Posted by David Farrell (December 28, 2010)
To succeed, political reform needs three things to happen: a reason for the reform, leadership to drive it, and engagement by citizens. We have the first; there are early signs of the second; the third is still a long way away.
In an earlier post I pointed up the importance of a major cataclysmic event – such as clear and unimpeachable evidence of large-scale political failure – as a catalyst for political reform. There has to be a reason for a system to change and that reason is its failure. This is where we are now.
But reform also needs an agent – someone to drive it. And this calls for leadership from the top. Not only must the systemic failure be recognized and accepted, it is also very important that senior politicians are prepared to take up the challenge to fix the system. They do this in part because it is in their own vested interests to do so (either because they see potential advantage for themselves, or because they fear backlash if they don’t adopt the mantle of reform), but they can also do this because they see it as the right thing to do – in this debate it is fine time we moved beyond knee jerk cynicism and recognize that not all politicians are bad apples.
The signs of leadership on this issue are emerging, with Fine Gael so far doing most of the heavy lifting. The party has produced several policy documents on political reform (discussed here and here), and today the party leader has reiterated the significance he attaches to this agenda. Labour is also making the right noises, although we’ve yet to see much detail. And in Fianna Fáil there are hopeful signs that senior figures are moving in this direction too (though we’re far from seeing serious policy proposals from this quarter). So, there are early signs of senior party figures talking the political reform talk.
It is the third, most vital, ingredient that is still sorely missing – the citizens. Not that we’re short of plenty of pent up demand from that quarter. But, as we we’ve discussed in previous posts (such as this one), this demand needs to be harnessed by our political leaders; engaged with rather than ignored. Ultimately it will be the citizens who will decide on the fate of any reform proposals in a referendum, so the proposals will have a fairer wind if the citizens are given a real role in their design. Another reason for including citizens in the process is because it would send a signal – at a time when politicians really need to send it – of politicians being prepared to make sacrifices even if it might threaten their future, even of turkeys being prepared to vote for Christmas.
There have been some quite limited signs that politicians have accepted this point: Fine Gael’s New Politics document promised a Citizens’ Assembly to consider changing our electoral system (yet only yesterday the party leader appeared to signal a back track on this); a similar proposal was made (even if virtually ignored and now forgotten) by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Constitution; the Labour party has made vague noises about a constitutional convention whose membership might include ordinary citizens. The notion of some sort of citizen engagement is emerging, but so far it is very faltering.
A quick puff and this spluttering candle could so easily be extinguished.