Adrian Kavanagh, 26th July 2014
Some aspects of the government’s political reform agenda have been achieved over the past three and a half years, including changes to political funding legislation, the implementation of a six-month limit for the holding of by-election contests, the introduction of a gender quota for the next general election and amendments in relation to representative levels and electoral boundaries relating to general and local elections. But to once again re-tread a well-trodden phrase, this record very much amounts to a case of something done but a lot more to be done, which is rather disappointing given that there was a significant opportunity space in play to bring in political reform measures, especially at the start of the government’s term in office. The perception, to a large degree, is that much of this reform effort was driven by the belief that Irish people had a very negative opinion of politics and that the thing they really wanted to see changed in Irish politics was a significant overall reduction in politician numbers. However, the experience of the past few years has shown that while people may like the idea of fewer politicians in theory, they are less enthusiastic when faced with the practicalities of this, as seen in the Seanad Referendum and the local reactions to the abolition of Town/Borough Councils and the reduction in County Councillors in rural areas. Ultimately my sense is that more democracy – assuming that cost/benefit concerns are addresses and real power invested at all levels, local as well as national – is better than less.
My approach in terms of what I stress in terms of a political reform agenda is to be as pragmatic as popular and avoid populist and knee-jerk approaches to these issues. Reflecting the 5 C’s that act as barriers against female participation in electoral politics, I should we can talk about a different cohort of 5 C’s – the 5 C’s, or principles, that should shape all political reform processes.
- Cop-on: Proposals must be sensible and likely to be deemed politically acceptable, efforts must be driven behind the most important issues on a political reform agenda and momentum/political capital should not be wasted on less important/significant concerns. Politicians should take the effort to know what people want, rather than basing decisions on stereotyped views of what public opinion amounts to. Cop-on is also needed in terms of political reform debates – participants need to move away from a rant style approach to one in which debates are carefully framed and founded on evidence – as Mr. Gradgrind once put it, “give me facts”.
- Constitutionality: Reform efforts must be mindful of the impact that these may have on the Constitution; most obviously in terms of cases where a measure would require an amendment to this and a referendum to put this into place. But ultimately this concept gets across the key idea what must ultimately underlie all reform efforts – that these must fundamentally improve political life in the Republic of Ireland – all reformists must ensure that they “stand by the State”.
- Creativity: Reform efforts must be open to new ways of “doing politics”, whether these are drawn from international best practice or are developed instead within the national context, whether these be “top-down” or “bottom-up”.
- Communication: Political reform measures are doomed to failure if these, or resulting changes in electoral and political processes, are not communicated effectively to all important stake-holders, but most notably the general public. In a similar vein, politicians must avoid “taking cheap shots” at political reform efforts and misrepresenting what these amount to for the sake of perceived political gain.
- Commission (or Electoral Commission): If and when an Electoral Commission is established, it should be an independent body and should be allowed to be at the fore of all electoral (and wider political) reform efforts.
There are probably as many political reform issues, or rather takes on such issues, as there are commentators on political life, and I am no different in this regard, with the issues I emphasise here reflecting those I personally have more interest in, or expertise of. Hence, the main political reform issues for me are:
- Voter Turnout: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. That said, voter turnout levels had 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). However, 2014 saw a reversal in this trend with a significant drop in turnout levels at the local and European election contests. There are also 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.
Why does voter turnout matter? In short, a socially, demographically and/or geographically biased turnout will produce a socially, demographically and/or geographically biased Dáil. And of course this will produce a socially, demographically and/or geographically biased government, as well as a will produce a socially, demographically and/or geographically biased approach to public policy; in turn producing 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, after some detailed research to uncover the real reasons why people choose not to vote or are prevented from doing so. The issue of low voter turnout 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 and a national lead needs to be taken on this issue. The obvious response would be to centralise the registration process under a national agency, working in conjunction with local authorities and local returning officers, with voters’ registration details being linked to their PPS numbers, thus allowing them to easily and quickly update their address/registration details online if and when this proves necessary.
- 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 (i.e. constituency sizes ranging from between six and ten seats). Issues of added workload for elected national politicians 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 believe 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 deputy’s role. That said, a change in the role and responsibilities attributed to the Seanad could help place a greater emphasis on the role of legislation within Oireachtas Éireann as a whole.
- The Seanad: Any reform efforts relating to Seanad Éireann 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. With this model, any new legislation would generally 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 leastfour 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.
- Reform of Dáil Éireann: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. On the other hand, the government parties need 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 Commission: 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. However, a number of government politicians, such as Joan Burton and Phil Hogan, have now stated that this will be introduced at some stage during 2015 and between now and the next general election. As such, this new body will no doubt be responsible for, and seek to improve, different aspects of the electoral process within the state, but it should also have a reform remit – it should be given a key role in terms of driving further reforms of the electoral process within the state. The danger is that this body may be simply conceived as having a solely administrative remit, rather than being allowed to develop new ideas in terms of enhancing Irish electoral politics, and will be largely run by members of the Department of Environment, effectively becoming just another part of the Franchise Section of that department. For me, key to the idea of an Electoral Commission is that it should be independent of (though obviously in dialogue with) government, its leadership should be drawn from outside the governmental and administrative elites, and it should be invested with sufficient levels of power and authority to be able to test out new ideas and innovations that might improve Irish electoral politics, but also to push for new legislation (i.e. amendments to electoral acts) in cases where such tests/trials prove that a new idea or innovation is worthy of being adopted.
- Electoral boundary revisions:If and when an Electoral Commission is introduced, one of the roles of this body 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 reviews of Dáil constituency boundaries in 2011/12 and City/County Council constituency boundaries in 2013. I would like to see a change being made to the process of boundary revisions in which a 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, as they are aware of what will be the key decisions to be made by the commission, particularly in relation to their own local areas. But such a process 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 who are basing their decisions on electoral division population arithmetic and electoral division cartography and will really 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 or Carrigaline. 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 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 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 candidature and representation levels on the part of females and younger adults, as well as minority groups, within the State, with the results of May’s local elections generally supporting that theory, in terms of the increase in the number of female and younger candidates and representatives. 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, especially in relation to female candidacies. 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. (With now more female MEPs in the state than male MEPs, males may soon be clamouring for a gender quota to be applied with respect to European Parliament 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.
- Voting rights for the Irish diaspora: Most recent estimates suggests that over 120 states across the globe allow for voting rights for their citizens who are living permanently in other states. But Ireland is not one of these and is especially the Irish record is especially out of line in this matter when contrasted with those of other European Union states. Ironically, Ireland’s record in terms of according voting rights to non-citizen resident within the state compares very favourably with the records of other states, by contrast. The government did refer the expatriate voting rights issue as a topic to be debated by the Constitutional Convention in 2013, but limited this discussion to voting rights at presidential elections – an act that would be a largely symbolic one and would not allow the diaspora to influence the shape of Irish politics or policy- making. A communication from the European Union in January 2014 has propelled this issue back to the fore, however, in terms of the focus that Oireachtas is placing on this issue. This has noted that Ireland’s record here is in contravention with the principle of free movement across the Union in terms of political rights, given that Irish emigrants living in other EU states will not have the right to vote in national elections, a right that is enjoyed by the citizens of nearly all other EU member states.
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.