Significant Government Functions could be devolved to Local Government Systems
Frank Flannery, Political analyst, former Director of Strategy, Fine Gael
This is a very wide topic and this morning I’m going to concentrate on two aspects that contribute to a larger debate. How our parliamentary system per se works – both Dáil and Seanad – I’ll leave to others for now. Instead, I will concentrate on two aspects of the political system and how problems can be perceived in both. Firstly, the way we elect our parliamentarians. Here I’m limiting my consideration to the Dáil. Secondly, the role of our local authorities.
Electing Our Dáil
Ireland uses the single transferable voting system combined with multi-seat constituencies. It’s a legacy of our colonial masters from 1921. In its outcomes, it is generally regarded as doing exactly what it says on the tin: ensuring reasonable, if not fully, proportional representation for smaller parties and minority groups. It was the Unionist and Protestant populations in southern Ireland who were occupying the minds of decision-makers at the time this system, PR-STV, was introduced. This is an old and, in some ways, an arcane, system used for local elections in various countries.
For national parliamentary elections it is used only in Ireland and Malta. Traditionally, PR-STV has been criticised as likely to produce unstable coalitions and multi-party parliaments. Our current Dáil is a good example of the type of outcome it can occasionally produce although, I hasten to add, that we cannot judge a system by the result of one election alone. We have had PR-STV for 95 years and it is still generally liked by the Irish voters. Yes, it is criticised as being complicated but our electorate understands it. People like voting down through the paper. The message at the door might be, “well my number one is promised, but I’d consider you maybe for a two or three” – a kind of democratic papal blessing, before generously sending the candidate off into a night you wouldn’t leave a dog out, no matter how savage.
Certainly, the counting system from PR-STV has been criticised as being burdensome and long-winded. But here, too, the Irish electorate has, by and large, not only accepted it but become fond of it – the thrills and spills, the sense of ‘that’ll teach ‘em’, the near-death experience, ‘they’re gone. No, they’re back’. And sometimes in the end, God is good, and Lazarus goes from white to purple in the face and is raised high on shoulders at a count centre near you.
On the fundamental PR-STV criticism regarding unstable parliaments, a look at the last 95 years in Ireland does not provide compelling evidence that this is the case. In fact, the opposite of instability would appear to be the case. The Cumann na nGaedheal government, which founded the state won three consecutive elections. Invaluably, it gave an unstable country stable government for ten years. Its successor government, Fianna Fáil, survived for 16 years. This goverment brought Ireland through both an Economic War with Britain and World War II.
Ten years and then sixteen years set the pattern for parliamentary stability as the norm in our country, with brief periods of change interspersing long periods of a Fianna Fáil government.
In recent decades, a coalition government taking over from a single party government has been the norm. But all governments have been found to be strong and stable and to have had a term of around four years on average. If stability is the objective – then what we have had is its model. (Even if Brave New World fans might be running for their lives). For them, they might say we’ve had too much stability, too many political ‘Soma Holidays’, not half enough change. They might be slightly – just ever-so-slightly – gratified that the current government is inherently unstable.
But for the rest of us, it is too soon to say that our voting system cannot sort out this problem, as it did in somewhat similar circumstances in the 1940s/1950s, which, I realise, might seem like ancient history to some people.
A second major criticism of our voting system is that it promotes clientelism in politics which, as we know, is to the detriment of parliamentarians fulfilling their roles as legislators. Instead of changing the country, PR-STV is a bit like a Smirnoff ad – it leaves them breathless – from all the watching-their-backs, not alone from ‘the Other Crowd’, but even more particularly, the electoral enemy within their own ranks.
The golfer Lee Trevino categorised two life forms that don’t last long.
1: Dogs that chase cars.
2: Golfers who sink 20ft puts to save par.
We can add a third category – TDs who don’t nurture their constituencies, hold regular clinics, knock on doors, and, of course, bury the dead – and, more crucially, be seen to be doing so.
It is an undeniable fact that TDs who do not have a regular presence in their constituencies, who are not available to voters and who do not respond to requests just might not be re-elected – or at best they might have great difficulty doing so.
So if it’s a choice between looking after constituents ‘down here’ or seeing to their legislative duties ‘up there’, under our current system, ‘down here’ is guaranteed to be the winner. Holding clinics and knocking on doors are fundamental components of a successful TD’s survival kit nowadays. Despite its near ubiquity, social media such Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or texting and email communication haven’t changed that fundamental reality. Forget your online ‘Likes’. In Ireland what the electorate goes for is Love – Love for the TD clinic with the lights on and somebody at home.
And this might not change unless we first change the way we elect our parliamentarians. Of course, I’m making an assumption here that reducing the clientelism aspect of representative politics at national level is a good thing. And likewise, that enabling the role of TDs as legislators is also a good thing. And that either or both are things we would like to achieve. Is there something we could do with our electoral system to achieve these desired outcomes? Perhaps there is a change we could make? Perhaps we could accept a small risk and retain the STV voting system, which voters value, but combine it with single seat constituencies. I said that and the sky didn’t fall.
This would be a radical move for a country which has never experimented with new election models. It would, in effect, replicate the experience of a parliamentary by-election in each constituency. So really it’s not a radical change. We’re already familiar with it.
Each party would nominate just one candidate for each constituency, thus removing the element of rivalry within the party once the candidate is chosen. It would also make getting elected and re-elected a more manageable process for the sitting TDs. At the same time, the STV aspect would guarantee a good element of representation.
The fact that the overall system would, at the minimum, not damage the prospects of sitting TDs, means there is a chance that reform on this basis might be acceptable as a prospect to those already sitting. One of the realities of life is that no reform of the electoral system can come about unless the existing parliamentarians agree to it – so it is unlikely to be a change which is inimical to their interests. It would also be possible to involve elements of a list system along with STV constituencies by allocating some parliamentary seats to be distributed from lists.
This would help to ensure that the election result would be as close as possible to proportional representation when concluded. The list could be used to ensure that each party’s results approximated on such a model.
Phil Hogan tried this concept on the Fine Gael party before the 2011 general election but it was shot down within the party. Sitting TDs apparently feared that the higher achievers from the list might end up getting all the good jobs while poor, hardworking TDs who went through the election process, would fill the back benches.
Empowering Local Government
But if our objective is to enable TDs to be legislators by relieving them of clientelist pressures, changing the voting system on its own would still not be enough. Voters have to be served. They want and need local office representation of the political system where they can go with their problems – at least for another generation. This is why side by side with change in the way we elect, significant government functions should also be devolved to local government systems. Every county and city has substantial local government administration capacity. Every county has a population of elected county and city councillors. The apparatus is there and capable of doing far more for us than it does currently. In Ireland there has been an inexorable trend, particularly since 1977, towards centralisation of power and function at national level. This would need to be substantially reversed.
More power and more function can be devolved to local authority systems with larger budgets, the power to raise funds independently and to choose the methodology as to how to raise those funds.
The status of councillors should be raised, realistic salaries paid to them and the resources allocated to establish and maintain local offices. All public queries and requests for assistance could go through this council network which would liaise with the TDs in the rare enough occasions when national involvement was required. This frees up the TDs to concentrate on being effective legislators at national level and allows local representatives the space and power to fulfil their own mandates. Yes, the TD would remain exposed to competition from the ambitious and able councillor but their challenge would be to get re-selected as the sole candidate for their party in their area. By changing our electoral systems in this way and by empowering local government it would be possible to have a significant impact on how government is delivered to the people. TDs could become dedicated, informed and skilled legislators without unreasonable danger of losing their career at the next election.
Political assistance and advocacy could be delivered to the general population by dedicated, skilled, local politicians, networking closely and efficiently with empowered local authority administrations. After 95 years of independent living in Ireland, instead of continually complaining about clientelism, we could move to change the systems.
For sure, issues would arise concerning the numbers of TDs, councillors and councils needed to effectively deliver this system, but these are questions for another day.