By Michael Gallagher
Recall of elected representatives occasionally surfaces in discussions of political reform, and has been given topicality by the adverse publicity surrounding the Wexford TD Mick Wallace and his tax affairs. It also arose last month (June 2012) in the US state of Wisconsin, where attempts, ultimately unsuccessful, by local Democrats to pull the plug on the term of Republican governor Scott Walker got wide publicity outside the USA in this presidential election year.
The basic idea is that an elected representative is subject to ‘recall’ by his or her voters. Typically, a certain number of signatures on a petition are required, and if this number is reached a referendum on the incumbent’s continuation in office takes place. According to a reliable source (Wikipedia – there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of literature on the subject) this is pretty much confined to two countries, the USA and Switzerland (cantonal level only). The number of signatures required varies – in Switzerland it averages around 10 per cent of the electorate. There is also variation in the grounds for recall. In some cases it is necessary for those promoting the recall to cite specific grounds, in the broadest sense ‘misconduct’. In others, as in Wisconsin, the basis can be purely partisan – the petitioners are straightforwardly attempting to terminate the tenure of an office-holder whose policies they oppose, without having to claim malfeasance, incompetence, neglect of duty or impropriety. Given the nebulous nature of many of those concepts the difference may be academic.
The argument in favour is that it keeps elected representatives on their toes. They cannot, once elected, behave as they wish for the next five years, which could, in theory anyway, be quite a temptation for those who expect to retire, or feel certain of defeat, at the next election. Representatives are made permanently and continuously accountable to the people, preventing, as far as possible, the emergence of a ‘political class’ that can disregard the people except when election season comes around. If a representative engages in behaviour that attracts censure – in the past serving TDs have spent time in jail, and in the current Dáil a motion has been passed calling on one of its members to resign after the findings of the Moriarty report – some feel there should be some mechanism to prise them out of their Dáil seat.
For critics, of course, the opposite is true. Far from enhancing the quality of democracy, the recall provision is an archetypal populist measure that diminishes it, by turning a current tendency to short-term thinking into pathological short-termism on the part of elected officials. Recall brings ever closer the nightmare scenario where politicians have to change tack in response to the latest focus group or text vote, trying to keep everyone permanently happy and in the process satisfying no-one. It would become impossible for a government to develop and implement a five-year programme that entailed tough measures early in the term if it had in some sense to go before the electorate repeatedly throughout its term.
Whatever the general arguments – and the fact that recall is employed in so few countries is surely suggestive – there would be obvious difficulties in applying it in a country where MPs are elected from multi-member constituencies, as is the case in most of Europe, including Ireland. (In Swiss cantons, cantonal executives can be recalled, but not individual MPs.) Indeed, the same objections would arise in single-member constituency systems where, unlike the USA, there is not a pure 2-party system and many MPs are elected with fewer than 50 per cent of the votes.
The main problem is that no individual TD wins a majority of the votes in the first place, so each would be vulnerable to being ‘recalled’ even if their popularity had not diminished since the general election. The highest proportion of the vote won by any candidate in the 2011 election was the 33.3 per cent of the votes won by the FG candidate in Kildare South. Mick Wallace topped the poll in Wexford, but he won only 17.6 per cent of the votes, so it is perfectly plausible that he could lose a recall referendum even if his support has remained steady or increased in the interim.
TDs from minority parties would be very vulnerable. In Dun Laoghaire, for example, where Richard Boyd Barrett won only 11 per cent of the votes in 2011, it might not be difficult to find sufficient supporters of FG, Labour and FF to support a proposal that he be recalled and a fresh election held to fill the seat, in which he would have little chance of winning. But the tables might also be turned: opposition supporters could launch attempts to recall government TDs, especially those accused of having broken promises they made before the last election, and according to the opinion polls Labour TDs in particular might have difficulty in surviving recall attempts.
Given that the average TD won 8,338 first preferences in 2011 while the average number of valid votes per constituency was nearly 52,000, it is obvious that few TDs could be confident about surviving a referendum on their individual performance. The idea of holding such a referendum, in fact, seems in complete contradiction of the principles underlying any system of proportional representation, in particular the principle that minorities are entitled to representation whether the majority likes their choice or not.
That being so, surely the idea of introducing a recall provision in Ireland is a non-starter, and this is not something that should get onto the agenda of the constitutional convention?