by: Matt Wall.
This post is in response to Elaine’s ‘10 proposals for political reform’.
It seems that there is now an incontestable case for far-reaching political reform in the light of all that has happened in Ireland since late 2008; and this case has been crystallised particularly vividly over the last week. However, while most people can agree that we need political reform, there appears to be little or no consensus around precisely what reforms should be put in place.
Those proposals that everyone can agree on are often somewhat vague. As Eoin O’Malley commented on some of Fintan O’Toole’s efforts– ‘He may as well have said “reduce crime and increase happiness”. The question is how do you achieve these?’
When one seeks to put forward more specific suggestions, especially in the form of a comprehensive package, one is faced with the paralysis of infinite choice: with so many branches and aspects of governance to tackle, and so many ways to reform them, where do you start? Or where do you stop?
However, Irish political debate rarely confronts such issues because detailed proposals appear to be incredibly difficult to communicate at all, and near impossible to debate. Our media environment is simply not conducive to pouring over fine details, considering the possible implications of each choice, and finding workable solutions. Topics flicker in and out of prominence with bewildering rapidity, and public discussions are relentlessly unedifying spectacles, with zombie-like party representatives clinging fiercely to whatever official line they have to parrot, breaking off only to attack one another with ever-increasing levels of personalized bitterness.
While not perfect by any means, Fine Gael’s ‘New Politics’ document contains a wide range of ideas for specific political reforms, detailing the rationale for their adoption and the methodology by which they would be implemented. And yet when Fine Gael representatives appear on television or radio, they may only briefly allude to the existence of this document before they are asked either: a) Why do you think so few people want Enda Kenny to be Taoiseach? b) How are you going to co-exist with Labour , when their views are so different for yours? or c) both. (It generally seems strange to me that Fine Gael people, who have a lot to say about policy, are quizzed endlessly about their leader, while Labour people, who have a popular leader, face a constant barrage of demands for policy specifics). Even Labour’s condensed three page Private Members’ Motion gained little or no traction in any media that I came across. Basically, detailed reform proposals appear to be too boring to compete with an endless slanging match in the eyes of the media.
Hence, the ‘list of 10’ approach becomes attractive. The idea is of this, it seems to me, is to shove several reform proposals into such a condensed package that they can be meaningfully recounted and defended in a 15 minute radio segment, or via a 1,000 word opinion piece – these being the absolute outer limits of allowable attention span for public debate on any ‘big’ issue in Irish political life. Having to thus condense one’s ideas reduces the exercise of considering political reform to a sort of a rhetorical Ready, Steady, Cook – where you have to make a meal to be evaluated, but with limited ingredients and in a short space of time, preferably while making engaging small talk along the way (though I applaud Elaine’s efforts here, especially in her linking of each of the proposals to a more detailed justification and elaboration, and I agree strongly with many of her suggestions).
Finally, specific proposals are difficult both to defend and to garner support for because of an absurd inability to acknowledge that there is no such thing as a perfect system, and that improvement in one area usually comes at the expense of a cutback in another. To debate these changes systematically, constructively, and intelligently we would need to step away from the endlessly partisan, antagonistic, and simplistic political rhetoric that so many of us have come to loathe.
Could a Citizens’ Assembly be an environment where constructive debate and problem solving could occur? Could it be a non-elitist institution that does these things in a reasonably democratic way, undertaken by a group of citizens who are relatively representative of the population? Perhaps, if our Citizens’ Assembly was very carefully designed and well-resourced. Will a Citizens’ Assembly happen? Both of the main opposition parties have endorsed Citizens’ Assemblies as key reform mechanisms in recent times, albeit with each party’s proposal providing for different remits and compositions. Holding these parties to their commitments in this regard may prove difficult in the light of the clear and present problems that they will face when in office.
I would argue that a Citizens’ Assembly with a broad remit, and the power to put its proposals directly to the people via a referendum or series of referendums, has to be worth a shot: the current political and media systems appear to offer little hope of providing a meaningful debate on these issues, and our political system is in dire need of an upgrade.