RTE Aftershock on political reform

One half of last night’s RTE Aftershock programming was devoted to political reform,  with both commentators calling for a new constitution to replace Bunreacht na hÉireann. In essence Dan O’Brien of the Economist Intelligence Unit argued that PR-STV ought to be replaced by a list system (he did not specify whether that should be open or closed, or discuss his  implied link between electoral systems and growth) and by changes to ways in which ministers are appointed (resign seats or bring in experts). Justine McCarthy called for the new constitution to be based on the values in the 1916 proclamation specifically equality and fairness.

8 thoughts on “RTE Aftershock on political reform

  1. It was interesting to hear both TDs Micheál Martin and Leo Varadakar being sceptical of the call for electoral reform that Dan O’Brien called for.

    Micheál Martin said he did not favour a change in the electoral system. Leo Varadkar pointed out that politics continues in the list systems used in Israel (national) and Austria (regional) as candidates try to ensure that they get high placings on the list.

    As I favour retaining the multi-seat STV PR system we have for elections here, it was good to see politicians point out that changing the electoral system is not the panacea that some other politicians, retired politicians and commentators think it is. I am aware that many political scientists have, over years, consistently pointed out the advantages of our system of PR

    Why is that Liam Weeks overview of the Tasmanian experience of PR got so little attention? https://politicalreform.ie/2010/04/20/the-tasmanian-experience-of-the-irish-electoral-system/. I cannot find the full article on the Examiner web-site.

    Surely, the measures that the Tasmanians use to limit the scope for excess by the powerful could usefully be introduced here eg.
    1) Constituencies of 5 members;
    2) Saturday voting;
    3) No by-elections
    4) Voting in any polling station (in an area that is slightly smaller than the Republic of Ireland);
    5) Single body administering the electoral system for the population of 500,000 people
    6) Randomisation of names of candidates within party lists on the ballot paper.

    We could usefully look at these and even try some of them out in some constituencies, just as we did with electronic voting – even if that was poorly thought through, badly designed, mismanaged and insensitively implemented.

    Surely our electoral system can be improved as one of the ways of bringing in checks and balances on how power is acquired, exercised, changed and lost here.

  2. Interesting to see the Dan O’Brien module in the Aftershock programme arguing that with a different electoral system, politics in Ireland might become more like politics in such countries as Denmark, Finland and Sweden.

    A little research into patterns of electoral system usage might have led to second thoughts about this argument.

    Such research would have discovered that all three of those countries use electoral systems that possess the two qualities that those who criticise the record of PR-STV in Ireland seem to find most objectionable:

    (i) the fact that in Ireland all TDs are elected from, and hence represent, geographical constituencies rather than being elected from a national list. In Denmark, Finland and Sweden (and in most other European countries) all MPs are elected from local constituencies and in the great majority of cases they are people who have their roots there. (See for example the biogs of Finnish MPs at http://web.eduskunta.fi/Resource.phx/parliament/members/byconstituency.htx)

    (ii) the fact that in Ireland candidates of the same party are in electoral competition with each other and hence TDs are vulnerable to losing their seat to a running mate. In Denmark, Finland and Sweden the electoral system is based on ‘open lists’ under which voters cast their vote not just for a party but for an individual candidate on the list. Thus, in those countries (and in fact in a majority of EU countries), just as in Ireland, candidates need to compete with their running mates for votes, and incumbent MPs can be ousted by a running mate.

    Whatever the reason for the differences between politics in Ireland and politics in Denmark, Finland and Sweden, it’s hard to see how these can be caused by electoral system differences. This seems to be a case, and by no means the first one, of someone assuming that a country’s electoral system has a far greater impact on all aspects of its politics than it actually does.

  3. @ MG
    It is also interesting that the electoral system is blamed for the fact that TDs seem to compete on delivery of goods to a locality or individual constituents. There is nothing inherent to the electoral system to stop them competing on parliamentary performance or input in to policy.

  4. @Michael Gallagher

    You suggest that “a little research” would have revealed that the Nordics use constituency lists. Nothing in the 14 minute piece aimed at a general viewership said otherwise. Thanks to a hugely professional producer and director, the proposal was clear–a hybrid system: 50% of TDs elected using the STV system; 50% on the basis of a national list system.

    You go on to say that “in a majority of EU countries[ ]just as in Ireland, candidates need to compete with their running mates for votes, and incumbent MPs can be ousted by a running mate.” While this insight is invaluable, the point I made in the film was the degree to which elected representatives focus on local issues. I have interacted a lot with politicians from different countries over the years and never heard any outside Ireland feel themselves to be messenger boys. Perhaps you are aware of cross country research on the frequency with which, for instance, national parliamentarians deliver passports to constituents?

    There are, of course, many dimensions to the issue. Your pol sci colleague, Eoin O’Malley, has invited me to speak at event in Dublin on political reform in October. I do hope you are participating. I would welcome the opportunity to debate the matter with you.


  5. The point in dispute is not whether TDs pay very close attention to their constituencies, which everyone agrees they do, but whether the electoral system has anything to do with this.

    Some of what TDs do as constituency representatives is pointless and a waste of time, but that doesn’t mean all of it is. I won’t repeat arguments that I’ve made elsewhere but I do believe that TDs’ responsiveness and availability to their constituents is more of a strength than a weakness of the Irish political system.

    I don’t know about hand-delivery of passports in comparative perspective, but MPs in most countries are expected to represent actively the constituents and the constituency that elected them. This is a prominent feature of studies of the work of MPs in Canada, France, and the UK, to give just three examples, and in fact the representational role looms large in most countries.

    And it’s not just backbenchers. Take this example from the memoirs of a former foreign minister: ‘Foreign colleagues were amazed in an interval of some international conference to watch me signing replies to individual constituents on their personal problems, and to learn that I had earlier dictated these replies myself’. If the writer was a former Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, no doubt there are those who would cite this statement as evidence of the baleful impact of PR-STV upon the lives of ministers – but he wasn’t. (Take a guess at the country in question – answer at bottom of this post.)

    So, (i) close contact between MPs and constituents is expected and delivered in countries using a range of different electoral systems, and (ii) there are countries, such as Denmark, Finland and Sweden, that use electoral systems very similar to Ireland’s and in which MPs do not, as far as we know, attend closely to the micro-needs of individual constituents. That might suggest that any supposed link between electoral systems and MPs’ constituency orientation is not as clear-cut as some people assume, and that changing the Irish electoral system is likely to have little or no impact on this.

    (The minister mentioned above was Douglas Hurd, former UK Foreign Secretary, as quoted in Tom O’Connor and Anthony O’Halloran’s book, Politics in a Changing Ireland: a tribute to Séamus Pattison (Dublin: IPA, 2008), p. 83. Hurd had a very safe Conservative seat (it is currently held by David Cameron) and was under no risk of losing the seat to a candidate of another party, let alone losing it to a candidate of his own party.)

  6. Dan: perhaps you might like to take this opportunity to clarify the details of your proposed new electoral system. As I understand it, it would be a mixed-member system, in which 50% of the seats would continue to be elected by STV and 50% from a national list. Two immediate questions occur to me.

    1.) Would the two parts of the system be linked or separate, parallel processes? I assume the former, which would make this a mixed-member proportional system. If that is so, and you are, in effect, proposing a national list electing 80 or so TDs, then you will have a highly proportional electoral system in which the lion’s share of the STV seats will be won by the larger parties (FF and FG) and the list seats will be won by the small and micro parties (the sort of outcome we’ve seen in other MMP systems, such as Wales where Labour tends to win all the district seats and the Tories pick up the list seats. The consequences of this include: (a) assuming the larger parties continue to have a dominant role in government then they’ll continue to have ministers from STV seats; (b) if modes of representation do vary across the two types of electoral system as you contend they might, then that will mean that FF and FG TDs will continue to operate as they do, while the TDs of the micro parties won’t.

    2.) Would the lists be open or closed? If the former, then, frankly not a lot will change. As Michael G comments, open lists invite just the same level of intra-party rivalry as STV. If, on the other hand, you propose closed lists, then the intra-party battle shifts from targeting the electorate to instead targeting the selectorate. Plus ca change….

    Mixed-member electoral systems are not the panacea that many think they are. They became fashionable in the 1990s in the brief wave of electoral reform that hit three established democracies (Italy, NZ, and Japan) and the democratization wave that hit East and Central Europe in particular. But since then a large and growing number of these countries have abandoned these systems, which must tell us something.

    One major reason why MM systems were so fashionable was because they were seen (by some) as ‘the best of both worlds’ (the sub-title of a prominent academic study edited by Shugart and Wattenberg), as an ideal compromise between the different electoral systems, marrying the constituency strengths of one electoral system with the proportionality and list-orientation of the other.

    But as the properties of these systems start to become better known (resulting from detailed research on how they operate in practice), the prominent view now is that actually they are not such a great compromise, because there is clear evidence of one part of the MM system ‘contaminating’ the other: e.g. list MPs feeling the need to operate in the same was as their district counterparts.

    There may well be reasons to change Ireland’s electoral system; there may be advantages to trying out something new. But, as the vast bulk of the political science community have been arguing for some time, please don’t see electoral reform as the basis for a solution. As has been argued in previous postings, there are many other things that could be done to improve how politics works here.

  7. Electoral systems are like exchange rate regimes–none is perfect and all have downsides. I have not suggested that changing Ireland’s system is a panacea, but rather that it, and the making more normal the way the executive is formed, would be the two biggest steps in improving the effectiveness of government in Ireland.

    @ David,

    Mixed member proportional systems, such as those in Germany and New Zealand, have single seat constituencies (elected on a FPTP basis) and (closed) national lists which ensure proportionality. I am not suggesting the first part.

    I propose keeping multimember constituencies and keeping STV for them (which would not mean all these seats going to FF and FG or a number of other consequences you suggest). The only change in this aspect would be that the constituencies would be roughly twice the size, as they would return, in total, only 83 TDs. This would have the additional benefit of further reducing excessive localism as each TD would need a higher quota and would therefore need to appeal to a larger number of voters (let me be clear here: it is all about trying to get a balance between local and national focus, and not about being hostile to local focus).

    As for the national list, I would suggest a closed list. I don’t see the need for this to be linked to the other half, to ensure perfect proportionality, although it could be.

    Parties would have an incentive to make the list as attractive as possible and to avoid putting cronies on it. Neither Germany nor New Zealand has any real problem with parliaments packed with cronies. In addition, Ireland’s political parties appear to be trusted by voters–their peeking order in seat numbers hasn’t changed since the 1930s, the longest such period of stability in any democracy–so why should there be such fear of trusting them with lists?

    There is the wider issue of the relationship between political institutions and government effectiveness. As readers of this site know, there is a vast body of literature on this (as it happens, your collegue, UCD’s Sebastian Dellepiane-Avellaneda, has a nice review article of the literature in the January issue of the British Journal of Political Science). But the literature has focused on differences between developed and developing countries rather than the smaller differences among developed countries. There is an absence of comparative work on the relationship between electoral systems on the one hand and, on the other, parliamentarians’ calibre, how they use their time and legislative output. Despite this, it seems as if political scientists in Ireland mostly support retaining the STV because they believe it to be at least as good as other systems. If this is the case why have the dozens of countries that have considered its merits over decades not opted for it?

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