08 August 2009

Undermining the individual in Irish politics

On Wednesday of last week the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland issued new guidelines in advance of the Lisbon II Referendum on how the media have to cover the campaign. In stark contrast to Lisbon I, the BCI have decided that broadcasters do not need to give equal airtime to both sides of the campaign, only to those political parties involved in the campaign, stating that:
"Firstly, the guidelines clarify that there is no requirement to allocate an absolute equality of airtime to opposing sides of the Referendum debate during editorial coverage. The guidelines require broadcasters to ensure that the proportion of airtime allocated to opposing sides must be fair to all interests and undertaken in a transparent manner. Secondly, the guidelines clarify the requirement to ensure that the total time allocated to political party broadcasts will result in equal airtime being afforded to parties that support the Referendum proposals and those that oppose them. While broadcasters are under no obligation to carry political party broadcasts, those that do must comply with the guidelines."
Since the Green Party Special Convention last month, only four recognized political parties, Sinn Fein, the Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers Party/People Before Profit Alliance and what's left of the Workers Party have announced they are to oppose the Treaty, none of whom save Sinn Fein have the resources to effectively produce compelling Party Political Broadcasts.

In the 2007 General Election Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Labour, the PDs and the Greens received between them 86.4% of the 1st preference votes, and in the June 2009 Local elections they (less the PDs) received 75% of the 1st% preference vote. Yet between those two votes in the Lisbon I Referendum 53.4% of the electorate voted against the Reform Treaty, showing a substantial difference between people's support for the major parties, and their levels of agreement with the stated positions of those parties on a specific issue.

However despite 53.4% of the citizenry opposing the Lisbon Reform Treaty, in the wake of this week's BCI decision it is highly unlikely that 53.4% of the airtime will be given to the No campaign, as editorial coverage will be skewered in favour of the major political parties, and political broadcasts will only be produced by those parties with the resources to do so, all of whom save Sinn Fein support the Treaty. Furthermore although Sinn Fein are the only party likely to receive airtime on the No side, as they represent only 7.4% of the national vote they cannot be said to speak for the 53.4% of the electorate who voted No to Lisbon I, and thus they will most likely do more harm than good to the No campaign this time round, alienating moderate voters who would not want their No vote to be seen as a pro-Sinn Fein vote.

Two issues concern me here, the first is that in a representative democracy our elected officials should seek to represent the wishes of their constituents. They are not there to tell the citizenry what to do, they are elected to represent the wishes and concerns of the citizenry when decisions are being made on our behalf. The fact that there is such a disparity between the wishes of the people and the recent actions of those elected to represent them should be setting off alarm bells in the minds of every voter, regardless of their own position on the Lisbon II Treaty.

The second issue is on the BCI decision when seen as part of a move by the State to counter the rise of the individual in Irish politics. In the June 2009 Local Elections 18% of the total first preference vote was for independent candidates, or for those from statistically insignificant parties, resulting in 15% of the elected councilors nationwide now being from outside of mainstream party politics. This was a considerable increase over the 6.6% share of the first preference vote in the 2007 general election, and over the 13.4% of 1st preference votes in the 2004 local elections. While the success of non-party candidates can be attributed largely to the voter backlash against unpopular government actions, the size of this success could never have occurred were it not for our PR electoral system.

The use of the Proportional Representation, Single Transferable Vote system (PR-STV) in Ireland is almost unique, with only Malta and (with modifications) Australia using it to any degree. With it comes a strong focus on the merits of the individual being elected rather than the policies of the party they belong to, which is why voters are often offered a free choice of multiple candidates by the same political party, and why these candidates are often defeated by someone unaffiliated with any party. According to Richard Sinnott in 'Politics in the Republic of Ireland':
"The primary focus of PR-STV is on the choice of individual representatives. Indeed, the originators of PR-STV in Britain were highly critical of political parties and of the role they played... Reservations about the role of parties were also quite widespread in Ireland when PR-STV was adopted, and the party affiliation of candidates was not listed on ballot papers until 1965." p.106
While in many areas familial ties have dominated local politics and allowed the dynastic selection of candidates, in general the PR-STV system has still allowed ample opportunity for individuals outside the Party system, with little or no financial backing, to be elected either at a local, national or even European level and represent their constituents on issues normally outside the scope of the national political system.

Although he later tried to abolish PR-STV, its originator De Valera enshrined the rights of the individual to have their voice heard both through the PR-STV system and through the use of Referenda in the 1937 Constitution. As Bill Kissane outlines in 'Explaining Irish Democracy':
"Indeed De Valera, 'the maker of the modern Irish polity in its mature form', left behind him a constitution that has proven remarkably adept at protecting the public from the despotism of elected majorities, Firstly, De Valera argued that fundamental rights could not 'be changed by the Dail except by a specified majority or approval by the people by way of referendum' and ensured that the constitution could no longer be amended by ordinary statute law. Secondly the 1937 constitution prescribed not just the principles of PR but the STV system. When asked why the clause did not allow for a more flexible choice, De Valera replied that electoral arrangements were too fundamental to be left to the mercies of party politics" p.215
PR-STV does not serve the will of the political parties though, and twice Fianna Fail have attempted to abolish it by Referendum, once in 1959 as De Valera prepared to retire, (rejected 3rd Amendment on Article 16, To replace proportional representation by plurality system, defeated by 51.8% to 48.2% with a 58.4% turnout), and again more resoundingly nine years later in 1968 (rejected 4th Amendment on Article 16, To replace proportional representation by plurality system, defeated by 60.8% to 39.2% with a 65.8% turnout). While Fianna Fail's motivation was to establish a 'first past the post system' and ensure a future of majority governments for them, the defeat of this move also preserved the ability of the individual to participate at all levels of politics in Ireland outside the party political system.

At the recent Green Special Conference both Minister John Gormley and Senator Dan Boyle expressed interest in examining a move away from PR-STV and towards a list system. In his role as Minister for Local Government, Gormley wants to end the overlap of local representation between TDs and local councilors, believing that too much of a TD's time is spent involving themselves in purely local issues that by rights should fall under the brief of a local councilor. His move towards a directly elected mayor for Dublin and a strengthened city council is part of this program, another would be on the national side with a move away from directly elected TDs and towards a German style list system. In Gormley's proposal Ireland would be considered a single consistency and people would vote for their desired party in national elections, with TDs being allocated to parties on the basis of the total national % of votes for that party. Under a list system the ability of an individual to be elected outside the party system is almost non-existent, and popular parties could ensure that their own leadership continues to stay in power without any checks or oversight of those individual politicians by the citizenry.

If an election were held today the Greens would fail to have any TDs returned under PR-STV, whereas with 2.3% of the vote (their share of the national vote in June's local elections) under a list system they would be allocated 4 TDs under the current Dail numbers of 166 TDs, or 3 under their proposed reduction of Dail deputies to 130. While Fianna Fail wanted to abolish PR-STV to guarantee their continued dominance, it seems the Greens want to do it just to stay alive. At this stage it is just a discussion point, no formal legislation is in the works, and while I agree with the need to increase local democracy I do not agree with using it as a justification to remove PR-STV.

In 1959 Fianna Fail masked their motivations behind the doublespeak argument that PR-STV was undemocratic, robbing the electorate of a clear choice between two competing ideas for government, and leaving the formation of government as a form of haggling and bargaining between too many competing parties and not in the hands of the electorate. It would appear that fifty years later the Greens would adopt a similar approach arguing that to make democracy work at a local level we must remove the local from the national, and leave national government in the hands of the parties unburdened by a reliance on the wishes of individual constituents.

Signs of Government support for a move to a List System on the heels of the BCI decision to enable the exclusion of individuals from outside the political party system from national debates, is a worrying and undemocratic trend. While I myself am currently a member of a political party this is a personal decision, and one shouldn't be forced into the narrow straight-jacket of party membership to participate in national or local politics. We are a small nation, and as such the opportunities for real and meaningful participatory democracy are so much greater than are currently being realised.

One can only hope that in light of the events of the past eighteen months, when the actions of the Government have been so contrary to the expressed will of the people, that the general and widespread realistion will occur that true power should remain directly in the hands of the people, and that the people themselves will passionately resist any action taken to remove it.

Links
Explaining Irish Democracy - Bill Kissane
Politics in the Republic of Ireland - J. Coakley, M. Galagher eds.

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