Reforming electoral system is not going to be enough


OPINION:There is a need for a national debate on civic and institutional renewal and how best to achieve it, writes DAVID FARRELL

WITH EVERYTHING else that is going on it is not surprising that the state of our political system should also be under scrutiny. One of the causes of our current malaise is said to be the fact that our politicians are overly distracted with local constituency work, devoting large amounts of their precious time to nursing constituencies, carrying out endless constituency surgeries, and neglecting their duties as legislators.

The cause of all this is said to be Ireland’s rather unique electoral system – the single transferable vote (STV) – a system used in just one other country for national level elections (Malta). The solution that we’re presented with is electoral reform, that Ireland should adopt an electoral system in which the politicians are not required to devote quite so much time to nursing their constituencies. Examples of alternative systems abound: the German mixed-member system, the list systems that predominate across most of western Europe; even Britain’s first-past-the-post system is seen by some as preferable.

Columns have appeared in leading newspapers calling for large-scale electoral reform. The issue is currently being discussed by the Joint Committee on the Constitution (the third such Oireachtas review in the past decade). The new Programme for Government agreed late last year between the Coalition partners also placed electoral reform high on the political agenda, as has the Fine Gael leader with his proposals for what can best be described as “mixed-member STV” for Ireland.

Before embarking on any large-scale electoral reform it would be well to note that it might actually be the wrong answer to the right question.

If the concern is that Dáil deputies devote too much time to constituency service at a cost to, say, their legislative role, electoral reform may not be the only, or even the most appropriate, way of dealing with this. It is possible that other forms of institutional change could prove more effective, such as reform of local government, of Civil Service practice, or of certain key departments.

Rather than trying to reduce the local constituency services offered by Dáil deputies, the solution might be to reduce the demands made on them by their constituents.

Another reason why large-scale electoral reform may be the wrong solution is because there is not a lot of evidence of it working elsewhere. Over the last quarter century, there have been exactly three cases of electoral reform in the world’s established democracies (I do not include the cynical party political exercise in France in 1985, which was reversed the following year): in 1993, New Zealand replaced its first-past-the post system with the mixed-member system in a move designed to make politicians more accountable; Italy also changed its system in 1993, replacing its list system with a mixed-member system in an effort to make the political system more stable, and in 1994, seeking to end political corruption, Japan shifted from the rather unusual single non-transferable vote system to a mixed-member system. It is hard to see any of these cases as successful: a decade later, Italy returned to a form of list system; the New Zealand government is to hold a fresh referendum on electoral reform in 2012. Only in Japan has the new electoral system appeared to bed down. But the irony here is that Japan’s electoral reform is universally seen as having had least success in dealing with the problems in its political system that prompted electoral reform in the first place.

The fact that large-scale electoral reform in established democracies is rare, and hasn’t actually worked in the few instances where it has been tried, should give pause for thought as to whether it is the right route for Ireland. Of course, there are aspects of our electoral system that need fixing – most of which could be achieved without the need for large-scale reform.

Top of the list are: legislation forcing parties to field a minimum number of women candidates (a proven success at increasing the proportions of women politicians in other countries); reducing the number of TDs; increasing constituency size. Other more anoraky, but no less important, reforms could include: abolishing byelections (instead adopting “count back” procedures to fill vacant seats as used in Malta), and using the Seanad rules for allocating surplus transfers during election counts (thus reducing the elements of chance that currently prevail in tight races).

But reforming our electoral system is not going to be enough; indeed, it may be little more than a diversion. We are in the midst of the most serious crisis in our history, a crisis that affects all our institutions – economic, political and social (and, given the ongoing travails in the Catholic Church, also moral). This calls for a large-scale overhaul of our institutions, including but not confined to our process of elections. The State needs to find ways to engage better with its citizens. In particular, we need to harness our youth. We need to find better means of integrating and involving all citizens, from all sectors, in a process of civil and institutional renewal. This calls for deliberative processes (such as citizen assemblies), and other such devices that facilitate greater engagement by our citizens. Out of such processes a real review of our institutions could emerge.

Even under the most optimistic outlooks for the Irish economy a terrible legacy of debt is being left for future generations, making it all the more vital that our younger citizens have greater input into decisions today. I can think of no stronger argument than this in favour of “Votes at 16”. In this context, ongoing efforts by the National Council on Curriculum and Assessment to introduce a new syllabus on politics and society into the senior cycle in schools is very welcome.

Another group badly affected by the economic crisis are those forced to emigrate in search of work. Why should we add insult to injury by effectively disenfranchising them? If the majority of other countries (more than 100 to date) allow their emigrants to vote, there is no reason why we can’t.

Other issues worth examining include: the establishment of an independent electoral commission that could be tasked with sorting out among other things party finance and regulation of campaign expenditure; strengthening of local government (to reduce clientelistic demands on TDs), revisiting the question of e-voting with the focus this time on what it can do for voters rather than how it might make the count more efficient (e-voting would also facilitate votes for emigrants), and requiring Ministers to resign their Dáil seat. This list barely scratches the surface.

The current crisis provides an opportunity for taking stock of how we govern ourselves. The focus now must be on how to harness the growing anger, not to ignore it or seek to dampen it down. We must engage in a national debate on civic and institutional renewal.

David Farrell is professor of politics in the school of politics and international relations at University College Dublin