Piece on Gender Quotas from IT of last year

The Electoral Amendment Political Funding Bill 2011 has been poorly served by a media debate focused almost entirely on the problem it is supposed to solve, namely the underrepresentation of women in the Oireachtas, rather than any real assessment of whether it can actually solve it.

When it comes to electoral politics, those most deeply involved, for all their fervour, are frequently blind to reality. Most of the population, irrespective of gender, finds much of what passes for day to day party politics in Ireland to be a pointless turn-off. It is no wonder that only the narrowest range of social, income, gender or educational backgrounds are represented in election contests at all levels.

The four C’s (Cash, Childcare, Confidence and Culture) have been cited for well over a generation as a barrier to women contesting elections, only to be rapidly superseded in the past few years by a new fifth C: Candidate Selection. This C has come with the added benefit of a ready-made quick fix in the guise of Candidate Gender Quotas (CGQ) to be applied by party apparatchiks.

Candidate Gender Quotas are not just the wrong solution; they are addressing entirely the wrong set of problems. The long-standing problem of the under-representation of women in the Oireachtas is not an isolated issue, as frequently portrayed: it is a reflection of a much broader problem, that of disengagement in electoral politics by the vast majority of the population. Compared to a generation ago, far fewer people are members of political parties. Fewer still involve themselves in canvassing, leaflet dropping, or other electorally related activities which involve talking to and meeting ordinary voters.

Undoubtedly there are practical factors inhibiting many people, of all strands of society, from involvement in electoral politics. Candidate Gender Quotas do nothing at all to address the root causes of the original 4 C’s, which will continue to be the same barrier to the majority of women and, to a lesser extent, men, which they would always have been.

Is it seriously being suggested that former TDs such as Olwyn Enright or Mildred Fox, who left electoral politics to ensure a better family life, would suddenly return, simply because their selection as candidates is assured? Or that being selected will magically sort out the difficulties in securing the cold hard cash required to fight an election campaign? If someone lacks the confidence to contest an open convention of their fellow party members because they might lose, how will they cope with the demands of an election campaign where they could be publicly humiliated? The proposals on candidate gender quotas are just the sort of boneheaded solution to a very real problem that ends up giving the problem a bad name.

A total of 566 candidates contested the 2011 general election, of whom 166 were elected – 86 of the candidates were women, 25 of whom were elected, equating to a success rate of 29% for both. While women candidates were just as likely to get elected as men, women who were members of political parties were even more likely to be elected than their male colleagues. Women made up only 10.6% of the independent candidates nationally. In Wicklow there were 14 independents (all male), for the 6 University Seanad seats: of 46 candidates only 8 were women. This is in contests where candidate selection is not at issue; the candidates select themselves.

Evidently women have no problem getting elected when they contest elections, nor is there any evidence that women are disproportionately disadvantaged at the nomination and candidate selection stage. No hard data has yet been produced to show that women who seek a party nomination in Ireland are less like to be selected than their male colleagues. Indeed, if we were to remove the distortion of male incumbents at party conventions the success rate of women coming through as new candidates is very impressive. This is irrespective of the form the selection process takes, be it by ‘one member, one vote’, head office interview or delegate-based convention.

No other country operating gender quotas has our electoral system of Multi-Seat constituencies with PR-STV. As the psephologists tell us the more candidates you run, over and above your seat target, the more seats you forfeit as a result of transfers drifting away as the counts go on. Such quotas will require parties who have seats at present to run more candidates than is advisable. The lack of debate from within the membership of the larger parties on this unprecedented act of electoral altruism, this willingness to hobble their own chances, demonstrates how poorly thought out and understood the consequences of this bill are.

In the Minister for Environment’s own constituency, unless one of his recently elected male party colleagues stands down, Fine Gael will be compelled to run an extra candidate where there is no realistic chance of a 4th seat and, in so doing, will imperil at least one the party’s three seats, in the face of a strong SF and FF challenge.

The money and resources for election campaigns come from individual party activists, not party HQs – people who cannot be compelled by legislation to work or invest their time in candidate Y rather than candidate X.

This is a superficial gesture instead of the frank debate on political reform we really need. We must be more ambitious and look to overhauling the entire electoral system with cost-effective and accessible measures to encourage parties to take risks in running more diverse tickets. We could utilise PR-STV more, by making all parties run twice the number of candidates as there are seats in a constituency, creating an open, local list system with instant primaries.

The likely outcome of this legislation is to allow a power-grab by the party elite over ordinary members and encourage the political parties to be more conservative, not less, in their candidate selection. They will choose from the same pool of the middle-aged and middle class, with money to spare, no childcare problems, the right family connections or an inside line to the party hierarchy. We’ve seen too much of this.

Those advocating gender-based quotas are merely salving the symptoms of a much larger problem while allowing the apathy of the people to grow. It’s not simply that we need more women as candidates; we need everyone involved in what must be the grandest contest of ideas imaginable. We have never needed it more than now.


Note this was published in the Irish Times last year but I never got around to posting it here.

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