by Frank Schnittger
Tue Mar 8th, 2011 at 01:16:19 PM EST
Politics is often used as a bit of a dirty word: as a synonym for corruption, inefficiency, favouritism, cronyism and an offence to objectivity and merit. Those who criticise "politics" frequently do so from a technocratic, meritocratic or authoritarian perspective: Life would be so much better if people simply did what they are told; took their lead from the "experts"; or recognised the superior wisdom, knowledge and qualifications of specialists in a particular field. Frequently the critics simply assume they know better than "the powers that be" - always a good line for populist applause - but no guarantee that they would do any better if they did manage to get their hands on the levers of power.
Of course politics is often done badly, incompetently or corruptly; and then other methods of decision making could lead to more optimal outcomes. You can, for example, be utterly contemptuous of the Irish people's decision to replace an incompetent and deluded Fianna Fail Government with a Fine Gael led Government not necessarily any better in either ideology or competence.
But I want to write a paean of praise for the process by which that change was accomplished.
All societies are in drastic need of change from time to time: the examples of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya come readily to mind. All systems of Governance must contain the mechanisms for their own update and reform. Indeed there have been many calls and proposals for the reform of Irish political institutions including the abolition of the Senate, the replacement of our single transferable vote electoral system with a German style list system, and the introduction of more outside "technocrats" into the Governmental process at cabinet level.
However, if you don't understand how your polity works, you are likely to make some very ill-advised decisions on reforming it. I want to write an essay on why I think the current Irish governmental systems are as good as most, and quite possibly better than many of the proposals for their reform.
Ireland has been going through an incredibly traumatic process of impoverishment. Almost everyone has been directly effected by losing their job, finding themselves in negative equity and unable to move to find another job, in mortgage arrears, or effected by swinging increases in taxes, charges, interest rates or reductions in pay. Many families have been effected by emigration or by increased rates of crime, suicide, self harm, depression and stress related illnesses.
In many countries such a dramatic change would have resulted in riots in the street or threats of revolution. In An infrastructure of dissent I listed 15 factors which may have contributed to such apparent passivity. However another more positive factor may also be that we have a political system which functions relatively well at a number of levels:
- People have been "waiting in the long grass" to deal a decisive blow to the Fianna Fail party widely held to have been largely responsible for the disaster. The election just past has been long flagged and afforded people an opportunity to do so, and may have averted a more disorderly change process.
- In the single transferable vote system, people vote for candidates, not parties. Because the constituencies are relatively small, most electors will have met at least some of the candidates personally, or know of them at one remove. Politics is often therefore personal, with many of the tensions inherent in any change or governmental process mediated at a personal level.
- There is huge popular involvement in the electoral process. Turnout was 70% despite the fact that the maintenance of the electoral register leaves something to be desired, and people living/working away from home may have difficulty in voting - including many who have recently emigrated. Media coverage was wall to wall, and many thousands are involved as party activists, scrutineers, tallymen, vote counters and election officers.
- Whatever bile may be directed at the outgoing government is therefore mediated through personal relationships, through the very public humiliation of those defeated, and through the great dignity and magnanimity traditionally shown by victors and losers alike. What goes round generally comes around. Be nice to those you meet on the way up as you will often meet them on the way down again.
The most common criticism levelled at the Irish STV multi-seat electoral system is that it leads to "clientalism". TD's (Members of Parliament) are expected to be available to their constituents 24/7 to hear their concerns or deal with their personal problems with the state bureaucracy. Many, of course, employ staff to deal with most of the personal stuff.
But the argument is that this results in the system favouring local "parish pump" politics and politicians who are frequently teachers, solicitors, publicans, auctioneers or retired sports stars who have good people skills and local name recognition - to the exclusion of good legislators, political scientists, or experts in policy development and the running of large organisations.
A German style party list system, it is argued, would enable more technocratic experts and policy developers to be elected. But at what cost? Firstly the very personal link between many voters and their representatives would be lost. Over time, people wouldn't even know who their elected representatives are. Moreover, some outstanding politicians have managed to prosper without being assiduous funeral attenders, and what is to prevent the open clientalism of local politics being replaced by the internecine factionalism in the smoke filled back rooms of party politics?
And are we not confusing the representative role of a Parliamentarian with the technocratic role of senior civil servants? It is at the very least arguable that the very poor decision making of the past Government had as much to do with the poor quality of the policy advice they received from the civil service as it had with the process by which they were elected.
If the present crisis has had any silver linings, it has at the very least forced the public at large to take a very active interest in the policy issues facing the country because they were directly responsible for electing the personnel who will make up the next government. People in Ireland generally probably know more about senior bondholders and subordinated debt than any others on the planet. And the STV system has also given us a reasonable choice: 5 parties with more or less distinct policy platforms and quite an interesting and diverse group of independents.
So when it comes to political reform in Ireland, I am quite conservative. Our present political system has discharged its primary representative function quite well: It has allowed the bitterness of a civil war to subside and ensured the disappearance of the physical force tradition from politics. It has evolved and changed to meet changed public priorities. Where leadership has been lacking, there is little evidence that it would have been any better under any other system. You get who you elect.
And so I will not join the hysteria demanding the abolition of the Senate as a sort of collective punishment for the failings of the political class. The costs saved are minuscule compared to the administrative overhead of the the state as a whole, and any large organisation needs forums for discussing policy options. If anything, the Senate has fulfilled that function better than the main chamber, the Dail. By all means reform the manner in which it is elected, and perhaps use a national list system there to further the advancement of more policy driven legislators at that level.
But to argue that it is the STV system or the Senate which have been responsible for the policy failures of the last few years has very little real basis in fact. It may suit the political and administrative elite to be less directly accountable to the electorate, but it does nothing to enhance democracy or the process of non-violent change which is the essence of good politics.