document in upper case font?
I am quick to reproach students for sloppy errors, usually because it indicates a lack of time or care afforded to their efforts. It is in this context that Fine Gael’s typos surprise me. One would imagine that in such an important document as this, every word and phrase would have been carefully considered, more so than in a regular undergraduate essay.
If the party can’t get this wholly right, should we be concerned about its abilities to forge this new republic?