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The Rules of the Game


Gerry O Quigley regularly produces some very thoughprovoking posts over at ie-politics. I just want to highlight two recent points and perhaps throw my own two cents into the pot on some of the issues raised.
The first is raised in a post originally about Tom Garvin, rightly Garvin is seen as one of the country's brightest minds. Having studies under him, I have listened first hand to his attitudes toward our very own PR-STV system and his views on its effects on our national politics.
This debate has raged for a long time, Dev and Fianna Fail failed in two seperate referenda to have the system replaced with a plurality system in 1959 and 68. Garvin's critique is one that holds a lot of weight among political scientists who study PR-STV. That being;

"The key feature of this system is that it allows voters to vote across party lines. Therefore it means that candidates of the same party must compete with each other as well as with candidates from other parties. This encourages an intense localism as candidates of the same party cannot compete on the basis of policy and instead urge the voters to, in effect, shop local."
PR-STV is seen as being a primary factor in influencing the manner in which our national politics has come to resemble 166 TDs tending personal fiefdoms and cultivating loyalty by acting as primarily national politicians. The parochial aspect has undermined the role for local government and been cited as a factor in undermining the view TDs should have of themselves as national legislators.
Yet, replacing the electoral system with something else is a minefield of an issue. Should we go for Garvins Additional Member system, a la FDR Germany. Proponents see a place for a much more able type of politician capable of responding to national need and seeeing themselves differently.
Study of other similar type systems suggests though that MPs from the list side often tend to try to attach themselves to a constituency. The power of party bosses is such that many MPs are drawn toward the idea of true representation. This point I feel is not sufficient to argue against moderating our system with a list element. However for the benefits to be positive from a party, it must be said that the requirement is for party bosses to be able to see beyond personalities and actually employ meritocratic criteria for candidate selection. In a polity so openly corrupt as ours, that may be high hope.
The main argument against change in most of its forms, in my opinion, is a far more nihilistic view of our polity. The argument is that our polity is so small and our political culture so parochial that when allied to our weak local government, it is near impossible to reshape the party and political system to have the desired effect of a national Dail containing empowered and self-aware TDs who make policy in broad national terms almost detached from local politics.
That factor is central to the argument, yet I cant help wondering which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Is it how our culture must change to facilitate a move to a differing electoral system? Or will a move to a different electoral system facilitate social change?
In terms of minority politics, often populated by the more pious end of the political spectrum with little imperative to dabble with the dilemma of being in power, more seats may result for the likes of greens, PDs and smaller parties as they are less reliant of a geographical cluster for votes and open to benefit from national clusters of support unable to yield a seat in a single constituency. I think Gerry's point is quite solid;
"There must be many people who could ably serve in the Dáil but who are put off by the localistic and clientelistic nature of our political system. "
As Basil Chubb noted and im fond of saying, the dail is "a puny parliament, populated by members with a modest view of their functions and a poor capacity to carry them out."
Yet our experiment with STV is an experiment in broad social inclusion, the weighting of every preference and the embodiment of voter choice in practice. It transgresses party structures to make representative politics purely about representation.
If the system yields candidates seen as incompetent and ineffective, perhaps it is our criteria for electing them and the structures they inhabit that inform their efficacy.
There are powerful forces at play in our democracy, STV among them, Im as yet unconvinced that changing the system would yield the positive result mooted. Having said that, the status quo in terms of quality of TDs and Dail quality must be improved upon.

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  1. Blogger P O'Neill | 3:15 p.m. |  

    An alternative approach would be to slash the number of TDs to about 100. 166 is way out of proportion, even compared to other small countries. TDs with larger electorates would be forced to delegate the parish pump stuff, preferably to beefed-up county councils. But in turn those councils might need more reliable revenue sources. Which further reduces the likelihood of any such reform being done properly.

  2. Blogger Cian | 7:13 p.m. |  

    Its something i think is far more worth pursuing that implementing an AM system which encourgages some TDs to go after constituency. The parish pump stuff is a result of deeper stuff that our electoral system.
    I think the member size is important. Still, the quality and ethical rigour of our political class is questionable in itself. Reform is most difficult with deficient material.

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