The constitutional convention is currently holding its first working meeting. Such is the lack of publicity, that it has somewhat blindsided me, hence the late write-up.
The lack of publicity might well be explained by the topics being discussed, which are so far from important as to be safely ignored by media sources and the population at large. I’ll lump my opinions on the two into one post because they are so straightforward.
The Voting Age
The first is the lowering of the current voting age from 18 to 17 (or, as some delegates have apparently suggested, 16). This is a fairly simple one sentence amendment to the constitution.
This is just a simple matter of determining what age we consider someone to have reached the maturity necessary for participation in politics. This is an important determination. Western cultures have, for whatever reason, fixated at the ages of 21, 18 and 16 as the important points, whereby increased rights are given to men and women. One of these is the franchise.
I find myself with no objections to lowering the voting age; the only thing is where to draw the line, which is a far dicer prospect. There isn’t much to separate an 18 year old and a 17 year old in maturity, anymore than there is to separate a 16 year old from a 15 year old. I have no idea how you can judge an age group in this context, you just have to trust that a certain age will generally yield people of higher thinking and responsibility.
So, I’d have no objections to a voting age of 16, but no lower. It’s as good an age as any, political parties generally allow members of that age, it coincides with study for Leaving Certificate and thinking for the future and is generally seen as an age when “adult” years either begin or are on the verge of beginning.
Ultimately this will make little difference. “Youth” do not vote in great numbers and are as liable to political disillusionment as anybody, maybe more so. Certainly there will be plenty of 16 or 17 year olds who will vote, but there will be far more who will not. Lowering the voting age may provide an opportunity to kindle an interest in politics from a younger age, but educational options, especially the much derided CSPE subject, has to be at the forefront of that, not a constitutional amendment.
I would expect a call to lower the voting age to have cross party support and to only be debatable insofar as the exact age. It’s certainly the sort of thing a convention should not concern itself with.
Presidential Term Limits
The second thing of this session is a motion to reduce Presidential terms from seven to five year. It is another one sentence difference to the constitution.
Everything that you discuss about the Presidency comes with the caveat if it being almost entirely a ceremonial position. Not entirely ceremonial mind you, but the vast majority of the duties carried out by the office are PR related. So, why should we lower the term?
Well, the position has some power and seven years is a very long time. You can argue, and I would tend to agree, that giving one man or woman the power of pardon, bill referral or Dail dissolution for seven years is just a bit too long. Bringing the length of a term more in line with other positions in the country brings a greater degree of uniformity and should ensure that elections can be shared thereby cutting down on costs. There is also simply the matter of more closely matching the democratic norm, of reducing the amount of time that any one person holds such power, usually only facing one election to get 14 years in the office (since many two-term Presidents do so without a contested re-election campaign). 10 years is a bit fairer. Longer terms were the norm back in the 1930’s, or so I have read, but it is not the 1930’s anymore. The walls of the Irish state will not come crashing down with a reduced term for its somewhat hollow executive. In line with the reducing of the voting age, having more frequent Presidential elections will allow for greater democratic participation and interest. A reduced maximum length in the office might attract more candidates.
My own personal motion would be to maintain the current term length for a President, but to remove the possibility of a President being re-elected. Every President can, due to the general popularity of the holder, have two full terms if they want so if you want to cut that down why not just limit it to a single term of seven years as opposed to two terms of five each?
Of course, there are far more important things to reform about the Presidency – the age limit of candidates, the actual powers of the office – that we could be discussing. But we aren’t.
I would expect a call to lower the Presidential term to have cross party support. It is, again, the sort of unimportant issue that a convention should not be required to discuss, but that the Oireachtas should push through themselves. There is such limited scope for objection or debate here, that the convention is simply killing time.