Yet another misguided proposal for electoral reform

In today’s Irish Times John Rogers is the latest to propose electoral reform as the solution to all our woes.  The gist of his proposed new system is as follows:

“Let’s assume a Dáil of, say, 120 deputies. Let us arbitrarily, for the sake of discussion, divide that membership into two groups. The first comprises 80 deputies elected from 16 constituencies of five deputies each. The balance of 40 deputies could be elected on the same day on panels of eight from the country as a whole; in other words, all of those 40 deputies would have a mandate from the country as a whole – not from regional or county-based constituencies.

A rule that the taoiseach and, say, five ministers approved by the Dáil, must be from among the 40 deputies elected from the country as a whole, would ensure such a taoiseach and ministers would have a direct mandate from the people and could truly be said to be not only responsible to the Dáil but to the people. This would transform the sense of political responsibility and accountability of the leaders of a government.”

In short, his proposed new electoral system is a mixed-member system involving a lower tier of 5-seat STV constituencies and an upper, national tier electing the remaining 40 TDs. His proposal is that the Taoiseach and 5 ministers would have to come from the upper tier.

A few initial issue/questions spring to mind:

1.) For arguments sake, let’s assume he is proposing a mixed-member proportional (MMP) system (along the lines of Germany’s).  If so, then the upshot of his proposal is that the Taoiseach and those privileged 5 ministers are more likely than not to be members of small, fringe parties; certainly Fianna Fail are likely to end up with few of these.  This is because of the way that MMP has to operate in order to ensure a proportional result: namely, the less than proportional outcomes in the lower tier are ironed out/corrected by the more proportional upper tier.

With a district magnitude of 40 in the upper tier, this will make Ireland’s new electoral system one of the most proportional on the planet thereby ensuring that large numbers of those seats will be won by smaller parties.  The only way to prevent this would be to impose a threshold rule on this tier — perhaps 5%.

2.) Will candidates be allowed to run for both tiers (as happens in Germany)?  This protects the leading politicians especially from the larger party who, as list standard-bearers, may be precluded from taking their seat because the party has won too many STV seats.  If so, then what is to stop all candidates from hedging their bets?  Before we know it we could have a large proportion of the Dail consisting of what the Japanese (who use a variant of this system) refer to as ‘zombie’ politicians.

3.) Is the upper tier list closed or open?  If the latter, then the candidates will need to chase personal votes — as happens at present in the STV system.  If the former, then the candidates become beholden to the party selectorates thereby making them less secure, because they hold less of a direct mandate, and thus more likely to want eventually to jump into the STV tier where they are ensured their own power base.  In short (and to repeat my comment in a previous post on Dan O’Brien’s proposals), plus ca change….

11 thoughts on “Yet another misguided proposal for electoral reform

  1. It was hopelessly ill-thought through. Rogers refers to the 40 national constituency TDs being elected in five ‘panels of eight’ but it is not clear what he means. He explicitly states that the 40 seats should not use a list system, so it would have to be a candidate system. If it is a 40-seat constituency the only system I can think of that might be manageable would be SNTV, but it would cause huge co-ordination problems for the parties which would be solved by dividing up the country into fiefdoms for individual politicians to campaign in certain areas – exactly the problem he’s trying to escape. If he has five panels of eight seat constituencies, do people have to vote in all five of these, as well as the STV constituency, you’d be asking a lot of voters. I doubt too many would bother.

  2. @ David – zombie banks, insurance companies etc. are bad enough, but zombie politicians we could probably do without 🙂

    On MMP, Michael Gallagher pointed out to me in recent correspondence that MMP systems facilitate all manner of manipulation by 2-party coalitions who, for example, can ask their voters to support candidates of party A in the lower tier and candidates of party B in the upper tier.

    Even more troubling is the capacity of individual parties to split into 2 parties (one for constituencies, one for lists) or to have their constituency candidates run as independents. Prof. Gallagher informed me that the latter behaviour, while not commonly observed in Germany, has been seen in other systems with corrective upper tiers – Italy and Albania (which have both now abandoned MMP) as well as Lesotho.

    It’s hard to imagine that this sort of behaviour would not occur in Ireland were MMP to be introduced – this sort of egregious ‘gaming’of the system, especially a new and unfamiliar system, may come to pose serious problems for the credibility of the legislature that it elected.

  3. When I read about five panels of eight the experience of the Seanad immediately sprang to mind. Did he have in mind these panels representing particular specialist areas, such as Industry and Commerce, Culture and Education, Agriculture, etc.?
    If so, there is no guarantee that just because candidates with specialist qualifications stand for specialist panels that they will either campaign on the record of their skills or that people will vote for them on this basis.
    De Valera may well have had a similar vocationalist aspiration for the Seanad, but look at what materialised. Does anyone, apart from the good Senators, know which Senator represents which panel?
    Manipulating the rules to try and force people to vote in a particular mindset is, aside from its potentially undemocratic tendencies, fraught with difficulty. The experience of referendums tells us this. Regardless of the issue, whether it be the EU, abortion or divorce, some voters may still be guided in their behaviour to vote on an entirely separate basis, e.g. to punish the government parties.
    The beauty of voting in a democracy is that your vote can be guided by whatever issue you choose, whether it be policies, oratorical skills or even looks. Telling the people how they must decide their vote is dangerously tyrannical.
    On a separate note, if John Rogers wants to make the Taoiseach more accountable to the people, is he then suggesting a move away from parliamentary democracy towards the more French semi-presidential style? His suggestion is not very clear. In any parliamentary democracy the prime minister is accountable to parliament (and perhaps his own constituency). If John Rogers wants to change this, the two clear options are:
    1. Ban political parties from parliament, ensuring that the Taoiseach is accountable to the Dáil and not just his own party.
    2. Scrap parliamentary democracy in favour of a presidential-style system.
    Do we really wish to go down either of these routes?

  4. The issue of some so-called specialists being amongst the 40 TDs elected from the national tier which seems implicit in John Rogers’ article and was more explicitly suggested in Dan O’Brien’s Aftershock programme should really be knocked on the head. This, as Liam Weeks, points out is how the Seanad supposedly works, but as we all know clearly in reality does not. As David Farrell has repeatedly pointed out the important question in these types of systems becomes who selects these candidates for election.

    Going beyond that, however, it seems to me that selecting these experts would be rife with the “the politics of now”. Let’s assume it’s the 2007 election and there is a finance/banking panel on the national tier. I give you Sean Fitzpatrick as the man who built up Anglo-Irish Bank as the poll-topper in this category; an expert in the field.

  5. I posted this response to the IT article itself. I favour changing the electoral system and how parliament but also agree with David that changing the system is no substitute for changing how the system is used by the public. We could dispense with elections and have TDs selected as we do jury members and it would still end up changing nothing if people expect them to focus the bulk of their time on constituency issues. This not about banning TDs from dealing with constituency problems but it is a matter of balance and if we continue to elect the guy who gets granny a hospital bed ahead of someone else then we’ll never have enough hospitals beds for those that need them.

    The supposed benefit of PR-STV is that it is meant to be an instant primary so that the voters select the candidates from the parties, but practice teaches us that the parties now know if you offer the public too much choice then you lose seats. Hence the parties exert a tight control over the nomination process, and whether you go with delegates or OMOV it is open to different types of manipulation. I have worked up a modification to OMOV that I will be hope to get some support for with FG, it is not about alter the principle of OMOV but changing the staging of the convention process itself.

    I’m on record within Fine Gael, which has not won me many fans, as not being enamoured with the New Politics document as regards the proposed changes to the electoral system for the Oireachtas, but I won’t criticise it for seeking to deal with the practical aspects of getting people elected. The FG proposal didn’t stipulate how a national/ regional list system might work so John Rogers complaints about it in that regard was nonsense. That is the work of the citizen’s assembly to pin down. I still favour the one parliament, two chambers solution.

    The practical problem completely ignored in the notion of panels of 8 elected nationally, is how do such people become well enough known to get elected without any party support. Does anyone who hasn’t run in any election not to mind one nationally based have any clue just how expensive the process is?

    The closest real world match to this proposed electoral process of national panels that we have is the University Seanad elections with panels of 3 and in the case of the NUI an electorate of over a 100,000 people scattered across the country. I’ve run in it. And who gets elected or polls well enough to be in contention? Union representatives, newspaper columnists and the very, very wealthy. While TCD with a smaller electorate but still nationally spread elects a newspaper columnist and people with an inside track through work links to the college itself. So under this system we get people who have a media profile already or can afford to buy one or someone to represent sectional interests of society. So much for such a system electing people with the nation as their sole priority.

  6. I’m curious if anyone has tried (it could well be a fantastical fool’s errand) taking some of the electoral data we have from previous elections (say 19987 onwards) and run it through other electoral system on the basis of some reasonable and explicit assumptions to see what sort of Dáil we would have arrived.

  7. @ Daniel – Michael Laver did this in a (1998) book called “A New Electoral System for Ireland?” where he runs through various variations on the theme of MMP using past election results. His conclusion was that FF would have won the vast majority of the constituency seats, given certain assumptions about districting.

    Of course the problem is that we cannot be sure of how the parties themselves would have adapted to alternative rules. For example, would parties have coordinated on single candidates to challenge FF in some of the single-seat races, would independent TDs band together to form an umbrella party?

  8. It’s worth pointing out that in the early years of the Free State that there was a constitutional provision for the appointment of extern ministers. These ministers were not members of the Executive Council, did not operate under collective cabinet responsibility and were not required to be members of the Dáil.

    Moreover, these ministers were to be nominated by the Dáil as a whole and would be nominated by the Dáil as a whole. On the face of it, it seemed like a mechanism to allow experts to take charge of policy issues free from party political interference.

    In practice, it never took off as an idea. Of those “extern ministers” appointed, all were TDs and there was no distinction between the two different types of minister. The provision was dropped in 1927 following a constitutional amendment.

    While not directly related to the electoral system, it is something worth “being cognizant of” when discussing bringing specialists/experts into politics.

  9. @Daniel
    For a 1987 simulation of how the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) might have worked here, based on some assumptions see Donal de Buitléar’s review of the then New Zealand Commission on Electoral Reform

    Click to access Electoral%20Reform%20-%20A%20red%20herring%20Administration%2035%202%20Sept%201987.pdf

    re. John Rogers
    my posting on the Irish Times comment facility.
    “This does not overcome the weakness John Rogers describes ie. a process of deal making between deputies. He suggests that we elect 40 deputies on a national basis nominated from panels of 8. This looks very similar to the way 43 of the 60 Senators are nominated. How would people get onto these panels?

    Our Seanad offers some insight . Politicians/party members have total control over 90 per cent of the Seanad seats. It is clear that they have not used this power to bring new people into politics, successfully. Garret FitzGerald’s appointment of Senator J. Dooge as Minister for Foreign Affairs did not go down well with FG members and was not repeated!

    This will continue under this proposal, which is trying to refine the only path to government power in our system. A hypothetical example shows why this “single pathway” causes trouble. Suppose that John Rogers wanted to become a Minister. He would join a political party, get well-known in among the party members, begin canvassing, attend a convention, be selected as a candidate for one of the panels and then, perhaps, be elected to the Dáil as one of the 40 panel members. Now a TD, there is no guarantee that he will become a Minister. Just as in our present system, he might succeed if his party forms the government – in whole or in part; if he has the right relationship with the Taoiseach ; if he is seen to “represent” a part of the country that “requires ministerial representation” etc!

    I believe that mechanisms are needed which cut the tie between being a member of the Dáil and being a member of the Government. In this way, both aspects of our way of governing ourselves can be improved. This is like a see-saw, with the elected representative function at one end and the Minister/executive role at the other. Any rise in the effectiveness of one implies a drop in the other.

    Madison, one of those who drew up the US constitution two hundred years ago, noted “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men the great difficulty lies in this: first you must enable the government to control the governed and in the next place, you must oblige it to control itself.”

    John Rogers proposal does not change the basis of our present structure, which fuses the executive with the legislature. His idea will not enable the Dáil to control the government, because Ministers will still be drawn from the majority grouping in the Dáil.

    We need to find other ways to delegate our power, control the exercise of that power and change those who wield it on our behalf. See the following for my response to the 1980s crisis .

    Click to access design-for-democracy.pdf

    Click to access Institutional%20Reform%20%20Social%20Policy%20in%20Ireland%201998.pdf

    Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

    • Louise, You make a good point and I would agree certain caerer senators such as Independent N.U.I. Senator Feargal Quinn and Trinity Senator David Norris have made an immense contribution to the upper house in amending legislation and raising issues from across the globe before the house, but in my own opinion they have proven to be the exception rather than the norm, particularly the caerer senators within our own party. Personally I would prefer a radical reform of the house with enhanced powers and a substantially widened voting franchise however the political currents are firmly flowing in the opposition direction with Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fe1il all now favouring abolition of the Seanad. It would seem that its demise is now inevitable (I very much doubt that the Irish people would reject the referendum that abolishes the house). Therefore we need to be realistic and use this last term of the upper house as a means of providing national exposure to candidates at the next general election.

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