If reform is the question, the electoral system is not the answer

Eoin O’Malley takes Dr Ed Walsh to task for his call to reform the electoral system.  Essentially he argues if we want to reform the political system we need to rebalance power within the political system. We need to enable greater scrutiny of government to allow the opposition and backbenchers do their job. The public should have greater access to independent information, not spun by government departments. Government statistics could be generated by independent agencies and government policy could be independently analysed and tested against their stated objectives.

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10 thoughts on “If reform is the question, the electoral system is not the answer

  1. There seems to be a counter-revolution going on where some earnest politicval reformers are adamant that the electoral system is not an issue. Yet as long as we have relatively small geographical constituencies with small numbers of seats available (less then, say, 15 seats) we end up with a relatively limited choice of politics to choose from. A five seater is not enough. We would not accept that limite choice in terms of our cars or food or clothing or music or books or even TV channels. Yet in politics we do?

    • Actually Jason, as a mate of mine repeatedly points out, clientelism only works when you can feasibly get elected first time out by those you’ve serviced directly (typically as a local cllr prior to running for the Dáil). So whether through larger constituencies or fewer seats but if you move the size of the quota past a number that it is no longer as feasible to get elected on solely by virtue of being a good clientelist or the local man then we might start to shift things.

      One alternative way while preserving roughly the same amount of TDs (around the 140/150 mark rather than dropping down to under 100) might be to have overlapping geographical constituencies with multiple votes.

      Imagine for example that instead of spreading the seats across small size constituencies like with Kerry South with 3 seats in Munster which has 42 seats in total. This means a quota of 9,000 plus but realistically you’ve a chance of a seat if you start with 6,000 1st preferences. But what if Kerry elected just 3 TDS on it’s own, that would double the quota and make it impossible someone who was merely the totem from one town to get elected. But then People in Kerry would also get to vote in West of Ireland (south) constituency that had say 5 seats allocated to it but it was shared with Clare), again such that the quota was closer to 20K, and finally there could be a south munster/mid munster/north munster split with some seats allocated to it. The idea being that Munster still elects 42 TDs, but they all need to get more that twice the current size of 1st preferences in order to get elected the first time. This would in effect raise the clientism bar beyond what one person could realistically achieve.

      • Dan, the reason I’m arguing for much larger constituencies is to recognise the reality that although most Irish voters do determine their votes based on local service delivery, a minority don’t. At least with ultra large constituencies, that minority of voters gets a few TDs elected.

    • Jason, I think you’re right that constituencies might be too small, and I have no idea why they need to be related to the county system. People who live and work close to Limerick City have to vote for candidates from Co. Clare who have little in common with the essential urban area they live in. Making the constituencies larger with up to 15 seats as you want is possible with PR-STV (though it might get a bit unwieldy as you’d be asking the voters to rank order over thirty candidates typically) and without constitutional change. But isn’t it possible that parties would just divide up the constituencies among candidates? The higher district magnitude – no of seats per constituency – would make it easier for smaller parties to get representation.

  2. I’m sure the erudite sponsors of this site will correct me, but, for me, political governance is all about a few key trade-offs: how much should the state do to provide goods and services generally and for specific groups and individuals and how much should it encourage individuals and groups to take responsibility for themselves; how much and in what way should the state raise funds to finance its activities; to what extent should the state restrict the liberty of individuals and groups (or advance the interests of one group to the detriment of those of another) in the context of some broadly agreed perception of the common good.

    These aren’t discrete multiple choices; they are nuanced gradations where large numbers of voters position themselves on one side or the other, but many, perhaps a majority, are prepared to accept shifts in the trade-offs over time.

    The art of politics is to secure the consent of a majority of voters to accept a particular set of trade-offs.

    Political governance in Ireland is, perhaps, uniquely cursed among developed parliamentary democracies because, potentially, a majority of voters who would sit comfortably on one side of these trade-offs are split between two catch-all parties each of whom are compelled to attract and secure voters who are more comfortable on the other side of these trade-offs. As a result these fundamental trade-offs are rarely, if ever, revealed, tested, debated or shifted in an objective manner. Perhaps, we should not be surprised that episodes of good governance have been rare in the relatively short history of this state.

    • Well put, Paul.

      For good governance, the issue is to devise and implement mechanisms by which we, citizens in a Republic with a written constitution who own the power to govern ourselves, can gather both the authority (who may do what to whom? when? How?) to govern and the know-how(can do) to do so effectively and efficiently.

      But we need to delegate the authorising (may) and the know-how (can)functions to two separate bodies, both of which we elect and both of which we can see as they work in concert to develop options for our benefit.

      We need checks and balances on the powerful more than we need cath-all parties.

      IMO, the single-transferable vote in multi-seat constituencies is one such check.

      • @Donal,

        Many thanks for the kind words. I think that, despite some dissenters, a consensus is emerging on this board that the electoral system is not the problem. It may be far from perfect – there isn’t one that is – but, as you point out, it tends to act as a restraint on the tyranny of faction. A consensus also seems to be emerging in relation to the need for a separation of the legislative and executive powers – and a balancing of these powers.

        But it is not clear how this might be achieved. It would require a supreme act of statesmanship (apologies for the gender bias) for a governing faction (or combination of factions) to institute the required changes – and for the opposition factions to engage constructively.

        In contrast to many other established parliamentary democracies which suffer, to varying extents, from executive dominance, it strikes me that Ireland is starting from square minus one. In other states the configuration of the political factions is structured to address the fundamental trade-offs I describe in my earlier comment. My sense is that this facilitates consideration of the reform of the relationship between the executive and the legislature. (For example, in Britain, which suffered from extreme executive dominance similar to Ireland, there is a palpable shift in the trade-off between increasingly authoritarian, illiberal, big government and a stance (slowly being established) based on more transparency, a smaller state, more reliance on intermediate civil organisations and on the liberty and responsibility of the individual. This is being accompanied by some efforts to effect reform of political governance.)

        My question wrt Ireland is: Is a realignment of the political landscape to reflect the balance of public opinion on these fundamental trade-offs a prerequisite to consideration of reform of the balance between the executive and the legislature?

  3. It’s the quality of the people we choose as our politicans that is the problem, it doesn’t matter if the system is STV or some other type if the sort of people presented are the same as those presented now – the politicans we elect are a reflection of who we are and until as a nation we get a grip on ourselves nothing will change.

    Just look at the pathetic farce that passed for a debate on civil partnserhips or animal welfare. You have people condemming gay people and defending the catholic church when that same church has still not been held to account for it did and what those who gave it blind loyalty colluded in and then there’s stag hunting – is this not 2010 so what sort of sick mind argues it is normal for adults or children to get enjoyment out of the literal murder of a terrified animal? The bill doesn’t mention the Ward Union nor does it ban people on horses galloping across fields and hedges or the social side – it just bans the murder bit and there are people who laud a backwoodsman like McGrath as a hero.

    Yet we sneer and scoff at other countries for being backward. Look in the mirror. What happens here does not happen in any other so called modern mature democracy – everywhere has problems but nowhere is every single part of society infected as in Ireland. Nowhere else has every single supposed check against abuses of power failed as in Ireland.

    For example, apparently Sean Fitzpatrick is going to made bankrupt and yet I bet you it will have zero affect on his lifestyle as he will have managed to pass everything to his wife or children then you look at the US for example, a society where life is only as good as the amount of money you have – then it’s great. But if you don’t have money you might as well be living in the 3rd world. Yet people who were in their own way to blame for a part in causing their financial crisis in the US are now in jail aka Madoff.

    So if we keep the system we have now and give our vote to a better class of person than we have a chance of getting better politicans and in turn better decision making. If that’s what we want but we have been corrupt long before CJH took over Fianna Fáil, long before Dev’s ego caused a civil war, long before Parnell or Edward FitzGerald were betrayed – the legacy of corruption in Ireland goes right back – how do you tackle that legacy in one Dáil session?

    When the Irish people demonstrate that we won’t stand for what so many accepted in the past anymore that’s when things will change.

    The electoral system is besides the point.

    So at the next election, for a start, why doesn’t every voter give their number 1,2 and 3 to the first time candidates of their choice – every single constituency has first time candidates from all parties and none so there’ll easily be three realistic choices and can a rookie Dáil be any worse than what passes for a parliament now?

    I’ll tell you though, banning post it notes in the civil service and extending FOI to every single decision taking by every single authority in the country and FOI requests made free would do more to transform our mentality toward honesty and accountability than anything else.

    But seeing as Fine Gael and Labour are as dishonest as Fianna Fáil when it comes to the decision making process, we are unlikely to get the reform needed for those parties – an improvement on FF is the best we can hope for … unless people use their vote intellegently.

    I wonder if it is a mental defect that hasn’t been outbred yet – caused by the generations after the famine being stunted due to neglect or lack of vitamins etc – there must be a legacy of so many ill people interbreeding?

    Because there must be some reason Ireland in particular is incapble of managing its affairs honestly or competently given every single generation has messed – not one generation got through life without leaving behind a poisonous legacy – we thought we had it cracked with the Celtic Myth but alas not.

  4. “The public should have greater access to independent information, not spun by government departments. Government statistics could be generated by independent agencies and government policy could be independently analysed and tested against their stated objectives.”
    In your dreams..

  5. Ed Walsh argues that the Irish electoral system does not allow voters to pick people with the most appropriate talent for ministerial positions, an argument that many people would find hard to doubt. But his solution, to widen the pool from which representatives reach the Dail by introducing a list system, is flawed.

    While it can be argued that it would change the range of skills available to a future taoiseach, it completely overlooks a serious deficiency in any system which draws exclusively on the Dail to fill ministerial positions.

    The iron link between the Cabinet and the majority in the Dail creates a systemic fault that makes inaction preferable to action in a majority of cases. The executive wing of the government has almost complete control over the Dail, allowing it to hide any option for change which might be politically difficult. The questions raised by Eddie Molloy about the advice given by the Department of Finance to the government are a good illustration of the problem. It is unclear if there were other possibilities considered and, if so, which were recommended.
    If the executive were absolutely separated from the Dail, TD’s would have no loyalty to the government and would use their powers to insist on hearing the advice of the Civil Service directly. The executive, not having control of the majority, would be unable to prevent it.
    The solution seems to require that all ministers, including the Taoiseach, must be selected by a process that reduces the TD’s obligation to them to a minimum. If the method of selection was well designed, it would also solve the problem of finding appropriate ministerial skills.

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