I wouldn't class myself as Fintan O'Toole's biggest fan - while he writes some very perceptive articles, much of his work consists of dressing up pretty banal observations in flowery language and all-embracing meta-theories. However, he has a new book published, "Enough is Enough", and there was an excerpt from it in the Irish Times last Saturday (isn't it nice to have such accommodating employers?)
He suggests some radical changes that could be made to help introduce a genuinely representative democracy, and focuses on the role of local government:
And he wisely recommends the replacement of the current STV voting system, with a 50/50 split between FPTP and a list:Change in the political system has to start with local democracy. But the creation of real local government opens the way to the creation of a real national parliament. It puts the parish pump back where it belongs: in the parish. That in turn forces the Oireachtas to clarify exactly what it is for.
For a start, with local issues handled at local level, the Dáil can be both smaller and more efficient. Exact numbers can be argued over, but it is hard to see why the Dáil needs more than 100 members.
He also recommends quotas for women, which I used to oppose but am coming around to the necessity for, given the pitiful representation of females in the Oireachtas. His suggestion on how to implement such a quote system is shrewd:For the Dáil the most viable alternative is probably what’s called the additional member system (AMS). The basic idea is simple enough. About half the seats in parliament are elected in a straightforward first-past-the-post system in each constituency. But the citizen has a second vote for the other half. This is a national PR election for candidates on competing (usually party) lists.
Effectively, the national-list seats balance out the disproportional effect of the first-past-the-post vote. The one serious drawback of the system is that it works against independent candidates, who are effectively forced to form groups in order to complete under the list system. (On the other hand, small parties can do well under the system: in Scotland the Greens got 2 per cent of the vote in the 2010 Scottish parliament elections and the same proportion of seats: two.) But this is surely a price worth paying for the considerable benefits of greatly reducing clientelism and creating a new category of national politicians who are not dependent on constituency work.
This would prevent a situation where a party which, for whatever reason, did not believe in prioritising women candidates would be legally unable to express its freely held beliefs and and to campaign on that basis. However, it is reasonable for the state to introduce incentives to encourage behaviour that it believes is worthwhile.The best way to create quotas is not through complex legislation but through financial penalties. Most of the money on which political parties run comes directly from the State. Under a list system it is far easier for those parties to ensure that their lists (drawn up by the national organisations) are gender- balanced. Parties should get all their current state money if they have a list that is 50 per cent women. They should be docked proportionally as their number of women on the list falls below 50 per cent. Below 30 per cent and they get nothing.
He further suggests that Oireachtas committees be given real powers of investigation, and that civil servants be held publicly responsible for mistakes made by them, rather than hiding behind the Minister of their department.
The article finishes with 30 key steps to take which will improve our democracy. Some are humdrum or pie in the sky ("Replace GDP as the primary measure of progress with a well-being index"), but others are vital.
Enough of the gombeen politics: it's time for a republican revolution - The Irish Times - Sat, Oct 30, 20101 Establish a genuine system of local democracy. Introduce a property tax to fund it.
2 Transfer the useful functions of quangos to local councils.
3 Bring in legally binding national standards for planning and development and give the National Spatial Strategy statutory status.
7 End the fiction that Ministers are responsible for everything that happens in their departments. Make them responsible for decisions they take and for information they ought to know. Make senior civil servants responsible for the decisions they take.
8 Restore the right of the Oireachtas to inquire into all activities involving the use of public money.
9 Make all appointments to state and public boards open to public competition and subject to Oireachtas scrutiny.
10 Reduce the size of the Dáil to 100 members.
11 Either make the Seanad representative of civil society, social partners and the new local councils within a short time frame or abolish it.
12 Change the Dáil electoral system to the additional-member system.
13 Introduce a gender quota of at least 30 per cent, to be enforced by reducing public payments to political parties by the degree to which they fail to introduce gender balance.
16 Radically curtail tax incentives for private pensions and stop putting money into the National Pension Reserve Fund. Use the money to increase the state pension for everyone to 40 per cent of pre-retirement income.
17 Switch spending from both social-welfare rent supplements and tax breaks for landlords to the provision of decent social housing.
18 Introduce a national system of social health insurance, abolishing the two-tier health system and radically reducing the size of the Health Service Executive.
20 Charge university fees to those who can afford them. Increase grants for those who are currently excluded.
22 Identify children at risk of failure from an early age and intervene immediately with personal and family supports.
23 Make the pay of those at the top a fixed percentage of that of those at the bottom.
24 Bring taxes up to average European levels. Reduce tax breaks to average EU levels, saving more than €5 billion.
26 Give coherent legislative protection to bona-fide whistleblowers.
27 Restore the Freedom of Information Act to its former status.
30 Ban all significant private donations to political parties and force all registered parties to publish full annual accounts.
It is bemusing and depressing that even though it is clear that much of our current trouble arises from our dysfunctional democratic system, there is no talk from the political class at all of fundamental reform (other than the window-dressing FG proposal to close the Seanad). FOT deserves credit for trying to open a wide-ranging discussion on what needs to be done to ensure that the sort of special interest pleasing and gombeenism of the Bertie years is never repeated.