Credit where it’s due to the government – and some thoughts on gender quotas. By Matt Wall

So I recently learned that  The Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Bill 2011 will soon be passed as law. Looks like some really progressive stuff, especially when you look at the ongoing hyper monetization of politics that is taking place in the usa. I can’t wait to see the parties publish comprehensive accounts, which should let the media, academia, and general public keep a closer eye on how we fund our politics.

One aspect of this legislation that has been extensively debated on these pages is the introduction of gender quotas into Irish electoral law. I’ve thought long and hard about this topic, as I have heard many divergent opinions, with considered points on both sides. Overall, I’d say that I’ve come to see quotas as a necessary (and necessarily temporary) evil, in order to allow for a conscious re engineering of an aspect of our political system. I look forward to the day where we don’t need quotas to help women to participate equally in politics, though I think the ultimate solution to that problem lies in lessening the ‘carreerist’ nature of our political system, which doesn’t favour a normal work/life balance. Who knows, perhaps with more women running for office and getting elected, this problem may eventually be addressed.
One interesting argument from the ‘no’ side in the debate was that the introduction of a gender quota opens up a Pandora’s box –  if a gender quota is necessary, then why not a racial quota, or an occupational quota, or an age quota? Certainly, we know that Ireland’s politicians differ in many ways from Irish society – the words ‘male, stale and pale’ come to mind. they are also systematically different in terms of their levels of wealth and occupational backgrounds. I think that rather than a series of quotas, random sampling for an upper chamber has many promising properties – the most important being that the established laws of statistics promise a reliable degree of representativeness.
Rather than abolishing the Seanad, could we randomly select it’s members, and pay them the median industrial wage for a year’s political service to the state (with, say,  the power of referral of any law to referendum to be shared with our elected president)? The idea of random selection to public institutions is not totally radical – think juries. It was also hugely important in the political architecture of ancient Athenian democracy – an example that has long inspired democratic progress.

13 thoughts on “Credit where it’s due to the government – and some thoughts on gender quotas. By Matt Wall

  1. Eh sorry to burst your bubble but the act does not require comprehensive accounts. Yet again, it only requires amounts above a very high level to be accounted for and there is no requirement to specific who from or what it was spent on so if FG want to say it raised €2 million in donations that’s all it needs to say and if there are various donations from builders etc it won’t need to specific that.

    • Hi Desmond,

      I haven’t scoured the legislation page by page yet – i was using the department of the Environment website as my source. I thought that it substantially lowered the level at which donations had to be declared (both to company boards and to the SIPO commission)? I also thought it meant that parties had to produce comprehensive accounts of all funding (though not details of contributors below a certain level)? Maybe i am wrong about this though.?

    • So – this is an interesting sub-topic. Random selection, if truly random (like drawing stones out of a bag, or tossing a coin) can allow for a relatively small number of cases to be mathematically ‘representative’ of a larger number. The study of this phenomenon is called inferential statistics and it is foundational to surveys, which seek to extrapolate from a sample to a population. I would stress though, that the only way to ensure true ‘randomness’ would be to use comprehensive listing of the ‘universe’ of Irish citizens (the best available substitute seems to be the electoral register) and to enforce participation. With non-mandatory participation, you would require quotas to iron out disparity in uptake.

      Either way, there is no ‘perfect’ system for selecting an assembly, but i believe that this approach could compliment and (sometimes) counteract the directly elected lower chamber.

  2. re. Quotas, Pandora’s box and the Senate?
    To what extent is our Senate designed to provide “quotas” of legislators drawn from specified vocational groupings?
    What changes in our political culture will quotas give rise to, given our experience of the Senate where party politicians form the electorate for over 70 percent of those becoming Senators (43 of the 60 Senators) and another 11 are directly appointed by another politician (ie the Taoiseach)?

    How much time will it take for the sought for effect of quotas to have a real sustainable impact on how we govern ourselves?

    What we need to do here is to spend time researching, designing, developing, considering, discussing and implementing checks and balances to limit the scope for excess by the powerful.

    For these reasons, it is not clear that any “reform” of the Senate in this unitary state is worth the effort.

  3. Although far from perfect, the legislation will make party funding considerably more transparent than has been the case and, to give the government credit where it is due, is a fairly significant step in the right direction.

    For me, one missed opportunity of the bill has been to not tie parties to spending a certain proportion of their state funding on the participation of women and young people. The quota is excellent news and most definitely a small step in correcting a major deficit of our democratic system – the over-representation of men – but parties should be better encouraged to direct more funding to promote diversity. Disappointingly, between 2000 and 2011, parties between them spent less than 3% of the funding they drew down under the Electoral Act on women and youth participation, despite having to declare annual figures on this to SIPO. People often wonder why a quota must come through the law as opposed to parties voluntarily taking it upon themselves to balance their tickets by gender. Figures like this show why ‘soft’ measures haven’t delivered – very few resources are put into it. Experience from elsewhere shows additional measures are required for a legal quota to work effectively.

  4. When this goes through the next set of party accounts will still show that Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour received no corporate funding, that Sinn Fein didn’t receive anything from outside the state and there will be no accountability or transparency about what the millions paid to parties by the state is meant on.

    For example, how much of the money paid by the taxpayer to the parties is creamed off in backhanders by their leaders and various spokespeople?

    You won’t that in any accounts yet FG paid Kenny an extra €53k tax free every year from public funds, on top of his salary and expenses and similar payments were made to Gilbore and it has to be assumed to others too.

    This act won’t throw any light on these issues. FG’s ‘New Politics’ document on pg 28 said FG would publish its accounts for 2010 and here we are half way through 2012 and no accounts.

    Another example of how the plotters were right to try get rid of Kenny in 2010 but based their decision to make a move on the wrong reasons. He and Gilbore are men of their word or interested in reform – they and the old grey men they are surrounded by know they one chance for a term in office and instead of using it to change as much as possible, they have reverted to type, ie men and women whose political integrity is set to the low standards of the 1970s and instead use their term of office to shore up pension credit and showing the insiders that they still have someone looking after them.

    Proper reform would be to ban corporate donations completely or set the limit at €.01 cent and make it so that every single payment needs to be listed ie if you get €.01 x 100 you list each payment and you publish proper audited accounts like any business which can be reviewed by anyone at companies house.

    I don’t have a problem with state funding if that’s the cost of breaking the link between politics and vested interest elites but those funds need to be accounted for.

    I’m conscious too that it’s easy to whinge but time and time again when this government is given the benefit of the doubt they still fail to meet even the lowest expectations of what is real reform.

    Look at FOI – instead of just repealing the changes back to how things were in 97, the issue is being long fingers on some committee – why can’t the restrictions be repealed while the committee is reinventing the wheel?

    Because if there were real FOI people would get to ask too many questions and we’d get to find out how many more Dr Reilly/Mr Hogan’s there are sitting at the cabinet table.

    And we can’t have that of course and while the men of the 1970s are in charge, we never will.

  5. Matt, interesting post.

    A requirement to publish accounts could potentially be very positive, but as has been said already: “the devil is in the detail”.

    The next two parts of your post deal in one way or another with political representativeness. It would certainly seem more ideal if a parliament’s composition was broadly representative of the population as a whole. But I’m not sure this should be generally incentivized. The even stronger principle that an individual party’s candidates should be representative of the broad population is too narrow a constraint in general I’d feel. Age would probably be as valid a criterion as gender. And one could continue from there to a host of other classifications. I suppose, in theory, one could construct a “representativeness” score based on a combined measure of multiple categories and award party funding based on meeting some threshold. That’s the extreme logical outcome (even if unlikely in reality) of the general principle being used in the bill. One would be trying to engineer parties to be “broad churches” and would impede minorities from organizing themselves into parties, e.g. on this basis a radical pensioners’ right party, think of a grey-haired walking-stick-wielding version of the black panthers 😉 , could be easily disadvantaged by an electoral law sleight of hand. OK, a slightly ridiculous example :), but, in general terms, I think this is a bad principle. Perhaps a temporary exception should be made for gender quotas. But I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if this aspect of the bill is deemed unconstitutional by our courts, particularly from a judicial system that has given us the McKenna and Coughlan judgments (it’s hard to picture the government not being allowed to put state funding behind one side in a referendum and yet simultaneously being allowed to allocate party funding based on various social category divisions of candidates). Various lawyers and experts have given a variety of opinions. Eoin Daly over on a few weeks ago seemed to think it was more likely to be deemed constitutional in an article that examined this bill in terms of freedom of association provisions in the constitution (and the rather scant case law). Michael McDowell previously has come down on the other side of the argument. While I might well vote yes to support a constitutional change to allow this type of gender quota for a limited period, I actually hope someone challenges this aspect of the bill and that the general underlying principle is found to be unconstitutional.

  6. And I do very much like random citizen/jury ideas (I’ve found out that sortition seems to be the polsci term). Very much at the heart of the Athenian democracy, though a few Italian city states experimented with such ideas in the middle ages. The power of statistics means that a large randomly sampled group of citizens is very likely to representative of the population at large in a way that probably no other method can achieve. Such a group is not likely to be dominated by party politics (no more than the general population anyway) and won’t be worried about getting re-elected, or won’t have ties to the usual forces that shape representational democracy, the influence of big business etc.. I’d definitely like a concrete role in the system for such a collection of citizens.

    This would only be worth doing if such a group/assembly is given real power within the system. But how much power could one really give to a random bunch of citizens? That said, I do suppose we do already given them the power over someone’s liberty in a jury:”twelve good men and true”, plus women now of course! 🙂 . Anthony Barnett of Open Democracy previously developed this idea in a paper proposing that at least a percentage of the House of Lords be filled by this method (actually have a copy of this paper, used to freely downloadable, but seemingly not anymore).

    Maybe powers of legislative delay (or a role in triggering a referendum) would be acceptable for a chamber filled 100% in this way. But having a mix of politicians and random citizens (2/3 politicians and 1/3 citizens perhaps) could lead to an interesting dynamic (though not so sure if I’d carry that logic over to a constitutional convention). The random citizens would essentially hold the balance of power. They couldn’t do anything in their own right, but to do anything the political members would either have to hammer out a relatively large consensus amongst themselves or otherwise court the support of some of the citizen members.

    It might be an interesting model for a public appointments commission: give 2/3 of its membership to politicians (proportionate to Dáil strength) and give a remaining 1/3 of the voting power to a block of citizens (there’d have to be a reasonable number in that block to try to given reasonable representativeness, so individually each citizen might not have one person-one vote (maybe a fraction each) but collectively they’d have a third of the voting power). At the minimum it would prevent simple and inevitable party-political carve-ups of jobs to the government majority.

    I’m a fan of some forms of direct democracy. Have been lately thinking about various protections/safeguards that might make citizen initiative mechanisms a more palatable sell to the electorate. E.g. a recent idea was to mimic the German “eternity clause” approach in initiatives. The first 20 articles in the German basic law (covering fundamental rights and the basic democratic order) are immunized from their constitutional amendment procedure (2/3 majorities in both houses). It occurred to me that this wouldn’t be that difficult to copy for initiatives. One could require that any amendment proposed by initiative would have to be compatible with and couldn’t change certain sections of the constitution. That might include article 28 on international relations, international treaties and EU treaties (international treaties are a typical exclusion from initiative mechanisms). Adding articles 1-11 (on the nation and the state) and 40-44 (on fundamental rights) to that list would mimic the German eternity clause restrictions (perhaps with a few minor cut-and-pastes from elsewhere). That would exclude basic rights, the fundamental democratic order and divisive issues like the EU, abortion and social issues from the initiative process.

    But back to the random jury/sortition idea, it seems to me that a random jury would be a fantastic way to fairly screen out “nuisance” initiatives. Gather perhaps a 100 random citizens (or use the kind of assembly talk about above) together in a public building for the weekend, and let various interesting parties argue for and against the initiative. If support for a referendum go-ahead can’t be secured from even some minimum fraction of the jury members (perhaps one third) then the initiative would be canned.

    There are other possible issues. Should such service be mandatory? If so what about groups like the self-employed who might find it very awkward?

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