Its constitutional convention time again, as “ccven” gears up for the first of two meetings to discuss the issue of Dail electoral reform. Seeing as how the convention will be taking two meetings to discuss this topic, I figured I would do the same with blog posts. Since specific topics for the convention are unknown to me, I’ll just take this topic by topic, three today and another few in a month. These are just some brief thoughts, done up in a hurry the night before, so please excuse the brevity.
Dail Electoral Reform
Single Transferable Vote – Proportional Representation
I think I waxed on about my love for STV-PR during the 2011 general election, so there is little point in repeating myself too much. Times of great uncertainly and unhappiness with the political class often come with desire for deep-seeded change to the very system that created that class in the first place, but I fear Ireland would throw the baby out with the bathwater if we ever contemplated a change from STV-PR.
No electoral system is perfect, and STV-PR has its faults. It’s fairly complex for the uninitiated to grasp. It can make things difficult for small parties of specific focus. It rewards groups and parties with general appeal. The difference in the processes between general and by-election procedures can be problematic.
But I still think, in comparison to other systems, especially the UK’s atrocious “First Past The Post” method that so skews the actual voter preferences, it is the one with greatest use when it comes to the Irish political reality (that is, having several viable parties that routinely make up the Oireachtas). It provides the best “snapshot” of electoral feeling at the time of the election by directly matching, as much as possible, the percentage of votes with the percentage of seats allocated within constituencies. It ties representatives more fully with voters, which garners criticism from some as “parish-pump” politics, but would probably result in criticism of detachment from the political class if reversed.
I don’t want to see STV-PR got rid of, especially as a sacrificial lamb to placate fashionable criticism of the political world of Ireland. However, it would be foolish to not even consider partial alternatives.
This system, employed throughout the world on a full or partial basis, does have some merits that could see it included in any furore reform of the Oireachtas electoral procedures. Those who complain about the focused nature of representation in Ireland would see the solution here, and I would tend to agree now that a partial list system, to make up the numbers of the Dail at the very least, could be beneficial. List elected TD’s would have a regional or even national mandate and would balance out a legislature that is frequently too focused on looking out for individual constituency needs. It would aid with the implementation of new gender quotas without exposing candidates to the whims of gender-influenced voters and in fact may allow parties at large to put up candidates of greater substance and appeal than those they are required to back in local areas.
The problem of course is that Lists automatically favour parties to the detriment of independent candidates, and that voters may not actually know who it is exactly that they are voting for.
If Ireland does go ahead and contemplate changes to the make-up of the Dail, I would not be opposed to a reduction in the number of TD’s elected via STV-PR with the balance to be rectified by TD’s elected by list. I would not be in favour of any kind of total lists system, as I tend to prefer to know exactly who I am voting for at any election.
The case for reducing the “parish pump” aspect of Ireland legislature is all well and good, but probably dismisses the importance of what ”casework” is. Casework is an important activity for TD’s: it keeps them close to their constituents, ties them into the issues of their own home area and makes sure that such an area is represented fully. This is the point of politics after all, to represent. It’s harder for nationally elected TD’s, as a list system would create, to do that. Should we dive headfirst into the other extreme, of having legislators who don’t have to answer to (a manageable number of) people at all?
I suspect that a list system will be implemented at some point in the near future, as I imagine it is the kind of thing that could garner support on both sides of the Dail. The benefits to all parties are obvious.
Number of Deputies
Fine Gael and Labour have already started the ball rolling on this issue, with the next general election bringing a reduced number of deputies. I am not educated enough to actually make a firm declaration on whether reducing the number of TD’s – and thereby increasing the number of constituents that each TD has to answer to, thereby decreasing the amount of time that they can conceivably spend per constituent – would be a good call. This, much like so many constitutional and legal changes of the last few years, seems to be coming from a very reactionary, very populist place, pone that cries out “overpaid” and takes any slight opportunity to claim that legislators are not entitled to the wages they are receiving.
This may be so. Certainly TD’s wages are exorbitant. But the answer is surely then to cut wages as opposed to lowering the number of TD’s? Less TD’s means less obstacles to potentially deal with for a government, less debate and slightly less democracy. Is this something we are willing to accept? I’m not so sure I am comfortable with that. The costs of TD’s salaries as it stands is fairly miniscule in the overall scheme of things, as minuscule as the using the cost of the Seanad as an excuse to abolish the Upper House.
This decision has already been taken, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see it pop again as the Oireachtas proceeds, whether it would be to go further or redact depending on the party.
In the next post before the convention reconvenes, I’ll offer some brief thoughts on the ideas of single-seat constituencies, recalls, and the selection of Ministers.