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.