Electoral reform in the Republic is no panacea against crony capitalism

When a government is in deep trouble, everything is up for grabs, from lynching the leader to electoral reform. In the Republic, Irish Times Political editor Stephen Collins recently used his bully pulpit to call for a wholesale reform of the political system which has bred cronyism and one party rule for most of the State’s existence.

The air of unreality that still pervades Leinster House in the face of the biggest crisis to face the country since the second World War is a commentary on our much vaunted multi-seat PR system… It is a system that has given us one-party domination for the past quarter of a century with the inevitable development of crony capitalism and its disastrous consequences in the housing bubble and banking crisis.

Fine Gael veteran Gemma Hussey enters the fray with a call to abandon multi-member seats for TDs elected by STV ( single transferable vote) and replace them with party lists. Her criticism of the present system is scathing.

We have in Ireland an electoral system, multi-seat proportional representation, which almost ensures that a broad range of the best brains and achievers in the country will never see the inside of Leinster House, much less the Cabinet room. At the same time, we have too many Dáil members… .Ministers have to spend 20 to 30 hours a week attending local functions, holding clinics, going to funerals – they’ll lose their seats if they don’t.

And her way out?

“Our electoral system is almost unique. Most modern democracies of western Europe have some variant of a list system, combined with proportionality. This means that the voter may choose to vote for a party list, which will be written up in the polling booth. Distinguished and/or well-known citizens from a variety of walks of life will have been chosen by their parties to head up their lists. Side by side there are opportunities to vote for individuals too.”

I assume Mrs Hussey is going for open rather than closed lists, where voters are at least made aware in advance of who the candidates are. For the Scottish Parliament, a first-past-the-post vote in the AMS ( additional member) system along with a second vote from a regional list is designed to achieve stable government, with the top-up list to increase regional representation. While a list system on its own, without tying a TD to a particular constituency, might weaken a sense of local obligation, it might also weaken democratic accountability too. And who selects the list? It isn’t clear to me that party lists would reduce cronyism; the danger is that they could do the opposite or at best, produce anonymous, biddable ciphers. Certainly, there’s absolutely no guarantee that party bosses would chose only sea-green incorruptibles.

You would expect this critique from a member of the perennial also-ran party of the State – which is not to conclude that Mrs Hussey is necessarily wrong, only that she is scarred by experience. My own starting point for electoral reform is at the other end, with Enoch Powell’s dictum that any electoral system works if the parties agree to work it. Whatever his well-known faults, this is not a bad starting point for considering it. If consensus over the system has broken down, then we may be in the reform business. Otherwise, the issue is academic. And in any case. it’s no magic bullet.

  • Oiliféar

    No magic bullet, but reform is now seriously (although not entirely likely) on the cards – both for the Senate and the electoral system. A push for a whole new constitution would not be unexpected, I believe. (Would that make it the second, third or first republic?)

    The government has called for reform of the bankers. Not without justification, they say that those responsible for the banking crisis cannot be trusted to solve it. But does it not reek of scapegoating/hypocrisy to you when the Minister for Finance that led us into this mess is the Taoiseach (for now) that will lead us out of it? Reform of government/governance in the Republic is as crucial (if not more so) to solving this problem and making sure it doesn’t happen again as reform of the governance of the banking system.

    PRSTV is, IMO, excellent for local government (where it was first used in Sligo) but the system of clientism that it necessitates among politicians is unsuitable for responsible national government. Yes, there is the question of who decides the list (and maybe a straight list is not the way to go), but saying that there are problems with alternatives is no argument against the problems with the current system.

  • Dave

    It’s not surprising that you have two rabid Europhiles (Gemma Hussey and Stephen Collins) calling for problems to be fixed by addressing a different set of problems rather than the by addressing the causes of the problems that they’re complaining about.

    It’s not surprising because they, as supporters of the transfer of the government’s macroeconomic functions to the EU, must now simply pretend that those macroeconomic functions don’t exist rather than acknowledge that they do exist and continue to have a profound impact on the economy. Since the problem is not macroeconomic mismanagement of the economy at the national level but, rather, macroeconomic mismanagement of the economy by those who now perform those functions at the EU level, these rabid Europhiles simply ignore them.

    In one sense, they can’t be blamed for their narrowed vision since transferring sovereignty over these functions to third parties means that the people have renounced the right they formerly had to determine these policies and practices for themselves, thereby making any such debate redundant.

    Before Ireland joined the Eurozone 1999, its external debt stood at 11 billion punts in 1998 or 7.46% of GDP. 10 years later, its external debt stands at 1.67 trillion or 960.86% of GDP. That is what happened when the Irish Central Bank transferred sovereignty over monetary and macroeconomic policies to the ECB. Membership of the Eurozone has been an unmitigated disaster for Ireland.

    So the monetary system is destroyed but why aren’t these rabid Europhiles holding to account those who governed or monetary system for the last 10 years? As I said, they can’t, so they simply pretend that the most important function of government doesn’t exist.

  • Gemma Hussey’s suggestion merely shifts the goalposts. Now the people select the candidate they want to represent them – under her system, at least partially, their representatives are selected by the party. Given that the list system is employed in countries like Italy, and is apparently open to abuse, it’s introduction in Ireland is no panacea.

    Sure there are problems with the multi seat constituency system but that’s not to say that the list system, even partially implemented, is the solution.

    The missing ingredient is trust and has to be earned by our politicians, Gemma Hussey’s party included.

  • Oiliféar

    Yes, Dave, it was the ECB that piled pressure on to reduce fiscal and regulatory restrictions on the property boom, not the domestic electorate. Can’t we all see how the UK and USA buckled under the ECB’s evils also (not to mention Iceland!)?

    “That is what happened when the Irish Central Bank transferred sovereignty over monetary and macroeconomic policies to the ECB.”

    Yes, Dave, the private sector boomed (94% of external debt) and the national debt fell from near 100% of GDP to a low of 25% (and Ireland’s foreign debt fell to 0%).

  • blinding

    Lets just do a trial run on a few political lynchings and see if this improves the performance of the others and if it fails no real harm done.

  • fair_deal

    The NI Assembly has the same system and its problems with parochialism, is it part of the changes that should be considered in the next review?

  • Greenflag

    Dave ,

    I notice Warren Buffet isn’t blaming the EU . Wonder why ? Do you think he’s in league with the Pope . Seriously you need to recover from your europhobia 😉

    Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Chairman Warren Buffett lambasted bankers, insurers and regulators for being blind to the possibility home prices could fall, and said their shortcomings caused the worst recession in half a century.

    Buffett and Vice Chairman Charles Munger said Wall Street sold subprime mortgage “sewage,” blamed the media and regulators for missing the danger and said the government stress tests of financial firms won’t advance Berkshire’s understanding of the stocks the company owns. Buffett hosted a record 35,000 people at the Omaha, Nebraska-based firm’s annual meeting May 2 and spoke at a news conference yesterday.

    “I think that virtually everybody associated with the financial world contributed to it,” Buffett said of the crisis. “Some of it stemmed from greed, some from stupidity, some from people saying the other guy was doing it.”

  • Greenflag

    Gemma Hussey has a short memory . If it was’nt for Proportional Representation Fianna Fail would have been in government since 1932 i.e longer than the Unionist party in NI (1922 -1972) .

    We have other more pressing problems than electoral reform right now . But our opposition parties appear to be just as headless as our government .

    Lynching the lot of them won’t do any good either . There’s not a government in the western world that did not do as our lot did . We just had a bigger property bust . And we all knew it was going to happen ? didn’t we ;)?

  • Jean Pierre

    The list system was tried in France and was scrapped because of the parties’ control over the candidates listing. The constituencies decided the candidates and head quarters in what order they were elected. François Mitterand used it to rig his party with unthreatening clones just like the Labour party in the UK (and Ireland He! He!) does.

  • Rory Carr

    Hussey’s “radical” call for electoral reform is of course not based upon any concern about reducing or eliminating the ability of the victorious party’s members to climb into bed wearing a crony capitalist negligéé, it is rather a cry of jealousy against the unfairness of a system that discriminates against her political cronies prettying themselves up for the big night.

    As Conchubar pointed out earlier above:

    Now the people select the candidate they want to represent them – under her system, at least partially, their representatives are selected by the party”.

    In the UK, under a first-past-the-post system, no candidate that threatens to represent the interests of labour would be permitted by New Labour centre to stand as a candidate. Indeed no candidate who was not seen as amenable to all the embellishments that crony capitalism has to offer stands a chance, regardless of the wishes of local party members.

    I cannot be persuaded by Dave’s argument that all this striving by career political opportunists to use the political system for their own material gain can solely be laid at the door of EU membership. The brothel may be bigger but the whores are just the same.

  • Hussey is wrong. A list-system removes from the voter the power to remove individual corrupt politicians while retaining support for their respective party of choice. The concept of removing PR altogether (in any form) is unacceptable to me because we have a very bad record in terms of single-party rule, which has come into the public-domain largely through the Moriarty and Flood/Mahon Tribunals. The proliferation of parties since 1987 has meant that for the forseeable future, single-party govt is improbable because of PR-STV. The current controversy over introducing a blasphemy-law points to what is in store for us if we introduce the UK-style electoral-system. As it stands, the Greens can block it if they want.

    There are indeed flaws in the system, most notably the incentive for parochialism on matters pertaining to the health-service, schools, development etc. that can even extend into competition between TDs of the same party. This was especially relevant in how the plan for a new hospital in Meath was shot down (in the opinion of many) when Dermot Ahern in Louth expressed concern at the prospect. The centralisation of hospital services down here into “centres of excellence” has provided much fertile ground for this kind of dissension, which is exacerbated by our electoral-system. But my approach to it is to borrow an express from Churchill by labelling PR-STV as the worst system in the world except for all the others. We should not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

  • dodrade

    List systems are the antithesis of democracy. You might as well cancel the elections and let the party leaders pick the TD’s themselves.

  • Greenflag

    ‘The brothel may be bigger but the whores are just the same.’

    LoL – So even the whores are double jobbing 😉

    I’m reminded of the old joke when a lady of the night importunes a well dressed gentleman on Stephens Green across from the Shelbourne Hotel in pre independence days ;

    ‘I’ll have you know woman that you are addressing the Crown Solicitor for the County Tyrone ‘ said the gent in disdainful tones .

    ‘And I’ll have ye know sor that youse are addressin the half crown solicitor for Stephen’s Green ‘ replied she.

    Morals were always changing and still are . Once upon a time slavery was ‘moral’ as was monarchical tyranny . Heretic burning was a great crowd pleaser in it’s time but has alas been replaced by decapitation amongst the Ayatollahs of the Middle Eastern world . Nowadays robbing people’s retirement savings and pensions is not considered immoral by the law and credit card small print has got to be the best aider and abetter of thievery since the jemmy bar was invented .

    Some of us have however moved on . Alas Mr Roy Gillespie he of the Northern Ireland Ayatollah mindset and ‘revealed’ gospel certainty knows that Catholics go to hell whereas ‘saved’ Protestants don’t . He does not mention the fate of those ‘unsaved’ protestants but it seems clear that there will be no need to wear warm clothing when they leave this mortal coil for their final destination 😉

    Anyway what has all this to do with the Dow Jones which is climbing to- it would appear 8,500 so by my reckoning if you bought in a few weeks back at the nadir 6,500 you should be smiling and sitting on a 30% gain . Some stocks have done a lot better doubling even 🙂 In the midst of all chaos order is slowly restored and opportunity presents itself .

    No end of days just yet -it’s been postponed until 2012 March 17th at closing time 😉 The Lord even if he or she does’nt exist at least should at least have a sense of humour 😉

  • Oiliféar

    “A list-system removes from the voter the power to remove individual corrupt politicians while retaining support for their respective party of choice.”

    And there lies the crux. PR-STV was introduced to Ireland as the ultimate form of democracy. Not only can you vote for a party, not only is it proportionate, not only can you vote by candidate, not only does it represent constituencies, not only is every vote used. No matter where you go after PR-STV you have to remove something that seems intuitive democratic (in the sense that doesn’t just mean “rule of the majority”).

    But there is undoubtedly a problem with it. We know that it necessitate clientism from our politicians.

    “If it was’nt for Proportional Representation Fianna Fail would have been in government since 1932 i.e longer than the Unionist party in NI (1922 -1972) .”

    PR-STV is not the only form of PR, it is not just a choice between PR-STV and first-past-the-post, although some would/will make it out to be just that.

    Fianna Fáil have tried for first-past-the-post before in 1958 and 1968, both times it was defeated by the electorate (only just the first time around).

    Fianna Fáil would undoubtedly be the big/only winner from a first-past-the-post system. Conversely, I believe they would be the biggest losers from a non-constituency based PR system. the Fianna Fáil machine is reliant on clientism. Without it, I believe, without any clear purpose/policy at national level Fianna Fáil would wither (i.e. people vote for the Fianna Fáil man/woman at constituency level, if the system was a parat list, for example, there is no matching Fianna Fáil policy at national level so what would I be voting for?).

  • Brian Walker

    Would we be holding this debate now if it weren’t for the banking collapse and its effects? Ireland is a small State which acquired a few big players who stretched a rudimentary financial system. Didn’t political cronyism play only a bit part? The clientist culture has gone global. How would political reform change it? That seems to me to be the key question reformers need to answer to get on the right track. I’d like to hear the answers.

  • Oiliféar

    “That seems to me to be the key question reformers need to answer to get on the right track.”

    Which question:

    * “Would we be holding this debate now if it weren’t for the banking collapse and its effects?”
    * “Didn’t political cronyism play only a bit part?”
    * “How would political reform change it?”

    “Would we be holding this debate now if it weren’t for the banking collapse and its effects?”

    Crises focus minds. When things are going well, you are unlikely to hear anyone calling for change. It is when things go bad that people start saying things should be different.

    This does not mean that the problems did not exist in the good times, merely that it is not human nature to go changing things in the good times.

    “Didn’t political cronyism play only a bit part?”

    In the global financial crisis? It was certainly not political cronyism in Ireland that caused US banks to over-lend.

    But why are we talking about political cronyism? What has that to do with the system of clientism inherent to the PR-STV electoral system? I see a straw man in your argument.

    “How would political reform change it?”

    Change what? Cronyism? Or clientism?

    First, clientism. Do you really need it explained to you how important it is for Irish TDs to prioritise local affairs? National issues are secondary and you must never be seen to do anything that might upset a local interests. Should you do, you are immediately replaceable with someone else from the same party who will be more than willing to neglect the national interest in favour of the local interest. This makes good local government, it makes very weak national government.

    Now cronyism. Ask youself, what kind of candidate would excel in the kind of electoral environment described above? Might it possibly be that cute hoor that is always making “deals” and is though by everyone to be “on their side” but ultimately has only his own interests at heart? Ask youself too, what kind of person would be most likely to engage in cronyism if put in a position of power?

    Finally, something you don’t mention is the ability to actually govern. PR-STV is a unique system in that it is possible for the electorate to vote out the entire legislature … without changing the political make-up. If you like, you can even vote out an entire party, while at the same time increasing that party’s share in the legislature. Why might they do this? Well, sometimes politicians have to make tough decisions. Unpopular decisions. But maybe, ultimately, the right decision. PR-STV empowers the electorate to punish those that make unpopular decisions while at the same time agreeing that it was the right thing to do. Like clientism, the risk of upsetting the electorate by making tough decisions (such as not reducing stamp duty on housing during a housing boom, maybe?) is too great a chance to take for many Irish politicians … but sure, hey, so long as they are see to represent local interests, their seats are secure, aren’t they?

  • Mack

    Simplest reform, and most democratic to my mind, is to separate the legislature and the executive. The executive should not be selected from the Dail – the Dail should create law only. In separate elections the parties should put forward cabinet teams, the whole nation could then vote for a small number of politicians (selected from the best and brightest of the nation) to decide the make-up of the executive (with obviously the party / parties achieving a majority of the vote or some form of electoral college majority forming the government).

  • kensei

    Mack

    I agree in principle but I’m not necessarily sure the entire Executive to stand. If you look at the US system, one of its advantages is that you elect the President and then he can tap up smart people for various positions. Those people only need confirmed, not elected. I think I’d prefer something like that, it gives more flexibility.

  • D’Hondt

    I cannot find it now but one supporter of reform wanted First Past the Post so that there would be clear winners like when Tony Blair got his massive majority in 1997.
    A shocking omission was that Major’s party got 14 093 007 votes in 1992 and Blair’s got 13 518 167 in 1997.

    Submit the word you see below:

    believe

  • Dave

    “I cannot be persuaded by Dave’s argument that all this striving by career political opportunists to use the political system for their own material gain can solely be laid at the door of EU membership. The brothel may be bigger but the whores are just the same.” – Rory Carr

    That’s an interesting argument, but not the one I put forward.

    My point was the fundamental problems are related to monetary policies and macroeconomic policies that are not within the remit of the national government. Since the argument I was responding to was essentially that the country is de facto bankrupt and so system of government is deemed to have failed and needs to be reformed, then it is not irrelevant to point out that the national government does not govern the economic factors that led to that bankruptcy and, ergo, the system of government that has failed is not national government.

    If, indeed, the national government did govern the system that has failed, then it (via the Central Bank) could have prevented it from failing by the simple expedient of raising interest rates to bring a halt to the rampant borrowing that could only self-terminate in bankruptcy if not stopped. Instead, borrowing was out of control by default and by design since the national government had absolutely no control over it. So the economy overheated to boiling point.

    The problem here, in addition to the transfer of these functions to third parties making them irrelevant to the national debate, is that people are wholly ignorant of what function monetary policy and other macroeconomic policies perform in the economy and of their profound importance to it. Even when those policies were so utterly disastrous to the Irish economy that they caused the external debt to balloon to a massive 1.67 trillion euros from a starting point of just 11 billion punts in just 10 years, there is still no accountability whatsoever for how those who have governed those functions have actually governed them.

    In effect, what you had in Ireland for the last 10 years was an overdraft and not an economy. Folks haven’t quite grasped the meaning of that, but it essentially means that all of that borrowed wealth that drove your economy into prosperity as it flowed into the country will now drive your economy into abject penury as it flows back out of the economy in the form of debt repayment. So, just as you had a great 10 years spending it all, you’ll now have a miserable 30+ years paying it all back. It might have been different if the macroeconomic policies were devised to ensure that the borrowed wealth was used to wealth creation as was the practice of the Irish Central Bank but the policy of the ECB was expansionist monetary policy which held that borrowing money and spending it on the demand-side created wealth instead of simply creating debt.

    At any rate, it really doesn’t matter since the country is bankrupt and will not be able to sustain its pitiful denial beyond another year at the most. There isn’t going to be any economic recovery for Ireland.

  • Dave

    By the way, Rory, the Eurozone is more than just one-size-fits-all policies (akin to snake oil one-medicine-cures-all) idiocy: it is access to capital markets and control by regulatory frameworks, monetary policies, macroeconomics, budgetary restrictions, etc, etc. For example, Europe’s banks became the most over-leveraged banks in the world because the EU’s Capital Requirements Directive not only allowed them to but because the expansionist monetary policy of the ECB required them to. It was the policy that people should borrow vast amounts of money and spend it – hence the setting of a policy rate that promoted the practice. None of America’s major banks has a leverage rating over 20, yet none of Germany’s major banks have a leverage rating under 50.

  • Oiliféar

    Dave, is the role of ensuring responsible leveraging not the responsibility of *national* regulators? Was it not within the competency of *national* governments/regulators to police leverage ratios properly? Did they so?

  • Oiliféar

    “I cannot find it now but one supporter of reform wanted First Past the Post so that there would be clear winners like when Tony Blair got his massive majority in 1997.”

    Well if *one* supporter of reform is such an idiot then logically they all must be.

    Mack,

    I like that too. Or at least I like more out-of-the-box thinking about reform.

    A very simple reform would be to elect the Senate through a party list system. This would have little effect to the overall make-up of the Senate as it is now (in effect it is a party list by proxy), but it would IMHO have a profound impact on the right of the Senate to initiate legislation and the right of Senators to seats at the Cabinet table.

  • Greenflag

    Kensei ,

    ‘one of its advantages is that you elect the President and then he can tap up smart people for various positions.’

    True in theory if you always elect smart Presidents 😉 . On the other hand you could be saddled with an unsmart one who appoints to his executive 150 or so graduates of Messiah College (no I haven’t heard of it either) and puts them in charge of the Justice Dept and destroys America’s reputation around the world etc etc

    Oilifear,

    ‘Should you do, you are immediately replaceable with someone else from the same party who will be more than willing to neglect the national interest in favour of the local interest. This makes good local government, it makes very weak national government.’

    True – and that OIlifear in a nutshell explains at least 1200 years of recent Irish history 😉 No Irish High King ever achieved anything more than a grudging minimal submission from the provincial ‘kings ‘ and so on down the line to the level of tuatha . On the one hand this made it easy for outside ‘conquerors ‘ (Vikings , Normans , English ) to invade and take over parts of the country but it also made it virtually impossible for any of them to finish the job . There was no single leader to finish it with.:)?

    If I believed that any amount of electoral reform of either the Dail or Senate would have prevented this ‘crisis ‘ I’d be all for it 😉

    I can’t imagine Sean Lemass ever letting the country spend itself into perdition .

    BTW

    As a lot of this debt is based on inflated assets which have now lost much of their value does this not represent an usurous transfer of ‘wealth’ from borrowers to lenders ? Why not tell the lenders to go feck off on a crusade or something ? The Bible recommends the forgiveness of all debts after seven years . Perhaps it’s time to go back to the literal teachings of Paisley’s tome ;)?

  • Italy has never had STV. It uses both lists and single-member constituencies.

    And it’s absolutely riddled with crony-capitalism. Much worse than anything on this island.

  • blinding

    I am happy enough with the voting system but would like all constituencies to be of the 3 seat variety.

    I believe that it keeps all political parties on its toes and the political representatives.

  • The issue isn’t the voting system. It’s the fact that ministers are also members of the legislature.