Thursday, 5 December 2013

Should we change the way we select politicians?

This thought provoking piece was first published online

A new way to Govern?

February 20, 2011 at 2:17pm

Many years ago I read a short story by one of the greats of science fiction. It was written by, I seem to recall, either Ray Bradbury or Isaac Azimov, two iconic figures in the world of so-called Literary Sci-Fi. This story struck me at the time because it didn’t involve standard fodder for the genre like space travel, robots, rogue asteroids, or the undead. In this story the US Government had decided to change the system of having the entire electorate vote for a US President. Instead, a single elector had been chosen for the task of selecting the President of the United States.
He was the product of an intense sociological search that aimed to find Mr Average American Citizen for that year. He was aware of the issues facing the country and was well briefed on the merits, and demerits of the two candidates and how they would solve Federal Government problems. He was placed in a booth with two buttons, one for each candidate. Weighed down by the enormity of the task facing him, he deliberated for hours before making his choice. If I remember the story correctly, a later poll confirmed his choice as reflecting the wishes of most Americans.
Later, as I became more politically knowledgeable, I also became increasingly aware of the fact that the first job of most politicians is to get re-elected, and that, in Ireland at any rate, clientelism is the inevitable result. Our politicians want to keep us sweet, in the interests of getting re-elected. Money is lavished on ministers’ constituencies funded by hard-pressed taxpayers elsewhere. It’s a road that can easily lead to the IMF taking control. To avoid that ever happening again I wondered should we take a somewhat sideways approach to choosing TDs in this country? Could Ray Bradbury or Isaac Azimov teach us a thing or two about selecting our legislators?
The main job of politicians is to legislate but they actually spend very little time doing that. They waste our money by attending funerals, opening supermarkets and even, as in the case of the late Charlie Haughey, once officially opening a fellow politician’s barn. Most of them quiver with excitement when offered an overseas trip, and the less it has to do with running the country, the better they seem to like it. Thanks to the tribunals we now know more than a few of them routinely accept cash from companies and individuals whose interests and those of the public rarely coincide.
The method we use to pick our politicians is really haphazard. We usually vote for a nice guy, or woman, someone who spends a lot of time dealing with constituency issues. They give witty speeches, turn up at school sportsdays, haven’t too many embarrassing skeletons in their cupboards, but most of all, they remember your name. Their political party usually reflects what we imagine to be our political credo, even if that is mostly a reflection of which side of the Civil War our grandparents fought.
Too often this haphazard system produces people who are not always very good at their job, hopeless at managing the economy and, who, inevitably, set their sights on the next election rather than solving the nation’s problems through legislation. And tragically, even the good ones find they are nothing but lobby fodder, and play little or no meaningful role in Government. The only real choice we have is when, disenchanted with the economy, unemployment, sleaze or high taxes, we dump them.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not calling for the abolition of elected politicians. We badly need them to be at least the last line of defence against faceless bureaucrats who might have even worse ideas than TDs. But I sometimes wonder if the system is producing people who are better at winning elections than running the country.
Here’s another interesting thought that came to me recently. Who has the most power: a backbench politician, or someone who has recently been called for jury service? Answer, the jury member. Their vote can send people to jail for the rest of their lives, or fine them €10 million, as happened recently in the Donal Kinsella libel trial. Stories of misbehaving or inept but well-paid politicians are legion but when do you ever hear of a jury member failing to attend to his or her duties with the diligence that the task demands. Yet you get paid buttons for being on a jury.
In the UK David Cameron is promoting the idea of The Big Society, where community volunteers will take over many of the roles ordinarily managed by Government. One can justifiably suspect that his motivation is simply to cut government spending by getting ordinary citizens to empty bins, patrol neighbourhoods and sweep streets for nothing, in which case it’s a very dangerous idea more suited to North Korea. But he is right on one count. There are many, many people who do volunteer, who raise money, criticise planning applications, give help to social causes and run organisations providing everything from sports facilities to attending to the social needs of the disadvantaged.
Fingal County Council maintains a register of voluntary jobs in the community and get two applications for every voluntary job on its books, a situation which is probably replicated nationwide.
And I’m not just talking about ordinary folk, your neighbours and mine. Many professionals volunteer too. Doctors sit, unpaid, on committees to ensure the better health of the community. Architects campaign aggressively for better homes. Even lawyers sometimes give their services for nothing.
Supposing we could harness the energy, the creativeness and the sense of justice which drives these people and get them to help run the country?
I believe that many of these people, community activists and professionals alike, would gladly give a few years to the business of running the legislature if they felt they had something to contribute. We need engineers, town planners, social workers, psychologists,educators and other knowledgeable professionals whose input is badly needed as we frame our post-IMF society. But almost all would recoil in horror at being asked to mount an election campaign. Few would put themselves at the mercy of a capricious electorate which seems to make decisions on the basis of how much state loot is diverted to their constituencies, or on the smart-aleckry of the latest sound bytes.
That’s the other thing which sets politicians apart from the rest of the community. They love elections and, in the light of the latest crisis to beset the country, one could be forgiven for thinking it’s all they are good at. Why, one has to ask, are there so few economists in the Dail? Answer: because they are, like the rest of us, probably hopeless at electioneering.
So where am I going with this? I propose we change the Constitution to produce a system which gets committed people into the Dail without the necessity of having to get elected. It’s not such a daft idea. Most of President Obama’s Secretaries of State (Ministers of the Federal Government in our language) are not elected. US presidents chose their cabinets on the basis of their ability, or specialist knowledge. Some of them give up high powered jobs in industry to serve their country and they usually take a large drop in salary in the process.
Closer to home members of the UK’s House of Lords are appointed by a Prime Minister and here 11 members of the Seanad are appointed by An Taoiseach. When Garrett Fitzgerald wanted the late Professor James Dooge, a man he greatly admired, in his cabinet, he did so via the expediency of appointing him from the Seanad so he never had to stand for a more competitive Dail ballot. Dooge had stood for election to the Seanad but he didn’t have to; Fitzgerald could have appointed him as one of his "eleven".
The precedent of bringing good, unelected people into Government exists elsewhere so how to make it work in the Dail? Allowing politicians to select them is not a good idea: in most cases they will be chosen on the basis of political loyalty, not legislative ability and creativity. Allowing politicians to choose will be a waste because most will be used to make up a majority.
We need what I would call a TD Appointments Commission (it could emerge from the existing Electoral Commission) which compiles a register of suitable people, a collection of Mr and Mrs Average Ireland, as it were. They might put themselves forward, or be nominated by others. I don’t go so far as to propose they replace elected TDs entirely. Perhaps we should adopt a fifty-fifty system where half are elected normally, the others are appointed. Or they could be two-thirds elected, one third appointed, perhaps even the other way around. That’s for another debate.
The nominees are selected by the commission in the same way as juries are appointed and should, like juries, represent a good cross-section of the community. Similar to jurors, they can be challenged, by political parties, or by the public (so that the crazy ones can be weeded out). If confirmed as a public representative their "civvie" jobs have to be held open for them, just like jurors. Their pay could be calculated on their income prior to selection. Finally, and this is a major plank of my idea, once having served a term, they are never again allowed to serve as TDs, either elected or appointed. The reason is simple: because they have no future as a TD they are therefore less likely to engage in clientelism, aka the shovelling of tax revenues into their pet projects..
Fine Gael has muttered vaguely about the creation of a "Citizens’ Assembly" but it doesn’t appear as if will be much more than a toothless talking shop creating hot air without any real purpose. The party has also proposed the appointment of experts to the Dail on a list system but it’s hard to see how this won’t result in political parties packing the chamber to suit themselves. However, Fine Gael’s proposals to dilute the role of Cabinet in the drafting and passing of legislation could give backbench TDs, even unelected ones, a stronger purposeful role in the Dail.
Some people might think this idea stupid, but is any worse than the way we currently the country?

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