Would electoral reform improve the quality of our TDs?

David Farrell (July 5, 2010)

The following letter appeared in today’s Irish Times:

Madam, – In recent times, I have wondered whether the collective membership of the Dáil has the ability to cope with matters of national importance, which impact on the daily lives of our citizenry. The low and blinkered level of debate relating to animal welfare has served to confirm my fears.
A significant sector of the present Dáil membership would be more at home in the chambers of local county councils. That sector’s vision will never extend beyond the parish pump and it has nothing to contribute to matters pertaining to our national parliament.
Yes indeed, reform of our electoral system is long overdue. – Yours, etc,

Is the author correct in blaming the electoral system for the quality of our politicians?

As readers of this blog will know, this is not the first time that there has been a call for electoral reform the aim being to improve the quality of our elected representatives. (For a sample of earlier discussion, see here.) There are a number of questions that follow from this proposal, among them:

  • Change to what? What sort of electoral system would we want Ireland to move towards? For instance — to take an extreme case — do we want the sort of electoral system they have in Israel (closed, national list PR) where there is little if any direct contact between citizens and politicians?
  • Would change work? Would a new electoral system produce a new type of politician? What is it that electoral reform would do that would have such an impact?

As some of us have argued before (for my previous posting on this, see here) there are question marks over the extent to which, in and of itself, electoral reform would have as much impact as its promoters might suggest.  Yes, as part of a package of wider, large scale reform (as proposed by the two main opposition parties) there could certainly be scope for looking at a new electoral system for Ireland.  But, on it’s own I have my doubts as to its likely success. There might well be a problem in the quality of our politicians and in the constituency-focused services they supply; but I wonder if the bigger problem might actually be the demands that we, the citizens, place on our politicians — demands that, in large part, result from our frustration with poor service provided by our public services, and the political vacuum on the ground resulting from our weak and ineffectual local government.  Perhaps more could be achieved by dealing with these problems first: i.e. focus on fixing the demand-side first and the supply-side problems may sort themselves out over time.

14 thoughts on “Would electoral reform improve the quality of our TDs?

  1. For me (in the US) it’s a question of trading an established politician for a new one. The entrenched representative has power and a track record and none of those records are perfect. Do you push that aside and elect a new person who has a glint in their eyes and is full of hope and promises? Because once they become part of the “system” they’ll have to wheel and deal like those before them. I believe the only way to effect substantial change is when a substantial part of the Dail/Congress/etc. is forced out at the same time.

    • I guess that’s one area where we have an advantage over you. One of the traits of STV is that there is no such thing as a ‘safe seat’: all politicians are vulnerable come election-time. I don’t have the figures to hand, but from what I recall the last time I looked, our parliamentary turnover figures are higher than yours. And certainly this is so when there is a change of government and government TDs are caught up in the wash of electoral change. So, in effect, we already have the potential of clearing out the old that you refer to.

  2. Did anyone else note the address of this individual concerned with the quality of debate over animal welfare?

  3. This is a good post. At the heart of the inadequacies of our TDs abilities to deal with national issues is their concurrent preoccupation with local issues. The clientalism of the Irish system has created this political culture- or is it a chicken n egg scenario, which came first?
    At any rate the TD is the focus of the constituent request partially because local government is poorly administered and local councillors havent enough power ( except unfortunately they had/have power in matters of planning…).
    The solution might be to bring county councils together into larger regional authorities with bigger budgets and economies of scale AND to make county councillors full time,fewer in number but more empowered, better paid.
    Then you would also look at the areas and try to break the link between the TD and the local area by redrawing boundaries and raising voter to TD ratios.

    A FF members group the La Scala forum have passed a policy paper on electoral reform up to ministerial level. But we dont know what appetite there is for reform in Leinster house itself which is where it matters of course.

    • @Des: Can you tell us more about the La Scala forum and/or the policy paper on electoral reform? Up until now FF has been the most silent of all the parties on political reform.

  4. Whilst it is the electorate’s fault, there is a chicken and egg scenario here, in that voters currently only get to vote for certain types of candidate because only certain types of candidate bother running, because voters currently vote for certain type, etc etc. On top of that, most Irish voters do put local graft as the primary criteria for judging candidates, which means that the minority of voters who do vote for ideological reasons are already at a disadvantage in terms of choice. Who does the low tax social liberal vote for in most constituencies?

    One electoral reform worth considering in the creation of a national constituency, of maybe 25-30 seats elected parallel to the constituency seats. It doesn’t even have to be elected using STV (which would be difficult from a counting point of view) but could just be elected using first past the post with voters allowed allocate as many votes to as many candidates as they wish, and the top 30 winning. What this would do would be to allow non-geographic issue candiates to run, such as small business or gay rights or public sector candidates, and allow voters to vote on that basis, electing a different type of TD with their second vote, whilst keeping the all important local rep.

  5. Jason, I would suggest that a reformed Seanad could be the very place for a list system. In fact I had thought before of having panels for the Seanad with the number of actual seats in each panel being determined by the number of a % of the total that vote for that panel. If there were 100 seats and if 20% of people cast their votes in the education panel while 10% did for the health panel then 20 of the seats would be in the education panel and 10 for the health panel. If you happened to one of the only 20 people to stand for the education panel you’d be elected even if you got less votes than the person should finished 11th for the health panel. It would allow the public to prioritise areas of concern for the new parliament.

    You could even have write in panels, if a candidate wanted represent a minority interest and could convince the public to support them by written in the name of the panel they wanted to represent and it got enough votes as a portion of the total and if they were the only candidate for it then they would be elected to the Seanad.

    Or why not explode the Seanad and have 600 or even 6000 people instead of 60 but on a part time and expenses only basis meeting virtually for the most part.

  6. Is there any evidence to back up the contention that there is some great untapped wealth of Irish people who are different to the sort of people who get elected at the moment – we can change the system and whatever else but it won’t alter the fact that the politicans we elect are a reflection of us as a people.

    That is an issue that goes back into the midsts of time and Gelic Ireland, which was based on localism and ‘the big man’ delivered the goods – the same mentality that is the root cause of everything wrong in Africa.

    We have always been perfectly willing to turn on each other for a small bribe. Look at the experience of the Geraldines once they lost the power of patronage. Then add in some plantations, some centuries of misrule, some famine, a massive dose of native Irish profiting on the misery of other native Irish during those same famines (check back in the records of many farming families and the story of how they came to get hold of land is not a pleasant read), then add in Parnell and then Dev and we end up where we are now with the likes of CJH, Ahern and Biffo being carried on the shoulders of the backwoodsman who benefit from the likes of them.

    The evidence is clear, that every single time the Irish are presented with a candidate who is patently unfit for office they elect them hands down – there are examples both urban and rural, north and south, east and west.

    Even the argument that more women would improve things doesn’t stand up because the women who have been elected are as bad as the men and women were just as much to fore in everything that has gone wrong in Ireland – it wasn’t only men flashing the cash during the Celtic Myth and it’s the woman who consistently stand by and defend the actions of men caught in the wrong.

    So it’s not just the system of goverance we have in place that need to be changed, it is also ourselves and our attitudes to honesty and transparency and it’s very easy to do if there’s a will.

    At the moment for all our supposed ‘anger’ at the mess the country is in there is no real evidence anyone wants to change anything otherwise they’d have taken to the streets and made change happen.

  7. Interestingly, Prof. Ed Walsh addresses this issue in today’s IT:

    However, I remain unconvinced by Prof. Walsh’s proposal to re-engineer the electoral system to ensure the election of Platonic philosopher-kings (or, perhaps, philosopher-tycoons). The ‘golden thread’ of the common law system is that the decision to take away one’s liberty (or to impose a penalty) is made by a jury of one’s peers. In a similar way, under a parliamentary democracy all citizens are free to elect representatives to provide governance. And those who are elected are, to a greater or lesser extent, representative of the voters who elect them. In this sense, they are our peers, who, by our authority, enact the laws that govern us.

    All parliaments enact laws and approve policies that seek to balance the competing interests of individuals and groups. In the same way that juries hear the evidence for and against presented by specialist advocates and, subject to the guidance of a presiding judge, make their decision, parliaments should be empowered and resourced to secure the relevant expert testimony, for and against, any policy or piece of legislation and to make a decision following the rebuttal, counter rebuttal and cross-examination that ensues subject to the restraints imposed by the constitution. And parliemntarians should be empowered to ensure that the evidence presented is intelligible not all to them, but also, and ultimately, to their constituents. It does not require specific expertise to assess the evidence presented and to make a judgement; nor should it.

    It is the weakness of parliament relative to the dominance of the executive that is the problem and not the calibre of those the people choose to represent them.

  8. PR-STV ultimately leaves the choice of candidates in the hands of local electorates, List based approaches would leave this in the hands of party elites. On the one hand this can be viewed as a choice between local gombeenism and the national interest, on the other hand it can be viewed as a choice between people who “get things done” or people who toady up to the party leadership!!! Ultimately, I suspect that a mix of the two systems would be most appropriate, although in the case of recent Irish elections such an approach would have seen the bulk of Fianna Fail TDs being elected at the constituency level and the bulk of TDs from other parties being elected as part of the “top up” element of List systems such as Germany’s.

  9. The Ed Walsh article mentioned above by in today’s (6 July) Irish Times says:

    “None of the new democracies of central Europe chose to adopt the Irish electoral system. All decided to introduce some form of list system, which provides a means by which national movers and shakers can be brought into government. Typically half the seats in parliament are reserved for those who are elected, as in our case, from local constituencies and the other half from lists of well-known national figures.”

    While it’s good to see people coming up with ideas for reform, surely a bit of fact-checking in advance would make for a more credible argument. Far from being ‘typical’, that kind of mixed system is used only in Germany and Lithuania, while Hungary has a convoluted variation on the theme and in Bulgaria 13 per cent are elected from single-member constituencies and the other 87 per cent from lists. Moreover, in Lithuania voters can choose among the candidates on the list, thus generating the kind of intra-party competition supposedly responsible for so many ills here. And in Germany the great majority of list MPs, far from being national ‘movers and shakers’ with no interest in or responsiveness to any unit below the nation, are firmly attached to, and run in, one of the single-member constituencies.

    To repeat a point made before, the Irish electoral system of PR-STV is very much in the European mainstream in that it embodies the features that characterise the electoral systems of most EU member states, especially the smaller ones: (i) PR in multi-member constituencies, (ii) all MPs elected from geographical constituencies, (iii) voter power to choose among candidates of the same party.

  10. The chicken and egg situation is more to do with our political culture creating a localist, constituency focused TD being facilitated by the electoral system, rather than lack of choice for the voters. Intra Party competition is the crux of the problem in terms of the electoral system due to multi seat constituencies with the majority of cross party TDs admitting that this motivates their constituency oriented work. However, as is rightly pointed out by Desmond Fitzgerald it is our history and the dependency, middle man culture that has been created as a result that ultimately encourages individuals to contact TDs and drives constituency work. Changing the electoral system and ultimately eliminating intra party competition will not change this.

    Furthermore, David Farrell is correct, reform of the public service and local government is essential for any change to the current system. People need an intermediary to intervene in many cases which are languishing for inordinate lengths of time within the “system” i.e. social welfare and housing applications, and if a TD can provide a service that can expedite such an application, of course they will be used in this role. This is a service which is available to all constituents and it is their prerogative to use it or not.

    An issue which has not been raised in this debate is the parliamentary restrictions imposed on TDs due to the Dáil Standing Orders which prohibit much of the legislative work which TDs wish to engage in. Currently opposition TDs and backbenchers are seldom offered a chance to influence the legislative programme and whose primary role in the chamber is to “make up numbers”. Furthermore, the power of the Executive is strangling the power of the Dáil. It is issues such as these – public service, local government and Dáil reform – that need to be addressed, before a correct assessment of the inability of TDs to deal with national issues can be made.

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