THE URGENT NEED TO REFORM OUR ELECTORAL SYSTEM

  

THE URGENT NEED TO REFORM OUR ELECTORAL SYSTEM

Dr Brendan Halligan, Chair Institute of European Affairs, former member of Dáil and Seanad, former General Secretary Labour Party

 

There are a number of questions we need to ask ourselves if we are to have a real debate about reforming the electoral system.  For a start, we could ask how we wound up with the Single Transferable Vote when twenty-three of the twenty-seven member states of the EU use some form of the list system in parliamentary elections?   Why is Malta the only other country in the world to use STV?  Why are we an odd man out?  Then we could go on and ask what sort of debate did we have on the merits of the different forms of PR and why did we choose this version above all others?  Have we subsequently analysed the effects of STV on the political system and examined it for any systemic defects that might result in our political system being “not fit for purpose”?

How did we wind up in this economic mess with only four former fascist countries to keep us company?  It could be said that Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal are to be excused for failing to manage their economies properly because they are still in the process of building a modern state: in the case of  Greece they have just begun.   But we don’t have that sort of excuse to hand.  After all, we have been building a state for ninety years, a period uninterrupted by war, revolution or dictatorship.  So what makes us different from the other members of the monetary union? Our failure, after all, has been spectacular.  You could say it has been almost biblical in its proportions.  Anglo-Irish Bank, if we need reminding, is one of the biggest banking failures in history, the collapse of our public finances one of the most dramatic ever and the drop in property prices among the steepest on record.  The fall in living standards has been one of the most precipitous in modern economic

history. The blunt truth is that we are a failed state which is being kept going through the charity of friends. I believe the root cause of the failure is the electoral system on which the political system as a whole is based. It is being put under the spotlight here in this session under the title of “The Urgent Need to Reform our Electoral System”.

By way of context, the Summer School brochure makes reference to public representatives working in an unhealthy political culture of clientelism with an over concentration on local issues and individual needs at the expense of the common good.  Indeed they do.  If the electoral system is allowed to go unreformed it will lead inexorably to a crisis in our political system for people will not consent forever to be governed by a state which fails to protect their welfare.  The social contract between the governing and the governed is based everywhere on the ability of the state to protect its citizens.  Cicero put it exactly when he said the first duty, or overriding responsibility, or Supreme Law, is the welfare of the people.

“Salus populi suprema lex esto”

When that contract is broken then retribution is swift, as we saw in the last election. But were it to be broken again, this time by the only other combination of democratic political forces on offer, then there is no knowing how the people would react.

If the various crises facing Irish society are listed – a banking and financial system in ruins, the public finances in melt down, a health system that doesn’t work, infrastructure that is grossly inadequate, organised crime and rampant criminality – then it can hardly be contested that the state is confronting a first order crisis in terms of its legitimacy.  We are facing such a crisis.  While there are many causes, the poor quality of the public service and regulatory agencies being the most serious, it is inescapable that the low calibre of the membership of the Oireachtas, and hence of the Government, and the failure of the Oireachtas to function as a legislative and deliberative body was at the core of the current crisis.

The electoral system is the root cause. It produces the parliamentarians.  The parliamentarians produce the government.  That neither was up to the primary task of safeguarding the common good is self evident.

How then, did we place ourselves in such danger?   This is the question which the Summer School organisers have asked me to address.  The answer, surely, is that we have not done enough thinking about the way we govern ourselves and have carried on mindlessly with the political system we inherited at the foundation of the State.  This is particularly true of the electoral system, but not exclusively so, as we will see later.

For a start, and to answer some of the questions posed at the beginning, proportional representation was adopted by the infant Irish State, partly at the behest of the British, as a means of assuring Unionists that they would be given an appropriate role in an independent Ireland and that their political interests would be protected and respected.

Arthur Griffith was obviously a central figure in this process.  He had been a founder member of the Electoral Reform Society here in Ireland, which agitated for the replacement of the “first past the post” system by one based on proportional representation.  He persuaded de Valera to make a public commitment to the Unionists to introduce PR when Ireland became independent, a commitment de Valera gave when addressing the 1919 Ard Fheis as President of Sinn Féin.  On the very same day he signed the Treaty in London, Griffith met representatives of the Southern Unionists and repeated that assurance, which he regarded as a matter of honour and that is how PR became enshrined in the constitution of the Irish Free State.

But there is a twist in the story, however, because there was no debate as to which form of PR should be used since it was assumed that the Single Transferable Vote and PR were synonymous, which they are not, and this error has proven to be fatal for us.  The reason for this error belongs more to British than to Irish history because the Single Transferable Vote was invented by an Englishman, Thomas Hare, as a means of increasing voter choice in the single member constituency but it became mistakenly confused in the public mind with PR. Yet the difference between the two systems is obvious enough. From the perspective of the elector, Proportional Representation is a choice between political parties whereas the Single Transferable Vote is a choice between candidates.

It is clear now in Britain, as the Royal Commission on Electoral Systems reported, that STV is not a form of PR at all but is a preferential vote, an insight that has yet to cross the Irish Sea.  In fact, Hare saw it as a means of weakening, if not destroying, political parties.  He was right, of course.

Many critics at the time, such as James Creed Meredith (also a member of the Electoral Reform Society) and John Commons, pointed out in well written, but largely ignored books that STV was not a form of PR but a British electoral system designed to meet their peculiar constitutional requirements regarding parliamentary representation.  Meredith, explained in 1913 that “The system is of English manufacture, having been invented by Mr. Hare and supported by John Stuart Mill, and it is largely on this ground that it is preferred in England”.

This viewpoint had originally been expressed in 1907 by John Commons in his book Proportional Representation in which he said “The STV has become the classical form of PR from the great ability with which it was presented by its author, Mr. Thomas Hare, and advocated by John Stuart Mill”.

But for Griffith, STV was Proportional Representation and none of his colleagues questioned this belief.  In fact, they all subscribed to it; hence STV appeared in the Free State Constitution without any real debate, but at least that constitution had the merit of simply referring to Proportional Representation as the electoral system to be used, leaving it to the Oireachtas to choose by way of legislation which form was to be used.  They chose STV without much reflection.

Bunreacht na h-Éireann, on the other hand, is unfortunately more prescriptive in that it refers to the election of members of the Dáil “on the system of proportional representation by means of the single transferable vote”.  As a result, our electoral system can only be changed by way of referendum, which Fianna Fáil tried to do unsuccessfully in 1957 and 1968 when they attempted to re-introduce the straight vote.  There was no real debate in either referendum campaign as both Fine Gael and Labour saw it as an issue of political life and death and didn’t engage in the niceties of academic discourse. In 1968 Labour, for example, campaigned on the slogan “The Straight Vote is Crooked”, which it is.

That brief résumé answers the question as to how we chose STV as our electoral system and as to what sort of debate we have had on alternative voting systems.  STV’s adoption was the accidental product of history and the debate on its merits has been virtually non-existent. So we have wound up being one of four EU member states not using the List System to elect members of Parliament.  Apart from Malta, the others are UK and France which both use single seat constituencies with MPs elected on the majoritarian principle, a system which, paradoxically, has become a de facto list system, making us even more exceptional.  Being exceptional is something to be worried about.

As to the other question regarding systematic analysis of the effects of STV on the political system, the answer has to be, not a lot.  But one body which has debated the issue is, interestingly, the Irish Parliamentary (Former Members) Association which held a one day seminar on the “Reform of the Electoral System” on 21 January 2010, the ninety first anniversary of the First Dáil, which I addressed along with Noel Dempsey.

Here’s a summary of what I said about the systemic defects of STV and it partly answers the question of what is required of an electoral system if the political system is to function optimally. One of the first requirements is that it should be instrumental in ensuring a functioning, effective, and professional legislature as well as a representative assembly. To my mind, parliament is core to the democratic system and the electoral system must, as a primary requirement, produce competent parliamentarians.

But because of the growing complexity of political life the job description of the parliamentarian is being expanded into that of policy originator and public investigator, as well as that of legislator and a representative of the people.  What we find elsewhere are professional parliamentarians, as distinct from professional politicians, with the time and talent to make parliament work as a national institution, particularly in dealing with economic policy. For that to happen there must be a committee system where the focus is on the affairs of society as a whole.  And for that to happen we need parliamentarians with the time and the talent to work the committees.

Does STV lead to the election of such parliamentarians?  Or does it lead predominantly to the return of politicians whose focus in on their own patch and whose primary preoccupation is to get re-elected?  I think the answer is obvious and that the election of professional parliamentarians is an accidental by-product of STV.  Under STV the primary requirement of a good candidate is electability and having the potential to be an effective parliamentarian matters little to either the electorate or the party apparatus.  It is not a selling point. 

This culture obviously has a negative effect on the supply of talent within the Dáil.  But having been elected, the deputy is subject to what I call “tyranny of the constant campaign” because in a multi-member constituency the competition for votes is continuous, time consuming and exhausting and essentially consists of what Professor Basil Chubb called badgering civil servants on behalf of constituents.  Badgering civil servants is unavoidable because of the two factors. Firstly, in multi-member constituencies competition for votes mainly takes the form of looking after individual constituents, nowadays by running highly organised “clinics”.

Secondly, STV is a person-centred system and, as a consequence, the link between the deputy and the constituent is direct and personal.  By and large, it stands or falls on services rendered by the deputy to the constituent. That concentrates the mind of the deputy.  This form of continuous activity comes at a cost, of course.

Here we can apply a little economic analysis to prove what should be two self-evident truths:  STV largely results in the wrong sort of parliamentarian being elected and, even when the right sort is elected, largely results in them doing the wrong sort of work.

Electing the wrong sort of parliamentarian results from what Dan O’Brien called “choice architecture”, a concept developed by behavioral economists.  He argued recently in the Irish Times that the choice architecture of our electoral system means that voters tend to opt for candidates who deliver for the locality but neglect their duties at the helm of the ship of State.  This is an incentive, he said, to vote for those who work only to deliver short-term gains for the locality rather than long-term gains for the nation.  He concluded by saying that the choice architecture of many continental systems of proportional representation put better options to the elector.  Indeed they do, and they do so through the List System.

The other piece of economic analysis is that of opportunity cost, which in this case is expressed in the simple proposition that you cannot do two things at the same time:  if parliamentarians are looking after constituents then they not looking after parliament, and not attending their committees.

It is well known that in contrast with other parliaments, the Oireachtas has a weak committee system.  It is less well known that it came late to the establishment of committees and is still struggling to incorporate them into the way it does its work.  STV reinforces this inherited weakness because of the competition for the member’s time between the committee room and the constituency clinic, in which the clinic always wins. This is a tragedy because in committee, draft legislation is generally subject to detailed scrutiny and amendment or, at least, it should be, but it can neither be scrutinised nor amended unless the parliamentarian has the time and the talent to do both.

Furthermore, it is at this stage in the legislative process that ministers and civil servants are not only most accessible to the parliamentarian but also most open to cross-examination in public on the purpose and content of the proposed legislation or the effects of policy.  Again, if parliamentarians have neither the time nor the talent for this specialist activity, then ministers and civil servants will not be held accountable to the extent they should be, nor will the political process be as transparent as it could be.

Human nature dictates that ministers and civil servants like docile committees.  The more preoccupied the parliamentarian with constituency work, the more docile the parliamentarian within the committee, presuming he or she turns up, the happier the ministers and civil servants.  While the civil service and the government are the winners, accountability is the most obvious loser. But a less obvious consequence is the failure of parliament to perform two other fundamental tasks, that of making an input into the formulation of national policy and of scruitinising the implementation of policy and, by times, carrying out investigations into issues of public concern, say with regard to the banking crisis.

In an age when people demand to be heard, and take consultation as a right, parliamentary committees can play an indispensable role in linking the parliament with the electorate.  It’s obvious that if the relationship is to flourish the parliament needs a vibrant committee system and that, in turn, demands parliamentarians who can give it the time and the attention it takes to make the committees work properly.  Unfortunately, STV acts as an obstacle to efficient committee work and I think it highly ironic that those who praise it for the direct contact it produces between the deputy and the constituent, mainly as a client, do not condemn it for the lack of contact between the same deputy and the citizen, mainly in the guise of a participant in the democratic process. I have no doubt as to which role should be given priority: the citizen should take precedence over the client

I added another obvious defect in my presentation to the Former Members Association: that of the quality of the government.  Given that we adopted the Westminster parliamentary model of government in which cabinet members are chosen from the members of the Dáil, then the quality of those elected under STV determines the quality of those chosen by An Taoiseach to be appointed as Ministers.  This reality highlights the direct causal relationship between the electoral system and the quality of government.  It is purely by accident that we get deputies who are both good vote getters at constituency level and good government ministers at cabinet level.  The supply of good ministers is reduced even further by the exclusion of members of the opposition – usually half the number of deputies – and by the requirement that the geographic spread of ministers should be equitable, a lethal consequence of the localism inherent in STV.  Quality and geography are at odds.

It is no wonder that we have poor quality government, and poor quality public service as a direct by-product.  The parliament fails to act as watchdog and guardian of the public interest and, the government fails to act as it should in protecting the public interest and demanding the highest possible standards from the public service. The “Peter Principle” is given full rein, with predictable results. I believe it indisputable that the root cause of this malaise is an electoral system that reinforces the clientelist nature of Irish politics, elevates the parochial over the national, enfeebles both the Dáil and the Government, rewards the worst aspects of political life and penalises the best.  The political system suffers and society pays the price.

The events of 2010, with the arrival of the ECB, European Commission and IMF as our economic guardians and protectors, was proof positive that Irish governments up to that point were no longer equipped for the tasks of managing the economy and protecting society. It was a doleful conclusion, but a true one. This is not to exonerate other elements of the political system.  The restriction of government membership to members of the Dáil (bar a little used constitutional device to include a maximum of two Senators) is clearly an issue for debate. So too the role and powers of the Senate and local authorities, as well as the part played by courts and the judiciary in the constitutional order, and, dare I add, the role of the media in shaping the quality and determining the tone of what passes as public debate. They all play a part in determining the political system as a whole but it is a sound principle of organisational reform to look for the core element or characteristic which sets the culture of an organisation and influences the efficacy of all other units in the system.

Another way of saying this is that good diagnosis is central to proper prescription.  In my view, good diagnosis would point to the electoral system as the source of the poison within the political system.  This is not a universal view, I know.  An Irish Times editorial of 18 February last year, which was devoted to the topic of changing the voting system, defended what it called “PR-STV”, the hyphenation being symbolic of the confusion about the real nature of STV.  It accepted that it required TDs to expend “considerable energy cultivating their constituencies”.  This was not a bad thing in itself.  Voters were given a real sense of connection to, and ownership of, their representatives, it said, while TDs and ministers were given “a real personal knowledge of their constituents’ lives, making them real representatives of the people”. And it deprecated a list system which would pass the choice of candidates from the voter to the party bosses. That, I think fairly represents the battle lines of the debate ahead.  So let me say a final word in defence of political parties.

Political parties are the life blood of politics.  They are the bedrock on which the political system rests.  They organise and institutionalise political differences so that discourse can be conducted in accordance with civilised norms.  By channeling debate within themselves, and between each other, they moderate public feelings and ease political passions.  The debates on Northern policy in the early seventies were a graphic example of the value of political parties within the public order.  So is the current crisis in so far as the three main parties are concerned.

But the STV system of election is predicated on the proposition that parties are secondary to the candidate.  Furthermore, the constitution doesn’t recognise them at all. Now these are dangerous flights from reality because, while parties are so much part of the political reality that we take them for granted, our electoral system is based on an alternative reality in which parties don’t exist at all. In contrast, twenty-three of the twenty-seven Member States of the EU using the list system of Proportional Representation have grounded their politics in reality that parties exist.  We have not.

Experience shows that list systems of whatever variety produce parliaments and provide governments which are more up to the tasks set by their electorates than ours.  Common sense tells us that our parliament is not up to the task of running the country, not because of the moral failings of individual politicians but because history dealt us a bad hand. Nobody chose STV as the best electoral system having carefully evaluated all others.  It was bequeathed to us by an accident and it has turned out to be the worst of all possible systems for our country, given the localist and clientelist nature of our politics.  If these propositions are true then the conclusions to be drawn are chilling, for the way in which we govern ourselves is the central issue for any polity.

Barbara Tuchman in her seminal contribution to the study of history said that what we humans do worst is what we should do best, that is govern ourselves.  She concluded from observation that there was in inbuilt tendency for humans to do the opposite of what their intelligence was telling them they should do.  She called this the “March to Folly”. She said there were three requirements for any course of action to merit condemnation as folly leading to ruin. First, there must be alternative courses of action on offer.  Second, they must be known.  Third, there must be public warnings about choosing the wrong option.  We fulfill all three requirements.  By continuing with STV, we are marching purposefully towards the political ruin she describes as folly.  Alternative electoral systems exist.  We know what they are, and we hear the public warnings about the defects of STV.  Yet we march on.

The forthcoming Constitutional Convention is an opportunity to halt the onward “March to Folly”.  I suggest a modern day equivalent of Griffith’s Electoral Reform Society be formed.  I propose that those who believe the country is imperiled by the electoral system should campaign for the replacement of STV by a real form of PR and so undo the legacy bequeathed to us by chance and replace it with a a future based on choice.  This is a once off opportunity to reverse history.

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