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12 August 1999 Edition

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Real reform or Fianna Fáil stroke?

Reading Dempsey's game

In his recent comments, Noel Dempsey called for 90 TDs from single-seaters and 30 from the list. Under present voting trends this would give a whopping majority to Fianna Fáil.

The Fianna Fáil Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Noel Dempsey, has called for the scrapping of the current Dáil electoral system in the 26 Counties and its replacement with a new system and a reduced number of TDs. This is not the first time Noel Dempsey has made such a call but this time he has received more favourable comment than previously and what once looked like a solo run now has some serious players coming in to pick up the ball.
It was reported last weekend that Bertie Ahern supports electoral reform but that he favours single-seat PR with no list. This would be even less democratic than Dempsey's proposal and would gerrymander Fianna Fáil into permanant government

So what is Noel Dempsey's game?

The Meath TD argues that the current system of electing members to the Dáil encourages clientelism. He points out that TDs spend most of their time looking after the representations of individual constituents and chasing up local authorities, government departments and other agencies on their behalf. Duplication results, with civil servants having to deal with the same individual case as presented by several TDs. This, Dempsey argues, is not the job of TDs who were elected to formulate policy and to legislate for the needs of the country as a whole. So far so good. No-one familiar with the Irish political system could disagree with that.

It is at this point that Minister Dempsey's arguments begin to go awry. Dempsey argues that the present system whereby TDs are elected in multi-seat constituencies creates intense rivalry among TDs and aspiring TDs both within and between political parties. He says that this fuels the clientelist system as TDs try to outbid each other in catering to ever-growing numbers of constituents.

There is no doubt that competition between elected representatives is a key factor in creating the clientelist system. But there are other equally, if not more important factors. The 26-County State is the most centralised in Europe. Public administration is distant from the people. Local government has very little power. We have a very complicated bureaucracy with nearly all government departments concentrated in Dublin and all kinds of regional and local bodies. The TD has become like a one-stop shop or the citizen's quickest route through the maze of bureaucracy. Many argue this is good as the TD is closer and more accountable to his or her constituents in this State in comparison to larger states with different electoral systems.

Dempsey argues that this catering to individual constituents should be the job of local councillors. Again, this statement is valid. But local councillors can only perform such a function if the local authorities of which they are members are given real powers and responsibilities, far beyond what they have at present. Yet as Minister for Environment and Local Government, Noel Dempsey has failed to bring forward the promised widespread reform of local government. The June 1999 local government elections were postponed from 1998 supposedly to allow such refom to be brought in. It didn't happen.

Of course the real motivation for the postponement was to allow Fianna Fáil another year to prepare itself for the election. A similar selfish party motive is indicated in Dempsey's proposed electoral changes.

What are those proposed changes?

A study was published in 1998 entitled A New Electoral System for Ireland? by Michael Laver of Trinity College Dublin, in association with the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution which is itself due to report on this matter later this year. The alternative elaborated on by Laver is the Additional Member System (AMS). Under AMS one portion of TDs would be elected in single-seat constituencies and the other portion from a party list. Parties who fail to win the number of constituency seats to which their proportion of the vote entitles them then have the deficit made up by nominees from their lists. Lists can be on either a regional or state-wide basis.

Dempsey argues that this would rule out the debilitating rivalry between sitting TDs of the same party who share a constituency. This is an advantage which would be almost exclusive to Fianna Fáil. But there are even more attractions for the `Party of Government'. Laver has produced a hypothetical seat distribution under AMS based on the 1997 voting figures. The results are very interesting. Fianna Fáil would win virtually all the seats in the single-seat constituencies.

Under AMS there is generally a threshold - a minimum percentage of the vote which parties must achieve to have members elected from the list. Laver recommends 2 per cent as the fairest and this would have resulted in 1997 in five seats each for Sinn Féin, the Greens and Democratic Left and nine for the PDs. FF/PD would have been short of a majority. Raise the threshold to 5%, however, and you eliminate Sinn Féin, the Greens and PDs. Fianna Fáil would have a majority and Fine Gael and Labour (now including the former DL) would be disproportinately represented.

Laver advocates 50 per cent of TDs elected from single-seat consituencies and 50 per cent from the list.

However, in his recent comments, Noel Dempsey went one step further and called for 90 TDs from single-seaters and 30 from the list. Under present voting trends this would give a whopping majority to Fianna Fáil. This is where the Minister's mask slipped.

Twice already - in 1959 and 1968 - Fianna Fáil tried and failed to get the electorate to change to the crude British first-past-the-post electoral system. This was simply a stroke to ensure Fianna Fáil majority government ad infinitum. With such a record, and given their present Minister's failure to deliver on real local government reform, it is hard to not to see an ulterior motive in Minister Dempsey's advocacy of AMS now.

Dempsey's most vocal backers so far have been Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy. He sweetened the idea for public consumption with the prospect of fewer TDs, playing to the populist notion that there are too many of them, while at the same time justifying a substantial pay hike.

It was reported last weekend that Bertie Ahern supports electoral reform but that he favours single-seat PR with no list. This would be even less democratic than Dempsey's proposal and would gerrymander Fianna Fáil into permanant government.

The PR system which has been in use in the 26 Counties since the 1920s is essentially a fair method of election. There are many democratic reforms badly needed - especially the empowerment of local government - which Fianna Fáil have failed to deliver. The sudden enthusiasm of Minister Dempsey and friends for the supposed reform of switching to AMS is highly suspect.

Dempsey has many lines of defence to overcome yet, including the other parties in Leinster House and the constitutional referendum which would have to be held. As of now it looks as if Dempsey's bid for glory will not get past the first round of the political championship. But we will need to keep our eye on him.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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