Electoral Reform – Let TD’s do the real work of TD’s

Our electoral and resultant political systems are not fit for purpose. These systems are inefficient and do not serve the best interests of the State and the Irish people. After almost a century of political independence, our State, while successful in many areas, has failed dismally to achieve its full potential. This fundamental failure has been painfully evident in recent years and will continue as long as we ignore the fundamental causes of our under-achievement. We need to change how we elect our TD’s and how the Dáil operates. This piece focusses on the former.

Since the foundation of the state, the PRSTV system (Proportional Representation Single Transferrable Vote) has been in use here. One of its particular benefits is the chance it provides for giving the marginalised a greater say in parliamentary affairs. Attempts to abolish the system in the past were defeated by the people. It seems Irish people value the opportunity to choose in order of preference.  In my new bill, The Thirty-fourth Amendment of the Constitution Bill (Dáil Éireann) 2014, I propose keeping this system (commonly referred to as AV in a single seat scenario albeit not by our constitution) but abolishing multi-seat constituencies, replacing them instead with 157 single seat constituencies of about 20,000 electors each, with the outgoing Ceann Comhairle automatically returned.

In 2012, I introduced a similar bill on single seat constituencies, the main difference being that I proposed a reduction of the number of TD’s to 101 from 158. The result was that nearly all of the focus of the debate on the bill was on the loss of TD’s jobs rather than the main purpose, which is getting a better electoral system. Therefore, in this bill, I propose to retain the current number of TD’s.

Why single seat constituencies in the first place you might ask? The following are just some of the reasons why I feel we need to change the way we operate:

  • ·         Clientellism: A great deal of many TDs’ time is spent following up local and individual queries that would be more appropriate for Councillors or State run agencies such as Citizens Information offices. Many TD’s have no choice but to do these jobs or otherwise, the constituent will go to one of the competing TD’s in the same constituency, bringing with him or her, their vote at the next election.

In a single Dáil seat scenario, we could make available to Councillors the facilities that currently exist for TD’s, such as dedicated Social Welfare inquiry lines, medical card inquiry lines and perhaps a quota of parliamentary style written questions. These functions, with the exception of the parliamentary questions, could then be removed from legislators in the new Dáil, allowing TD’s and their staff more time on the “bigger issues”. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad to assist any constituent who comes to me, and I dedicate a great deal of my time to making myself available and accessible to help people. I also find this work personally very rewarding, and as long as the system remains the way it is, most TD’s will do the same, but surely a collective move towards a more parliamentary focussed Dáil would be better for the country overall.

  • ·         Duplication: Very often, when reading the questions paper in the Dáil in the morning, I see that my constituency colleagues have the same question to the same Minister on the same local issue that I might have previously submitted or would have planned to submit. This duplication is widespread, affecting Dail questions, written correspondence, inquiry line calls and meeting requests. This all costs time, on the part of the TD’s, the TD’s staff and the staff in the Minister’s Departments. This time is all paid for by you, the tax payer.
  • ·         Keeping up appearances: If a rival TD shows up at the opening of an envelope, or a funeral of someone unknown to him or her, or a football match, I am expected by many to be there too. This surely needs to stop. Personally, I don’t attend a funeral unless there is some personal connection to the deceased, but very often, people remember the TD’s who show up, even if there is no connection. Wouldn’t the TD’s time be better spent working on policy issues or new legislation, and wouldn’t it be far better if the sitting TD gets judged on his or her work on the serious issues, rather than the number of funerals he or she has attended?
  • ·         Counter-productive internal party competition: TD’s spend a great deal of time and energy fending off challenges from within their own party in their constituency. This can be a huge distraction for the TD and places extra demands on the TD to compete on the local issues that the up-and-coming Councillor or other incumbent TD may be making political hay out of. In the single seat scenario, an incumbent TD would not have to share a ticket with anyone else from the same party and could focus more purely on his or her job.
  • ·         Logistics: At present, a TD from Mayo represents the entire county, which is an enormous geographical area compared to some urban constituencies. Similarly, after the next general election, all of County Kerry will be one five seat constituency. In essence, this means that a TD from Kerry, after driving four hours home from the Dáil, might have to attend a meeting in Balinskelligs in the south west of the county on a Thursday evening, and be asked to attend a meeting two and a half hours away in Dingle later that evening, before travelling a further hour home to Killarney or Listowel or wherever home is. In the system that I am proposing, a county like Kerry would be divided into five singe seat constituencies and Mayo into four, meaning that geographical size and the resultant excessive travel times will nolonger be a major problem for TD’s as they perform their duties.

Continuing with the current system, is in my view, setting us up to fail again as a nation. Changing how TD’s get in to the Dáil in the first place might very well be what we need to get more out of our TD’s. If we can do this, as well as changing how the Dáil operates when they get there, I am convinced we would have a far better country for everyone.

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