Yet another crazy idea for electoral reform

David Farrell (January 10 2011)

Former Attorney General John Rogers has returned to the theme of electoral reform. In a presentation on The Week in Politics on RTE last night and also in today’s Irish Times he set out the latest version of his ideas for a new electoral system (for discussion on the previous version see here). As before he misses the main point — namely that on its own electoral reform will fix nothing (discussed in a large number of posts on this site; for an example see here). And as regards his proposed system, we have the makings of what could best be described as a dog’s breakfast.
The proposed changes are as follows:

the Dáil to comprise of no more than 150 deputies, and this to be unalterable save by constitutional change;
100 of these deputies to be elected from 20 five-seat constituencies using proportional representation;
the remaining 50 deputies to be elected by the entire national electorate by proportional representation from seven panels with seats as follows:
1. future planning, security and social development: eight seats

2. environment and sustainable development: seven seats

3. natural resources and agriculture: seven seats

4. industry, science and technology: seven seats

5. administrative, accountability, labour and business: seven seats

6. education and culture: seven seats

7. EU and international relations: seven seats

As a further measure of reform require that the taoiseach, the minister for finance and at least three other members of our 15-member cabinet should be drawn from this cadre of 50 nationally-elected deputies.

Others can feel free to chime in, but for openers among the main problems with this system would be the following:

1. Does he really, really think that by naming his 7 panels by theme (future planning, education, etc.) that somehow the parties will step back and let relevant learned bodies (which??) propose candidates.  The golden rule in politics is that representative politics IS party politics.  You can design fancy new electoral and parliamentary structures till you’re blue in the face and parties will still manage to take charge: that is how it has always been and will always be; and actually that’s how it should be.

2. He proposes that these 7 panels would elect one national list of 50 TDs, and that the Taoiseach and most senior ministers must come from this coterie of TDs.  Given that this is a 50-seat constituency (unless he proposes some sort of electoral threshold to reduce the overall proportionality) then this will mean that large numbers of these seats will be won by minor parties (Greens, Sinn Fein, and doubtless other new parties that would form).  This will mean that relatively speaking the larger parties (that would be the senior coalition partners) would pick up fewer of these seats.  And this would be compounded by the fact that a key feature of mixed-member electoral systems such as this (for more on all of this, see) is that the higher tier election (i.e. this 50-seat tier) is used to iron out any disproportionalities in the lower tier (the 20 5-seat constituencies) — i.e. giving more seats to smaller parties to compensate them.  In short, the pool of ministerial/leadership talent available to the main parties in this 5-seat tier could be pretty limited.

3. What sort of expenses regime would be envisage for both sets of deputies?  If we take at face value the idea that the 50-TDs representing the 7 panels are there to push national issues, then that suggests that they won’t have a budget for a constituency office.  As we’ve seen in Scotland and Wales, this will result in debates over the status of TDs, some seen as of a lower status (because they have less resource).  But IF, instead, he proposes that all deputies should have the same set of resources, then we end up with turf-wars: the 5-seater TDs demanding that the 50-seat TDs ‘get off their lawns’.

4. There are lots of details that are missing that would have huge implications for the system he proposes, among them:

  • What sort of PR system would be used for the 50-seat election — open or closed list? The latter gives a lot of power to parties to determine who gets elected; the former results in the same-old-same-old localist politics)
  • Would candidates be allowed to run in both sets of elections (as for example happens in Germany)? If so, we’re into the realm on ‘zombie politicians’, politicians who by hedging their bets and running for both ensuring that even if they are killed off at one level they can still live to fight another day.
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23 thoughts on “Yet another crazy idea for electoral reform

  1. Lawyers seem to know a lot about what judges said in past cases, but on institutional design this eminent lawyer, who has enough experience of politics that he should know better, knows very little. This shows why Labour’s idea of a constitutional convention with 30 lawyers is a bad idea – John Rogers would probably be one of Labour’s chosen ones.

  2. I can’t tell if these ideas that are coming out to propose various list systems are just piss poor ideas or complicated ways to get powerful people into positions of greater power without the need for attending funerals, signing medical card application letters, rescuing cats etc. etc.

    Looking at the 7 “panels” for instance it’s hard to see how business people wouldn’t penetrate each one.

    1. future planning, security and social development:
    There’s money to be made from security and businessmen like a say in planning.

    2. environment and sustainable development:
    Anything “green” has become a business model and there’s a market for anything with the word “sustainable” in front of it.

    3. natural resources and agriculture:
    Ask Shell about natural resources.

    4. industry, science and technology:
    If a corporation could get the state to foot the bill for R&D and then take whatever technology developed and patented then there would be lots of money to be made there.

    5. administrative, accountability, labour and business:
    This one really sounds like a throwaway – “accountability” ? Imagine a few Michael O’Leary types had a say in the abolition of labour laws!

    6. education and culture:
    Someone makes money out of lucrative uniform contracts and school books…

    7. EU and international relations:
    I’ll have a think about this one.

    “The panel system would have the effect of focusing informed debate on important national issues.”
    Mr Roger’s suggestions seems to aim to remove democracy away from the little people. ‘Informed debate’, as opposed to the rather messy types of debates real people propose like why is my kid being taught in a school with damp on the walls and no heating or why are there record numbers on trolleys in A&E.

    In Ireland the maxim of “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” rings true.

    When I read these kind of articles from elites like Rogers I’m kind of interested in his viewpoint on what was wrong exactly with the system. It may be a slightly antagonistic thing to say he doesn’t seem to be too bothered that when the richest party gets in to office it represents the demands of the richest people and vested interests are the priority.

    Fine Gael are the other side of the business party. They too play golf with wheelers, dealers, developers et al. Rogers does nothing to challenge this.

    His suggestions may “magnify” our participation but it does little to increase it for magnifying something only makes it appear larger rather than actually increase its size.

  3. David,

    I think that the problem with articles such as this is that the idea of changing the electoral system to various forms of a national list, along with scrapping the Seanad, has become ingrained in the national discourse as the only means of political reform. The media and the public do not want to hear about your thoughtful rejections of such arguments, they want something specific and definite in relation to political reform. That is the challenge for those of us concerned with such reform; to articulate proposals that can be clearly comprehended by the electorate.

    • Fair point, John. And if you track back through previous posts on this blog (click on “electoral reform” in the What we Talk about box; or look at my paper at the MacGill summer school that is posted under the MacGill tab on this website)) you will see that we have made very specific proposals that would do a lot more to change the over-emphasis on localist politics. In summary, the argument that I, and others, have made is that the better way to fix this problem would be to address the demands made by us — the citizens — on our TDs: e.g. strengthen local government and improve the connection between public services and citizens.

      • look its like good old Tip said, all politics is local. In a Democracy thats the way it has to be. There should be no lists we have had enough of these elites making a mess of our country. Our Democracy needs to be nurtured and improved upon not diluted or made any weaker than it has become.

      • David,

        Thanks for your reply. I have become strongly convinced of your arguments and those of Eoin O’Malley as the basis for political reform in Ireland. My main concern is that these sensible, relevant and well thought out proposals will get drowned out amid a cacophony of calls for electoral reform and the eradication of the Seanad.

        The most important challenge is to control the narrative about where political reform needs to be focused!

  4. Rogers system is another in the line of those created with a specific goal in mind (politicians who will be ministers who don’t have to bother with doing any clientelist stuff at all) but which don’t bother to have any guiding first principles from which to derive it. Entirely separate electoral systems for members in the one chamber is a bad one, creating insider track seats is also not helpful. Restricting choice is bad.

    Of course, what the profile given to this proposal by RTe and the Irish Times shows is that what Elaine Byrne talks about on occasion which is that the younger voice or the voice from outside the right circles (I hate to use the term elite) doesn’t get a look in. I have to wonder in whose presence did I break wind in that my own sketch of possible changes merited next to no response on here. I might as well have taken a leak in a dark suit for all the discussion it prompted. At least it would have given me a nice warm feeling.

    • Although Daniel your letter published in the Irish Times last week and your analogy of the Dail seeking to abolish the Dail in the name of political reform beling like an alcoholic destroying his neighbours drink cabinet while leaving his own intact, did get a very complementary mention on Vincent Browne last week!

      • Ah Jaysis, the compliment in that case was coming from FF’s Jim Walsh which leaves me feeling a bit like how a Repulican in the US might have felt being told that the late Sen. Ted Kennedy thought their idea was worthy of further study.

  5. I’m sure there is plenty of mileage to be had from electoral reform articles and ideas. They all seem to assume that the only form of accountability is the risk of not getting re-elected, so then this system is no better than what we have now, and as our hosts points out, possibly a lot worse.

  6. I don’t doubt the good intentions, nor wish to dismiss the effort involved, but it seems to be open season for all sorts of weird notions in this area. I just want to hear from an existing TD or a new candidate for the next Dail – and a bit of debate on what they think is necessary and possible.

    If some couple of them haven’t the guts or gumption to come on a board like this – which is devoted specifically to political refrom – and outline their thoughts (and not those that have been generated by the factions’ ‘backroom boys’n’gals’) we might as well – as I’ve suggested previously – close down the Dail and give the keys of Government Bldgs. to the Troika.

    • Paul,

      In my view, our electoral system of PR STV, should be left intact. I am all for reforms to other aspects of the election such as when polling happens, who can avail of postal votes etc. I think the notion that clientelism or localism caused our economic crisis is a great red herring. To the contrary it is what is good about our system. My constituents do not contact me about pot holes and have not done so since the abolition of the dual mandate – they know where the power lies when it comes to county council issues and they need to be given credit for that as many commentators do not seem up to date on that fact. Rather than the obsession with clientelism it would be far better to concentrate on how to regulate the increasing access the lobbyists for the rich and powerful to Ministers and TDs. The most pertinent thing about reform of the Dail I noticed recently was John Bruton’s comment last week that the balance of power in the Dail needs to be shifted back to the opposition and whoever happens to be a backbencher.

      • @Deputy Tuffy,

        I trust you accept my previous comments were not directed at you, but, unfortunately, you are the exception that proves the rule. You make a number of points:

        1. PR-STV: No system is perfect, but I detect no widespread popular desire to alter it. It’s not so much how TDs are elected; it’s what they do in the Dail when they are.
        2. Clientelism: I always put my faith in the underlying good sense of voters. Lincoln’s aphorism about fooling some of the people all of the time..etc is relevant. But I think there may an element of a city/rural divide with rural voters tending to rely more on their local TD.
        3. Vested interest lobbying of government: This is a direct result of the extent of executive dominance. When policies are formulated in nearly final legislative form by a cabal comprised of a minister, special advisers and senior department officials and rammed through the Dail, it is easy to see why lobbyists will focus on access to ministers and their special advisers. Opening up the process to scrutiny will both reveal and diminish the impact.
        4. Increasing the power of the Dail: I’m always a little amused when former taoisigh and ministers come out with these eminently sensible suggestions. However, when they had a grasp of the levers of power implementing these suggestions would be the very last thing they would contemplate – and indeed would strain every sinew to scupper proposals along these lines.

        It would be wonderful if you and some of your colleagues could reach outside your own faction to engage deputies in other factions on these issues. This is the only way we will make some progress.

      • Joanna your right the PR system does not need to be changed. This issue is just a red herring. thats all plain and simple

  7. David Farrell’s rejection of this latest suggestion at reform seems strongly to be based on the idea that things will never change – that it’s the nature of politics. Well sorry, but there is a nation of people here fed up with politics – we would prefer some government.

    I’m not actively supporting this particular proposal, and I accept the comment by one of the other respondants that it may assume the only accountability required is the fear of not getting re-elected. But maybe it has the basis of a frame-work on which to built the reform we need. If the government is composed of a collection of people not strongly aligned with one big party, then we might have less party politics. If we want to complain about the damp walls in the school in XXXX town, then we have the “representative” TD (100 of them for 4m people !). If we want accountability, then the 100 “representative” members act in place of what we currently call the opposition. Why do we need a system where the primary function of a signifacant number of our governing class is to “oppose” ideas along party lines – regardless of merit.

    Most of the responses seem to say “oh, look another half-baked stupid suggestion”. Do we seriously expect that there is a fully-baked ready-to-go solution to the mess that the Irish people have spent 90 years evolving into. Lets only disregard suggestions aimed at derailing improvement/change, and look for the metits in all the other ideas.

    • “David Farrell’s rejection of this latest suggestion at reform seems strongly to be based on the idea that things will never change – that it’s the nature of politics.”

      Actually, Liam, if you track back through previous posts on this blog you will see that I strongly believe that political reform is needed and will happen. But it needs to be done with care. Half-baked schemes such as the one we’re talking about here could do more harm than good. Electoral reform is NOT the basis for the solution, and certainly not the electoral reform proposed here. This point has been stressed in a lot of earlier posts. The best I can suggest is that you track back through some of them to get a flavour

  8. Re-reading David Farrell’s criticism on the latest proposal for reform, I realised I skipped over one of the ideas: That the expenses regime would not cope well with it. I for one am looking for political reform, but expense regime revolution !
    It’s a topic all to itself, but right up there in terms of pressing needs if we want to restore faith in our system. Maybe it’s a point in favour of Roger’s suggestion – you can’t implement it unless you tackle expenses at the same time. Go for it !

  9. re. John Rogers ideas

    Just another meaningless reform from the cst of mind that dominate the current dying regime.
    As David has suggested, this is a meaningles reform which compalcently ignores the exhaustion of the traditional ideas.

    Funny that John Rogers should propose the same kind of mechanism that failed to work for the Senate.

    Even Colm McCarthy has joined the chorus of those wishing to abolish the Senate, on what appears to be flimsy grounds http://www.irisheconomy.ie/index.php/2011/01/06/scrapping-the-seanad-is-a-big-political-reform/

    This drew 121 comments, to which I contributed a few, including this challenge to a section of An Bord Snip Nua
    http://www.irisheconomy.ie/index.php/2011/01/06/scrapping-the-seanad-is-a-big-political-reform/#comment-115639

    and this

    “I am simply very puzzled that Colm McCarthy chose a hard-to-implement measure, instead of an easier to implement measure which would send a very strong signal about reform starting at the top.

    Abolishing the Senate cannot be done without a referendum and all that implies of extra costs and delay.

    Reducing the number of TDs by 25 can be done using methods are well tried, tested and accepted by most of us (including the TDs and the political class) as the basis on which boundaries are redrawn. According to his report, this would save €6m.

    see p. 152 of http://www.deti.ie/publications/corporate/2009/volume2.pdf
    “The most recent population estimate from the Central Statistics Office put the April 2008 population at 4,422,100. On this basis, the number of TDs could be no fewer than 148, but could be as many as 222. The number of TDs could be reconsidered when the results of the April 2011 Census become available, probably in the Autumn of 2011, and there could be scope to decide on a reduction in the numbers. For illustrative purposes, a reduction of 12 in the number of TDs would lead to savings of around €3m a year, including savings on the numbers of personal assistants and secretarial staff.”

    Yet, 18 months after he submitted his report, he defends maintaining the status quo regarding the number of TDs which his report decided to kick down the road, on what appears to be very flimsy grounds.

    In this context, Colm McCarthy’s support for abolishing the Senate has the appearances is a red herring.”
    http://www.irisheconomy.ie/index.php/2011/01/06/scrapping-the-seanad-is-a-big-political-reform/#comment-116373

    Is John Rogers joining those purveying red herrings in response to our crisis of government?

  10. Why not elect the seanad with the 7 panel and national electorate idea? It certainly has merrits but it is unfeasable for the Dail, as shown above. It would be a great way of empowering the seanad, while ensuring that its original purpose of repressenting specific areas is met.

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