The EVIL of PRSTV? What is (allegedly) wrong with our voting system.

What Irish elected politics comes down to under PRSTV-who will fix the pothole near my house? (image is open source from wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pothole

As I’ve said in a previous post there is a somewhat surprising academic consensus that PRSTV in Ireland has actually worked quite well. Or at least the point made is that PRSTV has some quite valuable features and is fairly proportionate, therefore the case for a wholescale dumping of it is not obvious (at least to most academics) The two leading experts on the Irish electoral system (David Farrell and Michael Gallagher) both seem to more or less stress this cautious view.

However, as you will see, while this caution seems sensible, I do worry about this seemingly cosy academic consensus, that basically ‘PRSTV is grand’ or rather ‘you can’t show that PRSTV is to blame for all our woes…therefore leave it alone”…..

However, they and other academics, do accept there are some popular widely held criticisms of PRSTV and also a few technical less widely understood problems.

To start with the popular critique, as it turns out suffers from one major flaw; in each case it is  hard to show that PRSTV actually causes the problem. There may be an association, but that is all.

Many critics of PRSTV allege some or all of the following assertions:

PRSTV in relatively small local constituencies (3-5 seaters) allegedly focuses attention on local issues; candidates get elected on their attention to local issues and therefore national issues and candidates who focus on these get less of a look in. A list system (of some sort) could be argued to remove this alleged focus on EXCESSIVE LOCALISM. In other words Irish politics thrives on what be termed “redneck” local issues-the big picture is lost and the voting system is to ‘blame’.

PRSTV encourages CLIENTELISM in general; This is the very academic name for a culture of representation whereby elected representatives regularly meet with and engage with their constituents on an individual basis in regular clinics. At these, they help solve individual problems-often perhaps quite small problems with state bureaucracy. Advice on form filling is apparently a staple of TD clinics. Clientelism of course can involve ‘stroke politics’, where individual voters seek, expect, and maybe even get, strokes in the form of substantive interventions by a given TD. This could be a belief that a TD has intervened to improve a person’s position on a local government housing waiting list, or getting a medical card, or a third level education grant. In theory, each of these state schemes is not ameanable to political manipulation whatsoever (they are administered by civil servants and you either meet the criteria or you don’t) but a belief can persist that ‘favours’ can and are done. At a minimum most Irish TDs will give ‘insider’ advice on how to qualify for such state benefits, or they will engage in a letter paperchase on a particular case; the voter will get a letter from some government department civil servant explaining their case is being looked at, and further letters will ensue-even if eventually nothing comes of their case. Stroke politics can also be more collective-a classic example is when a TD is a minister or a minister of state. The expectation here can be from some voters that a minister will steer decisions and funds towards his/her own constituency to favour it. So voters expect local hospitals to stay open, local schools to get their extension, or roadbypasses to be agreed, whenever these policy issues are in the ‘gift of their minister’, etc.

PRSTV drives clientelism in particular by greater incentives for intra-party competition. The argument usually only applies to the larger parties-Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, because they will usually run 2 or more candidates in the 3,4, and 5 seaters. The problem for these parties is that this makes for quite a bit of competition between candidates in the same party, and the argument is that this competition places pressure on candidates to compete on clientelistic grounds. This was an argument made by Noel Dempsey in 1999 when he was minister for local government and environment. He suggested we should introduce the New Zealand voting system which would see half the TDs elected from single seat constituencies, and the other half elected from a national or perhaps regional list. The attraction for a FF or FG politician here should be obvious. The party would choose only one candidate for the one seat constituency contests…removing at a stroke the internal party competition. This is also it seems one reason why Fintan O’Toole believes we should also change our electoral system to something like what they use in New Zealand and Germany. He thinks that be removing the multiple seat competition, then pressure for clientelism will be undercut allied with the remaining half of TDs who would be elected from national or regional lists. As I will argue in a later post, the New Zealand system is maybe not as an ideal system as one thinks, nor may it guarantee to kill off clientelistic behaviour. Perhaps the best way to kill off Clientelism is softly, as I explain in a separate post.

PRTSV encourages independents and non-party candidates thus perhaps weakening government stability, formation, and undermining rational policy allocations. This argument is being heard more lately given the importance of independents in the last Dáil. In fact there were rather more independents in the Dáil between 2002-2007, and the origins of the debate I think goes back at least to concerns in the early 1980s about independents or maybe the small Workers’ Party holding the balance of power. There was the infamous ‘Gregory deal’ of 1982, whereby independent left wing TD Tony Gregory (since passed away) did a deal with C.J. Haughey, in return for voting for him as Taosieach. The idea here is that a very small unrepresentative group of TDs may hold governments ‘hostage’ on the question of government formation, budget passing and motions of no-confidence.

But are these allegations really so accurate?

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