Reading the calls for reform from afar, there seems to be one overarching theme: a desire to improve the calibre of parliamentarians.
To date, most of these calls have been misguided as many from outside the political science community persist with the notion of electoral reform as a panacea that will transform the quality of our politicians overnight.
It doesn’t matter what type of electoral system is used. The quality parliamentarians (although I have yet to see the evidence that bringing in a load of experts will improve the Dáil: how did Martin O’Donoghue fare as Minister for Economic Planning and Development in the 1970s?) that John Rogers and other speak of are simply not interested in running for party political office. And who can blame them?
This is one of the problems with party democracy. While political parties are deemed necessary for stable parliamentary democracy, their grip on power lessens the openness of the political system. For example, in academic circles, it is often said that parties are the gatekeepers to political office. Since they select candidates, and since nearly all candidates elected are party nominees, parties decide the composition of parliament, not the people.
If we want more business people, more professionals, more ‘experts’ in parliament, then we need to reform the candidate selection procedure within parties. Parties may well reply that they are fit to pick whomsoever they wish and in whatever way they wish. They may be right, but if party funding was linked to reform, then we could see wholesale change. For example, why not attempt the American primary system, which in theory allows anyone to contest the party nomination. The Conservative party in the UK experimented with this in some constituencies for the 2010 general election.
The hopes of some that the forthcoming election will act like the rivers Alpheus and Peneus by cleaning out the filthy Augean stable that is the Dáil is wildly overoptimistic. A perusal of the party candidates already selected reveals that it’s a case of ‘same old, same old’. The main parties persist with picking candidates from the usual crop of councillors and dynasties. I thus see little reason why we should expect the new Dáil to be any different than its predecessors.
However, suppose for argument’s sake that a new Dáil with new faces and new ideas will change things for the better, how can such individuals be elected? Since these individuals are either not interested in running for a party, or the parties (I refer to the 3 main parties of FF, FG and Labour) are not interested in their candidacy, the only option for change seems to lie with independent candidates.
Is there a danger in this? Do we really want a parliament of 166 Jackie Healy-Raes and Michael Lowrys? The short answer is we already do. There is a lot of misplaced hyperbole about the influence of independents on governments’ redistributive power. National policy gets distorted by the presence of ministers in a constituency, not independents. Only a few independents have managed to hold the balance of power and have a few barrels of pork come their way. There are thirty ministers from parties doing so after every election.
Michael Lowry and Jackie Healy Rae come from a party background, so the election of similar type gene-pool independents would not constitute any real change. Instead, I am referring to independents who would represent a new voice in the parliament. This could constitute individuals such as David McWilliams, Fr. Sean Healy of CORI, perhaps even some academics, such as Morgan Kelly or Maureen Gaffney. The value of these types of independents can already be seen in the Seanad, where the likes of Shane Ross, David Norris and Joe O’Toole have been the most important contributors to debate in either of the two houses.
I am not advocating the need for more independents in the Dáil, nor that they would change anything. However, the reality is that on the basis of the parties’ selection to date, the only case for a truly different Dáil lies down the independent route. Whether suitable candidates are willing to run as independents, whether the electorate are willing to vote for them and whether this is a desirable scenario is another matter (which I have discussed in a previous post).
There seems to be an impression amongst the public that the next election will give them the opportunity to vote in the politicians they want and kick out those they don’t. The reality is that voters can only pick from the menu of candidates that they’re offered. They can neither ask for a different menu nor switch venue. Because the parties seem to be sticking with their tried and tested options, those who want to try something new are dependent on the emergence of suitable independents.
To those who decry a future independents’ day, more thought should be given to what this says about a system in which the non-party alternative is the only option for genuine change.
*Liam Weeks is an IRCHSS CARA Fellow at Macquarie University, Sydney. His research is funded by the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences with co-funding from the European Commission.