Gender quotas are not ‘boneheaded’

Posted by David Farrell (January 20, 2012)

In a spirited opinion piece in today’s Irish Times, Daniel Sullivan takes issue with gender quotas (see here), describing the idea variously as wrong, unworkable and even ‘boneheaded’. He appears to have three main problems with the proposal.  

First, he asserts that the quotas will do nothing to solve the wider problem of growing political apathy. Well, actually that is not the ‘problem’ that quotas are designed to solve. Growing disengagement of citizens with politics is a phenomenon common to all democracies that perhaps large-scale political reform might over time help to address. But the specific issue that quotas should help resolve is the serious gender imbalance in our political representation.

Second, he says that quotas will ‘do nothing at all to address the root causes of the original 4 Cs’ (cash, childcare, confidence and culture). Er, what? Clearly he hasn’t appreciated the close relationship between the various Cs: a change in the composition of our political elite will impact more widely on culture, on methods of practice, on support mechanisms in politics. In short, if you change who is in an organization (on a sufficiently notable scale) you change how it will operate.

Third he observes that as this has never been tried in a PR-STV system it simply won’t work, his point being that this will cause vote-management difficulties for parties forced to field more candidates. He cites unnamed ‘psephologists’ to support his argument. It is, indeed, true that a long-established mantra for parties in Irish elections is to limit the number of candidates they field. But, actually, that says more about how STV operates in Ireland than it does about the electoral system itself. In the other two countries that use STV – Australia and Malta – there is not the same hang-up about limiting the number of candidates. Furthermore, if Irish parties end up having to field more candidates to achieve their gender quotas this might actually help to eat into the ‘bailiwick’ focus of our electoral politics – starting to move us away from a fixation of having candidates selected in large part because of where they come from/live.

In a separate article in the Irish Times, Minister Kathleen Lynch (see here) reminds us of just how far Ireland lags behind other countries in Europe in having such a poor representation. No one is pretending that gender quotas are the be all and end all – but they are an important first step in helping to bring Ireland into the Twenty-First century.

14 thoughts on “Gender quotas are not ‘boneheaded’

  1. I broadly agree with what you’re saying here, David, but I think the author has a point when he says that the proposed legislation might “allow a power-grab by the party elite over ordinary members”. I don’t oppose this legislation, because I think quotas are the only realistic way of dealing with the dire imbalance between men and women in party politics, but I still fear that the manner in which it proposes to address the problem may at the same time worsen the imbalance in power between ordinary party activists in general and party elites. As I’ve suggested in a comment on this site before, gender quota legislation should be part of a general move toward greater regulation of political parties to give more influence to ordinary members. It would be very unfortunate if it had the opposite effect.

  2. It is not the dire imbalance that has causing our collapse it is the dearth of talent of both sexes. I am obviously not against gender quotas. However, it is never the wrong time to do the right thing.

  3. The specific thing that the proposed Irish quotas do is continue to give taxpayer money to the existing political parties, supposedly the homes of all this anti-woman discrimination. Doh.

    Oh, by the way…in the last election the number of women independents was also low, so these quotas will only protect the parties and will do nothing for the health of our democracy. What’s left of it.

  4. All governments, and particulalry governments such as those in Ireland that exercise so much unrestrained power, simply love these debates as they fill the airwaves, generate more heat than light and allow them to distract people’s attention from the factors that prevent most existing and prospective public representatives (irrespective of gender) from serving the people or entering the service of the people.

    • Ditto to PH comments.

      The idea, view, opinion, belief, or whatever, that we should have a quota for election candidates is deeply flawed: its a form of virtual coercion. Most un-democratic – irrespective of its alleged ‘good intention’.

      For better or worse, political parties are with us. The name of the game is to achieve power, via an election process. So, you need to get those bums onto those seats in the parliament chamber. In Ireland any old bum will suffice, as long as its your bums. Hence, your parliamentary candidates must be both acceptable to the voters and, electable. First prefs are great – but its those bums you need.

      This gender quota business is silly. If non-males want, wish or need to go onto politics – fine. Join the local branch of your favourite party and take your chances. Its a nasty business. Maybe that’s why it tends to be populated by the types we have stuck in front of us at each election. If, and its a massive if, political parties are broadly representative of the voters, then … … Hmmmmm. Seems the practice is somewhat different. “Move along folks, nothing to see here!”.

      Anyhows, who alleges that female bums are worthier than male bums on the backbenches of the Dáil? Once in house, they will have a Whip’s noose placed about their pretty necks and they will follow orders. Emotionally they are more mature? I believe so. But that is not the attribute that is demanded. Obedience is.

      Does this raise significant questions about the Irish political party system, or the PR electoral system we use? I fancy its both.

      Anyways, the real action is elsewhere. Sorry, I mean the non-action on parliamentary re-structuring. But lots of action on ensuring we (the citizens) are ignored, and if we get a little frisky, dish out a nice dose of Leinster House Slime. Noonan seems to have bought in wholesale packs of the stuff.

      Now our CC is a great geegee man. I have it on very unreliable authority that he is interested in outfitting each deputy in an appropriate set of Racing Colours. So the punters can recognise the owners. That would make for a real ‘colourful’ scene.

      This is the nature and level of intellectual engagement that gets attention. Not the absence of Constitutional protection for the Ombudsman, not our gelded (hattip to CC again) FoI, and not our completely dysfunctional local gov. We have a very, very long way to travel.


  5. If there were some examples of there having been the sort of women in politics who might have made a proper difference for the better than a gender quota would have more merit – as things stand all a gender quota in a country like Ireland will achieve is replacing dullard men with more dullard women and overall the ‘system’ will remain the same.

  6. God! Paul, Brian and Desmond. Always with the negativity! You’re starting to sound like the 3 Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Any chance that you might see ANY merit in a reform proposal like this? Or in your respective eyes is this just doomed from the get go? Might there just be the slighted modicum of possibility that on this at least the government could have got it right??

    • I know we must be a casue of severe disappointment to you, but I’m focusing on the challenges confronting most advanced economies.

      Over the last 20 years governments in many developed economies entered in to a Faustian pact with the capitalist elites that allowed the latter to indulge their greed beyond excess on condition they provided the credit to compensate the masses for the wage repression being imposed on them. For a long time it worked, but democratic governance and regulation were completely suborned. And, when, inevitably, unshackled capitalism began to wreak havoc, suborned and woefully unprepared and under-resourced governments were forced to put their citizens in the firing line.

      The Irish capitalist elites knew enough to take advantage of this general suborning of governance and regulation in developed economies, but they lacked imagination and were able to engineer only a plain vanilla property bubble to satiate their greed – but the extent of this bubble and the impact of its blow-out were proportionaly greater than the lunacy and damage in most other advanced economies.

      Irish governing politcians, with an eye on electoral advantage – remember Bertie’s Inchydoney moment – extended the trough to feed groups and interests that would normally be critical and opposed. And all the time the various powerful vested interests – both on the right and the left (very notional labels in the Irish context) – were gorging themselves at the trough.

      What we are seeing, in particular in the central and northern EU states, is parliaments increasingly asserting their authority over governments to shackle capitalism in the interests of voters. The debate is also beginning in Britain where both main parties are vying in their attempts to convince voters that they can shackle the beast – although Labour cannot bring itself to admit the extent to which it was suborned while in government and the Tories cannot admit the extent to which they cheered on this suborning.

      It will be a long haul to re-impose effective democratic governance of capitalism and to repair economies greviously damaged by the destruction its excesses have wreaked.

      Ireland is so far behind the curve in terms of understanding what is required that it is both frightening and tragic. Focusing on gender quotas is like re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

    • Prof Farrell,

      No! Our Gov is an elected dictatorship, or political parties are bought and sold by special interests, our electoral system encourages the worst sort of crony parochalism, our civil adminsitration is inward looking and intellectually bereft, our business leaders simply refuse to consider the context – what a Civil Society actually is – in which they are embedded. No lessons of any substantive nature have been learned, by any of these groups. Hence, our political and economic situation will worsen until there is a real, and catastrophic crisis.

      The politics (political ideology) on this state has been captured by fierce, undemocratic forces. These are facts – maybe the adjectives I use are a tad excited, but the basic facts are there.

      If I am to make any sense of the Irish political scholars that I have been encouraged to read – and I attempt to make sense of, then this is where I have ended up. Before reading them I was a clueless, naive, dope.

      Remember, my pessimism is warranted! Warranted! That’s the real tragedy. And the truely awful fact is that so many of our citizens – who pessimism is also warranted, are simply too busy attempting to keep themselves and families together. To expect them (or even hope) to have the time, the information, the drive to wade into the different lobbyists, political cabals and Owellian civil administration – is, well ….. ….

      Moral: Don’t encourage folk to read, or encorage them to be critical thinkers – its a very bad career move – for our Crony Political Entitled Class.

      Cheers, Brian.

    • Perhaps if more people looked at the ‘negative’ in the past, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are now in and I’m sure any who did raise concerns were shouted down for being whingers or ‘negative’.

      Personally I would like to see less of the dull boring overweight well fed dullards – men or women – who we elect time and time again and if that means all men or all women I don’t really care – I’m more concerned with the quality of people who get elected not their gender.

      So let’s say we have to have 50% of members women and what happens if they turn out to be as bad as the women who went before them? the same cronies.

      Simly setting a quota without addressing the type of candidate who gets on the ballot paper is pointless and serves no purpose but explain to me how the quote will generate a better quality of candidate and I’ll be interested in that.

      For example, we were told more independents would be a good thing and yet not one single independent of any hue publishes receipts for the expenses they claim yet every single one of them claim the absolute maximum in expenses to the cent.

      So why would more women make any difference?

    • Guys, what?, only three horsemen? 🙂 I’m starting to feel a bit left out here! Obviously there must still be an opening. The CV is in the post! 😉

  7. > “In the other two countries that use STV – Australia and Malta – there is not the same hang-up about limiting the number of candidates”

    Probably because Malta and Australia (specifically, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory) fill casual vacancies by a count-back of the vacating MP’s ballots. By-elections are very rare in Tasmania, and legally precluded in the ACT and Malta.

    All three, moreover, have candidates grouped in party teams, not spread out in a single alphabetical list.

    The two Australian cases also have rotated ballots (different versions printed) so that parties don’t have to engage in vote-management: the government printer does it for them. If a party with 45% stands five candidates, they will end up with something close to 9% each even if every voter “donkey-votes” down the ballot-paper for the candidates of their favoured party. It doesn’t mean an assembly dominated by A and B surnames.

    Finally, the two Australian cases have semi-optional preferences. One need only number five (or more) candidates, in a five-seat electorate, for a valid ballot. This is quite generous by Australian standards (in federal Senate elections, one must number every candidate or else tick a pre-registered party ticket) and it also means parties are less worried about standing extra candidates.

    By contrast, if a single first preference is sufficient; if each party’s candidates are scattered around an alphabetical list; and if a casual vacancy means re-starting another electoral contest… it’s not surprising Irish parties are so preoccupied with focusing on one more candidate than the party’s number of whole quotas, no more and no fewer.

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