Tag Archive for 'constitution'

Just How Proportional Is Proportional Representation?

This is the first in a series of posts I’ll be writing on electoral reform, based on a submission I sent into the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution recently. You can find the full series by clicking here.

When Proportional Representation by Single Transferrable Vote (PR-STV) was first established as Ireland’s electoral system in 1921, it was presented as an alternative to the first-past-the-post  (FPTP) system employed in the UK. The main reason that the new system was adopted was that, as its name suggests, it is more proportional than FPTP, in that the number of seats each party wins should be roughly proportional to the share of the vote they receive. While PR-STV has certainly improved from FPTP in that regard (not a difficult feat, as FPTP is particularly disproportional), it is worth noting that Ireland was the first country to implement PR-STV in national elections, and hence there was little evidence at the time it was chosen with which to analyze its proportionality. With almost a century of elections now held under the system, however, there’s now a considerable amount of data with which to examine whether PR-STV fulfils its purpose of proportionality.

The above graph shows the correlation between the proportion of national first-preference votes (FPV) a party receives and the number of seats it wins as a result. It is based on the results of every party in every general election held since 1981 (the first 166-member Dáil), and each point on the graph represents a party’s result in one of those elections. The dashed red line represents a perfectly proportional allocation of seats according to national vote.

What’s immediately visible about our current PR-STV system from the graph is how it benefits the larger parties compared to a perfectly proportional system. In only one outlying case did either of the state’s two large parties win less seats than would have been allocated proportionally (FG, 2002), and in every other election they received a bonus from the PR-STV system. For Fianna Fail in the 1997 and 2002 elections, this bonus gave them an extra 12 and 13 TDs, respectively, over their representation in a purely proportional system.

The PR-STV system, as currently implemented, likewise disadvantages smaller parties.  The second graph is enlarged to only show the results of parties that received less than 8% of the national FPV. It can be seen that in the considerable majority of cases, parties in this bracket win less seats than a proportional system would allocate them. Furthermore, there are often large variations in the number of seats won on a similar proportion of the vote. For example, between the 1992 and 1997 elections, the Progressive Democrats went from 10 to 4 seats, despite receiving exactly the same proportion of the national vote on both occasions (4.7%). In a perfectly proportional system, they would have won 8 seats in each election.

Abolishing the Seanad

Fine Gael last night announced that, if elected, they’ll hold a referendum to abolish the Seanad. Right now is probably the perfect time to talk about reform of the way our system of government operates, as our Government and Oireachtas are almost completely incapable of dealing with the country’s fiscal and economic collapse, and public confidence in our elected representatives must be reaching an all-time low. Talking about the role the Seanad plays in the running of our country is a vital part of that, and discussions will inevitably come to either reforming the manner in which the Seanad is elected and operates, or getting rid of the Seanad and adopting a reformed unicameral parliamentary system if it’s deemed to make law-making more effective. These sorts of decisions are not to be taken lightly, as the choice of governmental system can have a profound impact on the country for generations to come.

Unfortunately, when Enda Kenny announced the party’s plan to abolish the Seanad, it wasn’t as part of an overarching review of our system of government, with a refashioning of the legislative branch carefully designed to be more effective at devising, amending and passing laws. It wasn’t advertised as a way to allow the country to cope better with the changed circumstances that we’ll have to deal with in the coming decades. Nope, the big headline reason given for abolishing the Seanad was that (along with reducing the Dáil by 20 members) it would save €150 million over the course of a Dáil term. That’s €30 million a year. To put that in perspective, the country’s current annual budget deficit is now approaching €30,000 million. So, Enda wants to make the biggest changes to the constitution in the history of the state, all for the sake of reducing our deficit by 0.1%.

Of course, Enda did hint to more political reforms as part of a “New Politics”, but it doesn’t inspire confidence that the headline reform is so blatantly populist. It also doesn’t inspire confidence that the whole process of devising a new legislative system for the nation has been fobbed off to the party’s environment spokesman, Phil Hogan, who doesn’t even sit on the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution, the body who’s job it is to discuss electoral reform.

By all means we should start talking about reforming the Oireachtas, in what it consists of, how it operates and how it’s elected. But that debate should be given the importance it deserves, and not simply used as a populist headline-grabbing stunt as Enda Kenny did last night.

In Defense Of Free Speech

One of the greatest shames of the modern world is that, despite all our progress, there are still people who would deny the holocaust, there are still groups who preach religious hatred and violence and there are still those for whom racial and ethnic slurs are a part of their common vocabulary. This lack of compassion, lack of tolerance and lack of understanding of the world around us is undoubtedly a great concern, but of even greater significance is that there are governments the world over who think that the best way to deal with these people is to fine them, throw them in jail, or otherwise use the weight of government to silence them. In Minister Ahern’s proposed amendment to the Defamation Bill, he wishes to add Ireland to that group, with a fine of up to €100,000 for “publishing or uttering blasphemous matter”.

The case for restriction of freedom of speech, in any manner, rests upon a fundamental distrust of the populace at large. It assumes that those of us who hear or read such material will be swayed by its very existence. It assumes that we are incapable of reasoned argument, of factual rebuttal and compassionate defense. It attacks the very basis of a liberal democracy, that out of disparate views a society can wield oratory, persuasion and debate to reach a common ground of respect and tolerance.

The appropriate means with which to combat extremism and hatred is not to shut down discussion, but to promote it. It is to allow the great majority of the public to act as defenders of peace and decency; to argue the case of those who have been attacked and offended, and to condemn those arguments which would breach any reasoned morality. Above all, it is the government’s duty to trust its citizens to have these debates and emerge on the side of compassion and sense. If a government ceases to have that trust in its citizens, as ours has indicated with this amendment that it does not, then I would suggest that they are no longer deserving of having our trust in return.

How Haughey Lost The Lisbon Campaign, And What The Government Can Do About It

The Lisbon Treaty referendum last year could be described in pretty much every way as a complete and utter mess. The government put a long and complicated international treaty to referendum, through an unintelligible constitutional amendment, then completely failed to convey the actual implications in a clear and concise manner. The No campaigners proceeded to engage in scare tactics on a myriad of topics almost completely unrelated to the treaty, while the European institutions themselves showed a shocking lack of understanding of the Irish electorate throughout the campaign. The voters, understandably, refused to vote for something they couldn’t possibly be expected to understand, and the Lisbon Treaty has been in limbo ever since.

Oddly enough, the person most responsible for the whole debacle isn’t in fact any of the above, but rather a man who died before the Lisbon Treaty was ever written; Mr Charles J Haughey.

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