David Farrell (February 12 2011)
In today’s Irish Times, Dermot Desmond has published a manifesto for political reform. A full (27-page) version of the document is available here. Whatever views one may have about the messenger, there is no doubt about the significance of the proposals, some of which are pretty radical. It is interesting to see the overlap with the political reform proposals we’ve already seen from some of the parties – notably the similarity with Fianna Fáil’s proposal to force government ministers to give up their Dáil seats.
One interesting proposal relates to the electoral system. Desmond makes all the right noises about the need to see electoral reform as, at best, only part of a wider sweep of measures that should be implemented (together with, for instance, local government reform). Unlike those who propose a move to the German mixed-member system, Desmond instead suggests a change in how PR-STV operates. The gist of his proposal is contained in the following extract:
If the objection to PR-STV is that it produces locally oriented TDs one mechanism could be to keep PR-STV but remove any incentive for locally-oriented behaviour, that it to remove the geographical basis for constituencies. While this sounds like an eccentric idea, non-geographic constituencies already exist in Ireland. Constituencies for the Seanad are on the basis of predetermined policy areas not geography. Constituencies would still exist, so Ireland could have 33 five-seat constituencies. Each would currently contain about 100,000 people. Voters would, on reaching voting age, be randomly assigned to a constituency, to which they would belong for the rest of their lives. Each constituency would in effect be a random sample of the whole population, and so each would be similar in its make-up, views and so on.
The reference to the Seanad is a bit flimsy, not least given its tiny electorate. That criticism aside, the proposal does merit some analysis.
Under Desmond’s proposal, the politicians are regionally-anchored – each residing in a 5-seat constituency – but their electorates are nationally dispersed. If I’m a TD in Dublin South, under this new electoral system, what motivation is there for me to engage in constituency work? Because the point is that my electoral fate will be determined by how hard all my fellow party TDs work nationally, and by the vote trends for my party. So, the reform has the supposed desired effect of reducing constituency work, but what it results in is potentially the opposite extreme, a politics focused entirely on the national dimension. This sounds a lot like a national list system (such as applies in Israel and the Netherlands). Is this what we really want for Ireland?
A second problem is that the national dispersion of the electorate is likely to be pretty random: given that the bulk of the migratory flows in Ireland are to (rather than from) Dublin, there is far greater likelihood for Dublin TDs to have greater geographical co-location with their electorates (i.e. in effect the current system) than would be the case, say, west of the Shannon.
Third, how would the system rebalance to avoid malapportionment (i.e. a situation where constituencies are unevenly balanced in terms of electorate size) due to such things are emigration of Irish citizens (would these lose their voting rights?) or more seriously internal migrationary flows and immigration?
Fourth, how on earth would a count be managed with such a dispersed electorate?