Citizens must drive electoral reform


We need a citizens’ assembly to help devise the changes that are necessary

CITIZENS, IT is widely believed, are dissatisfied with public officials, with sluggish and unresponsive policy measures, and with political parties that seem more interested in looking after themselves than fixing the nation’s problems. Disenchanted with a Government that literally gave away money during the boom years and that now calls for drastic austerity measures, commentators are right to ask what went wrong in the formulation and implementation of public policy.

The basic question being posed: Does a broken system of rules governing the conduct of political activity need fixing? Or does the problem lie not in the rules themselves, but in how our political class is playing by them?

To address these questions, the Government established the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution. The committee was established by order of the Dáil in late 2007 to review the Constitution and determine which, if any, parts of it are broken and need fixing.

Of course, this being Ireland, the committee is still conducting its business three years later. In fact, the first order of the committee was to return to work undertaken by earlier incarnations of similar constitutional review bodies established in 1996, 1997, and 2002. Basic institutional reform proceeds slowly in most contexts, but especially here.

But then basic institutional reform should proceed slowly and deliberately. Changing the rules of the political game is not something that should be undertaken lightly. Rational political actors always try to “game” the system, but gaming the system by changing the rules of the game is a special and more drastic form of this competition.

The history of electoral system change is replete with examples that amount to little more than naked political manipulation by ruling political parties with the power to implement rule changes that make them more likely to win the game.

France, Italy, and Poland have provided clear examples during the last two decades, with Poland winning the prize for having preceded every election since its transition to competitive elections in 1989 with a debate over first changing the rules for the election.

If you let smart turkeys choose the Christmas menu, don’t be surprised if you get only ham. The flip side of institutional change is that a political class may favour changes that are in its own interests, but subvert the broader purposes for which the political system is designed. Providing brakes on manipulative or hasty political reform is why the rules for changing the rules tend to set the bar high.

Changing the Constitution, for instance, requires not just a majority vote in the Dáil – a measure that would be sufficient for constitutional change in many countries, such as the UK – but also needs approval in a public referendum. This is why Ireland still has its single transferable vote electoral system: because the 1937 Constitution requires that it can only be changed by popular approval. In the two instances when such change was attempted following approval in both Houses of the Oireachtas in 1959 and 1969, the referendums failed to carry a Yes vote.

If the underlying problem is a dysfunctional political culture, then changing the rules is a clumsy way to address the problem.

The Italians found this out in the 1990s, as part of the Clean Hands (Mani Pulite) movement. To reduce corruption and restore accountability, seen as undermined by its pure list system that gave rise to narrow interests and sometimes ridiculous parties, it adopted a system consisting largely of single-member constituencies.

However, rather than restoring full competition and reducing the number of parties, the parties responded in uniquely Italian style by forming two large cartels that allowed individual parties to remain individual by carving up the constituency map according to agreements about which of their members would be the only cartel party to compete in each constituency.

Political culture, inasmuch as it involved political recruitment, representation of public interests, and effective formulation and implementation of policy, changed very little in response to the electoral reform. And the electoral reform itself was reversed in late 2005 by Silvio Berlusconi’s government.

Clumsy as it may be, however, rule change remains the best way – maybe the only way – to change the prevailing sets of practices and expectations that form what we call Irish political culture. We once had a culture where smoking indoors was perfectly acceptable. With the advent of the smoking ban, however, the culture changed almost overnight.

The catch with institutional change is that the political class empowered to change a flawed system usually has a vested interest in not doing so. The present electoral system is often criticised for its overemphasis on constituency service. But you would never get a TD to admit to being negative about constituency service except in the most abstract terms, since doing so is the equivalent to biting the hand that feeds you. It is the same with reducing the size of the Dáil.

Declan Kiberd pointed out in his opening contribution to this series that Dáil Éireann is too large and too expensive for a country whose population is not much larger than the greater Birmingham area. But reducing legislative sizes is even more difficult than getting lawmakers to vote to reduce their own pay: it’s the political equivalent of Russian roulette. At the next election, some of the incumbent Dáil would have to bite the bullet.

The trick in implementing effective changes to the rules – and thereby getting our players to improve their game – is to circumvent normal channels and vested interests. In our system it’s also a practical necessity, since any constitutional reform will ultimately require public approval by referendum. And if a referendum to amend the Constitution fails, there will be no quick second chance as in recent referendums on Europe. In New Zealand, electoral system change in the 1990s was implemented after a lengthy review process by a royal commission followed by a referendum. Given the past record of commissions in Ireland, however, a more promising option seems to lie in establishing a representative, public forum of citizens to consider and make recommendations for change.

Such was the experience of British Columbia, which in 2001 established a citizens’ assembly on electoral reform. Comprising 160 citizens balanced by region and gender, the assembly received experts and held public hearings, and after extensive deliberations recommended replacing its first-past-the-post system with the single-transferable vote.

While this measure (barely) missed the required 60 per cent majority in a public referendum four years later, it nonetheless gave a much needed legitimacy to the project that could not have come from a closed, elite commission drawn exclusively from the political class. For reforming the rules of our political game, a citizens’ assembly would provide a much needed legitimacy to a project that involves a hard trade-off between maximising choice on the one hand and engineering specific political and social objectives on the other. Moving the choice of objectives out of the hands of elected officials means letting the diners rather than the turkeys choose the menu. It also means the diners are more likely to impose restrictions on their menu choices that they can live with. And designing political institutions is all about defining the scope of choices, sometimes hard choices. As a consequence of your choices and the structures that defined the possible choices, democracy means getting the government you deserve.

Imagine that democracy is a restaurant. You may go in thinking you can order anything you like, but what ends up on your plate will be constrained not only by what is on the menu, but also by what rules are attached to what you may order. The usual rules are designed to deliver some form of a balanced and healthy dining experience – the epicurean analogy of fair, effective, and equal representation. But this objective can only be realised by restricting choice.

To ensure you have healthy choices, the menu might consist of half vegetables – like gender-based candidacy quotas.

To ensure that what you actually ate was half vegetables, a la carte orders could be replaced with only fixed menu choices that consisted of half vegetables – the equivalent of the closed party lists with gender quotas found in some countries.

To make sure you experienced variety, the menu could be forbidden to repeat dishes – the menu equivalent of term limits.

Finally, like making voting compulsory, then you might be required to order something – anything – whether you were hungry or not.

Given these hard choices as well as the fact that ultimately the voters will have to approve any fundamental rule changes, it seems better to involve the public directly in some version of an inclusive, deliberative forum rather than letting the politicians make a meal of it that no one may want to eat.

Kenneth Benoit is professor of quantitative social sciences and head of the department of political science in Trinity College, Dublin. He obtained his doctorate from Harvard University for a dissertation entitled The Consequences and Origins of Electoral Systems

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