Political and electoral reform has become an unlikely rallying cry over the past 2 years. I stood in the 2007 Seanad election in part on the issue of electoral reform, to start by legislating to implement the 1979 referendum on extending the franchise in the Seanad and then going far beyond that with changes to local and national government. This attempt to get the topic a degree of an airing was unsuccessful as the climate was wholly against it. People shrugged their shoulders and voted based on other priorities.
Now people are calling for the abolition of that and the gutting of this, and the reform of the other. There is something almost Weimaresque about the desire being expressed by many people to simply rip up the electoral rule book and grasp at any idea that floats by; a government of the great and the concerned from industry and the spheres of advocacy and the arts, appointment of ministers by diktat, government by decree. All options appear to be under consideration. All because a democratically elected government did what it promised to do and that those promises turned out to be mistakes.
Let’s me be very clear – the Seanad as currently constituted can’t be allowed to continue but we should also admit the painful truth that had it not existed the various mistakes of the past decade would still have happened. It is not to blame for the current mess we are in, so chants that we should be taking it out the back of Leinster House and putting a bullet in its head for that reason alone strikes me as beyond clueless. I don’t believe the general public have much truck with the Seanad and with good reason, it has been used a combined nursery and retirement home for too long. Yet when it comes to asking the public if they want the Seanad abolished the Dail should be careful not to ask the obvious next question as the many of the public would likely want it abolished too.
Far more sensible to put a bullet in the head of both the current houses of the Oireachtas and start over with new electoral systems for both chambers with fewer representatives charged with more powers to hold the executive to account. These changes should be combined with an extensive reform of local government to reduce the number of local authorities and representatives at that level while devolving more power to them. Move the parish pump back to the parish.
I do not believe we are really faced with a choice between abolition or the status quo, I believe that changes to the Dail electoral system to ensure that a single chamber parliament to include a mix of facets of national lists will prove too cumbersome. We will then be faced with the choice of a reformed Dail and Seanad in order to have an Oireachtas that as a whole is more representative and more effective in performing its responsibility of holding the executive to account.
We have seen a deluge of proposals on electoral reform over the last 2 years. In my view, many of these proposals on electoral reform are too limited in their intent and effectiveness and suffer from the time honoured problem face by the person with a hammer to which everything presents itself as a nail. Quotas based solely on gender will simply replace the over abundance of bland male, small town solicitors, teachers, sons of former TDs and those for whom politics is the substitute for having a more rounded life experience with the female equivalent.
If you doubt this, look at the current line up of female TDs and Senators and point out the dearth of the list I’ve just made. Replacing men with women of the same ilk will do nothing to broaden political opinion or experience in the Oireachtas. It is mere window dressing and if we further press the point of quotas then the fatal flaw in the notion is made clear. For then we should seek to have a set % of people of particular ages, sexual orientation, religious faiths and other demographic factors that in truth make people no more or less capable or suitable for elected office than the colour of their hair or what hand they use to butter their bread.
List systems place too much power in the hands of the political party insiders. The problem is not simply that we have too many men or too few women but that electoral politics is attractive to only a minority of narrow personality types. It’s much like deciding to change the rules of soccer to ensure that more not so tall, overweight middle aged people such as I could make a career of it. We shouldn’t we should make changes that will allow everyone an opportunity to put their case before the people and then let the people decide who gets elected.
So what practical changes would I seek to make?
I welcome the changes in ministerial pay and conditions. I believe the pay of ministers and the Taoiseach are still too high but I believe the same is true of higher level public servants. I would seek to reduce both.
I believe we could reduce the size of the Dáil to just over a hundred TDs, say 113, but reducing it by more than that leaves us with problems associated with having too small a pool from which to select a cabinet of experienced people. We could explore having more flexibility in allowing people outside of politics serve as ministers but their appointment would have to be approved by a vote of both houses of the Oireachtas and a strengthened committee system.
We could instantly remove the excessive nursery/retirement home problem from the Seanad by electing it on the same day as the Dáil. And we should have this chamber be elected by non-geographical constituencies or panels allowing the electorate to vote for more than one constituency. We could elect 50 Senators in this way and we could consider whether to allow proxy votes amounting to perhaps 20 votes be cast in the chamber behalf of local authority members representing their views without the need for full time Senators being elected.
I have outlined practical proposals that would encourage parties to run more diverse tickets. The carrot would be the consistent value for every 1st preference in determining the total number of seats won, and the stick that if parties run too narrow a ticket and other parties run broader ones that the parties will lose out on seats they might otherwise have won. We need to create more electoral opportunity not impose restrictions on the narrow chances that there are today.
We need to devolve more power to a series of new local government authorities that will take the place of the inconsistent and wasteful county council system; we should use CSO data to draw up new boundaries that reflect where people really live and work. Kerry will still be Kerry and the people of Rathmore and Millstreet will still be rivals come the Munster championship but it is ludicrous that we have such loyalty in how we shape local government to artificial boundaries given to us by the British by century ago for our public services. We should directly elect Mayors/CEO call them what you will for each LAU and they will take on the executive functions of the county/city manager for a 5 year term. Someone will then be accountable to the people for decisions made at a more local level.
We could easily administer local government with 12/13 new local authority units of roughly equal size (circa 300,000 people) with one greater unit for the greater Dublin area. With 23 full time cllrs elected by each of the LAUs this would represent a cut in the number of paid cllrs by around 60%. These new LAUs should be modelled on a updating of the French department system with each LAU’s centre within one hour’s drive of 80% of the population it serves.
Control of schools, decisions about primary and post primary building programs should be made at this level. Other decisions about similar types of services can be devolved down to this more local level. Too much decision making is centralised in Ireland, our current misnamed process of decentralisation simply moves the centre in some instances to other locations. That is not decentralisation, it is merely recentralisation.
All political donations should be public, as in the US. It might mean the end of the church gate collections but I suspect most people would prefer to see them gone.
I believe that no matter what changes we make to the electoral system that if the mindset of the electorate remains the same favouring personality over policy, locality over ability and name recognition and family affinity over the qualities of the individual that nothing will really change. Change of the electoral system must not be an end in itself; it must be a means to an end. So I would not support the abolition of the Seanad as a stand-alone step, but I would be prepared to see its abolition if the required changes in local government, the electoral system for the Dáil and the selection of the cabinet are made at the same time. Above all we need to make the case for changing how the electorate approach elections.
I have long sought to suggest practical steps to reform how politics works. I have done so as a local election candidate and I have repeatedly made the case within the party I am a member of, Fine Gael. You will find plenty previous posts on this blog with respect to political commentary and ideas for political reform. I don’t hold them to be precious children of mine that must be adopted in their entirety. Rather I want to inspire and participate in a lively debate about what we need to do and why we need to do it.
Sure other countries elect people to their parliament via an indirect method such as our current Seanad but there again some countries persist with unelected hereditary heads of state. Most peculiar of all the Vatican actually insists on getting a load of people who aren’t citizens of the state at all to pick their head of state. So what if other countries use a difference system, we should design a system that will work for us.
I have contributed a number of articles over the past number of years to the Sunday Times and politicalreform.ie under the broad heading of political reform, and I’ve long been a blog botherer on politics.ie, the Irish Times, Irish Election and various other online places. I’ve been talking about this topic long enough, with your help I can do something about it.