As the adriankavanaghelections.org website nears its 100,000th hit, I have decided to mark the occasion with a post detailing what would be the issues that I would most like to see being prioritised in relation to the areas of electoral and political reform. My approach here is to be as pragmatic as popular and avoid populist and knee-jerk approaches to these issues.
- Voter Turnout: Although voter turnout levels have been improving over the past decade (with the exception of very low levels for certain by-election and referendum contests, which I suspect will always be the case even if there is an overall improvement in electoral participation rates), there are still areas within the State in which voter turnout levels remain exceptionally low, either for certain types of electoral contest (e.g. low referendum turnouts in Donegal) or for all electoral contests (the inner city areas, in particular the Dublin Inner City). Certain social and demographic groups in Ireland – younger members of the electorate, people living in the rented housing sector, “recent movers” and the socially deprived – are also less likely to turn out to vote at election times. While other electoral and political reform issues have gained a lot of attention in recent years, however, the issue of low voter turnout has very much fallen off the radar, especially from the perspective of media and political commentators, with the level of focus on the issue being decidedly lower than was the case in the early 2000s. Why does this matter? In short, a socially/demographically/geographically biased turnout will produce a socially/demographically/geographically biased Dáil, which in turn will produce a style of politics that will appear alien to significant sections of Irish society. I would like to see new efforts and programmes (including voter education programmes focused on socially deprived areas and groups, similar to those run by the Vincentian Partnership for Justice) being introduced to try to mobilise low turnout groups and areas. The issue is also being conflated by inaccurate electoral registers. While local authorities can do their part in terms of periodic efforts to “clean up” the registers in their local areas, this local control over the electoral registration process is perhaps the nub of the issue here. The obvious response would be to centralise the registration process under a national agency, with voters’ registration details being linked to their PPS numbers, thus allowing them to easily and quickly update their address/registration details online when necessary. The only question here is why this has not already been done so?
- Electoral System: I am personally in favour of retaining the Proportional Representation by Single Transferable Vote electoral system – it allows for fair results, while offering the most power to voters when it comes to deciding which candidates will be representing them in Dáil Éireann (and, of course, also at the local and European levels). But low district magnitude is an issue here and this acts as a serious brake preventing new people (with new ideas and new approaches to politics) breaking in to Irish national politics, while it also militates against the effective representation of minority groups – the very reason this electoral system was introduced in the Republic of Ireland in the first place. I would like to see larger constituencies, not that far off the lines of those that emerged in the redrawing of the local election constituencies earlier this year (i.e. constituency sizes ranging from between five and nine seats). Issues of added workload would need to be addressed, but the key means for doing so would arise from the extension of greater political powers to City/County Councils and to local representatives. If City/County Councillors had more effective power, it might be expected that a significant proportion of a TD’s local constituency workload would be taken from them (though admittedly this may not pan out in reality). Note that I do believer that, as representatives of specific geographical areas, TDs should spend some time looking after their constituents’ concerns and dealing with constituency work, but it is important that there not be an over-emphasis on this as the expense of other aspects of a Dáil deputies role.
- The Seanad: In a scenario where the Seanad could be abolished after October’s referendum, any discussion of Seanad reform at this point could well prove to be largely pointless. Sadly there was a significant decades-long window for addressing this issue in which nothing was ultimately done and the result of October’s vote may well now shut that window. Should the Seanad survive, I would strongly argue for the need to immediately reform it. Any reform efforts would need to be made in conjunction with the role of Dáil Éireann and my personal preference would be to see Seanad Éireann being envisioned as a house of legislators, with Dáil Éireann in turn having a greater focus on representation – effectively emerging as a house of representatives. Any new legislation in this model would be first introduced and debated in the Seanad, before the amended legislation would be moved to Dáil Éireann for further and final debating and in order to ensure that the proposed provisions could be “area proofed”. To ensure the Seanad had sufficient political clout, I would also proposed that legislation be introduced to ensure that all cabinets include at least four members of Seanad Éireann (with a similar provision also to be employed in relation to junior ministerial positions). Election to the Seanad would have to be decided on by all of the electorate and not a specific portion of this. This could be effectively achieved by means of introducing a national List system for the election of people to Seanad Éireann, with this taking place on the same day as elections to Dáil Éireann. Alternately, it could be achieved by retaining the current vocational panels and requiring all members of the electorate to identify with one of these panels when registering to vote (something that could be facilitated by an electronic/online system of registration as discussed above). In this scenario, voters would get a separate Seanad ballot paper relating to their specific vocational panel on polling day in addition to their Dáil constituency ballot paper, with each voter’s vocational panel being noted on the electoral register.
- Dáil reform: I am by no means an expert in this area and will defer to my better informed colleagues in this regard. But I will offer just a few thoughts here. The arcane rules dictating speaking rights in the Dáil seems deeply unfair to me, not just in relation to those TDs whose speaking privileges in the Dáil are significantly limited but also to the voters who elected these people as their Dáil deputies in the first place. This area needs to be addressed. Although this goes against the bear pit style of politics favoured by sectors of the political commentariat and indeed the very rules of the political game itself, measures need to be taken to ensure a more constructive approach to debate in the Dáil. Opposition TDs need to defer from an “opposition for opposition’s sake” approach to debating and to acknowledge/support positive measures being introduced by the government, while on the other hand the government needs to allow scope for good proposals/amendments from opposition TDs to be taken on board and to be fed into stronger legislation that better serves the people. I would also like to see some measures take in relation to the party whip system, in which the party whip could be allowed to be relaxed in certain circumstances and for certain types of votes, but this ultimately is a decision for the political parties themselves and not for outside agencies.
- Electoral boundary revisions: Many political reform commentators have strongly advocated for the need for an Electoral Commission in Ireland and I would strongly back those views and also wonder why this has not yet already been done. If this was to be introduced, one of the roles of this commission should be to lead up the process of electoral boundary revision, in relation to European and Dáil elections in addition to local election contests. As an observer of the process of electoral boundary revisions in recent years, and indeed a participant in this at one stage, one thing I have noted is the extent of the negative reaction to certain boundary proposals after these have been published and at a point where nothing can be done to make changes to a controversial decision. While there is a public submissions process, it can be hard for the public to engage effectively with this as they will not know what options are being seriously considered by a boundary commission in relation to their local areas – this is especially the case when significant changes are being made to the terms of reference for a boundary commission, as was the case for the most recent reviews of Dáil and City/County Council constituency boundaries. I would like to see a change being made to the process of boundary revisions in which the boundary commission would be asked to produce a series of options/draft boundary proposals ahead of the public submission phase. This would allow the public to make more informed and constructive submissions to the process but it would also allow for the ironing out certain issues/problems affecting local areas that would not be readily apparent to a commission sitting in Dublin that does not know the local areas involved. In this vein, there would have been scope to allow the 2008 Electoral Areas Commission to redress the boundary change that split the village of Sandymount and the current (2013) Electoral Areas Commission to redress the change that split Finglas Village. While I would not advocate any further changes being made to boundaries after a commission has published its final report, I would like to see scope for changes to be made to the names of the constituency areas in cases where there is evidence of strong local consensus that a proposed constituency name does not effectively represent the areas falling within that constituency (for example, the case of the new Crumlin-Kimmage electoral area; the name of which does not reflect the fact that the South West Inner City area accounts for a significant portion of this area).
- Quotas: I am not entirely convinced that quotas are the most effective means of ensuring more balanced forms of political representation. I personally think that the use of larger constituency units, for instance, could be more effective in allowing for higher levels of electoral participation and representation on the part of females and on the part of minority groups within the State, but the results of next year’s local elections will play a large role in determining whether this theory holds or not! But while I think there may be better and more effective means of facilitating higher levels of female electoral participation (and indeed higher levels of electoral participation on the part of younger members of the electorate, as well as various minority groups), I do agree that quotas are a useful first step along the path of achieving these ends. In order for Irish politics to be more effective, to draw in more valuable new voices into it and to ensure that sufficient levels of focus are awarded to all key issues, I believe we need a much higher proportion of elected female representatives than we have at the moment and, in the absence of more proactive measures on the part of the political parties in this regard up to now, quotas are necessary – at least over the next decade or two – in order to achieve this end. I think it is vitally important that quotas also be introduced for other electoral contests, in addition to elections to Dáil Éireann, but especially for City/County Council elections. Where practicable, I would like to see quotas extended to allow for the greater participation of younger members of the electorate and various minority groups, even if this is only possible in relation to local election contests or within the context of Seanad reform.
To conclude, I will note that these are just my own personal views on this area and I acknowledge that some of these opinions may well prove somewhat flawed or unhelpful and readily acknowledge that others may have much more informed and in-depth takes on these issues. But one of my main beliefs in relation to Irish politics is that scope must be allowed to ensure that all voices are heard and listened to respectfully, so I offer my own voice as part of this necessary national debate on what shape the Irish political system must take over the decades to come.