We need institutional not electoral reform
Dan O’Brien recently presented a segment on RTÉ’s Aftershock programme advocating fundamental political reform, with a move towards a mixed-member electoral system, where half the TDs would be elected by list, and a separation of the executive and the legislature, where TDs who take up ministerial positions would vacate their seats and be replaced by someone on their party list.
I would be wary of any such major cultural change in our electoral process. Our method of electing TDs by the single transferable vote is popular here because it gives voters maximum choice between parties and candidates.
This system has been blamed for the clientelism of Irish politics, because of how it encourages intra-party competition and the development of personal bailiwicks by TDs. The electoral system does play its part, but I believe that it merely exacerbates the problems which we would have in any case as a result of the weak role of elected representatives at both the national and local levels.
The most meaningful power the Dáil has is after an election when electing a Taoiseach, and thereafter in maintaining a majority for the government of the day. There are many other functions which the legislature could be granted, in proposing and drafting legislation and overseeing state bodies and quangos. Fine Gael’s New Politics document, which should be read with enthusiasm by anyone truly interested in the chance of political reform, proposes many such measures, such as emulating the 10-minute rule from Westminster. This is a provision allowing backbench MPs to propose their own legislation once a week, and MPs have been known to camp outside the parliamentary office to get their proposal onto the agenda.
We should aspire to a situation where those of ability would see a value in their role as a legislator, rather than merely as a stepping stone to climb the ranks of ministerial office, where currently the only power lies. Take someone like Ivan Yates, who retired from the Dáil in 2002 to go into business life, when the short-term prospects of a return to government looked slim. With a greater role for parliamentarians, he might have stayed in politics. It is not the electoral system that has caused TDs to see themselves as local politicians rather than legislators, it is just that is the only role that is left for them.
Any improvement of the powers of the Dáil should be coupled with a strengthening of local government. Citizens should feel that their voice can be implemented on local issues through their local councillors. Just as nationally the executive has an inordinate amount of power relative to the legislature, at a local level the significant power rests with county managers. Giving local politicians might also give them the profile that the public might sooner turn to them, leaving their TDs to the business of Leinster House and representing the larger interests of their constituencies.
If at both national and local level, elected politicians truly had a legislative role, we might then see politicians developing a reputation for more than just fixing potholes and getting passports to their constituents in time. Let us make what changes we can there before considering whether we should take what would be quite a departure in altering our electoral system. Dan O’Brien questions why the single transferable vote is not more popular as an electoral system, despite its popularity with political scientists. All political systems have a measure of path dependency, with a culture developed by slow and small changes. A change to a list system would almost be a bigger change than if the United Kingdom were to move from single-member plurality to our multi-member STV. With the exception of University representation in the lower house from 1613 to 1936, Irish representatives have also been answerable directly to the people, rather than any party organization. Let us hesitate before breaking that link.
Separating the executive
I would have more sympathy with Dan O’Brien’s other proposal, of separating the executive from the legislature. The Constitution does provide for ministers to be chosen who are not TDs, as two of the Ministers, other than the Minister for Finance, can be appointed be appointed from the Seanad. This provision has only twice been used, and I have written before on its merits. Dr Garret FitzGerald has often told of how unpopular his appointment in 1981 of Jim Dooge as Minister for Foreign Affairs was within his parliamentary party, as they believed it sent out the message that none of them were good enough for the job. There are times, however, when the higher ranks of the leading party are filled with lawyers, teachers and social workers, where there would be good reason to bring in someone from outside to head a department such as Enterprise, Trade and Innovation. Owen Rooney has written on the opportunity Brian Cowen had with the resignation of Deirdre De Búrca from the Seanad and Willie O’Dea from the cabinet to invoke such a procedure to appoint someone like Jim O’Hara to cabinet. What we need is a greater awareness of this provision from commentators and expectation that it should be used.
I do favour the abolition of the Seanad, as long as it is coupled with improvements in the responsibilities of the Dáil; better one strong house than two weak houses. In such a case, the two ministerial slots currently available from the Seanad should be opened up to all, and perhaps need not be limited to two. Prospective ministers could then be questioned individually on their expertise for the position by Dáil committees as we see in the United States and some other countries. This would give us an executive seen to be composed of experts and answerable to the executive.