Thursday 27 October 2016

Democracy better served through plebiscites

Holding unnecessary by-elections is pointless and having referendums on every change to the Constitution is harmful

Published 17/05/2015 | 02:30

EUROPE’S WAY: When Labour MEP Proinsias De Rossa stood down in 2012, he was replaced by Emer Costello. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
EUROPE’S WAY: When Labour MEP Proinsias De Rossa stood down in 2012, he was replaced by Emer Costello. Photo: Niall Carson/PA

The holding of by-elections is dumb. The use of referendums as the sole means of amending a constitution is not much smarter. As two referendums and a by-election will be held next week, this is a good moment to make the case for the scrapping of both.

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Many people are likely to react to such a suggestion with scepticism, or even shock. Surely such a proposal is an affront to democracy?

No, actually, it isn't. Few democracies around the world hold by-elections. Even fewer use referendums to change their constitutions. Ireland is almost alone in the entire world in using both. One could conclude from this Ireland is one of the most democratic countries in the world. But that conclusion would be wrong.

Start with by-elections. Irish citizens elect representatives to two parliaments - the Dail and the European Parliament. When an MEP stands down, is forced from office or dies, voters in his/her constituency do not return to the polls. An alternate, who has been publicly nominated by the MEP before being elected, takes the seat until the next scheduled election.

This has happened quite often recently. Proinsias De Rossa stood down in 2012 and was replaced by Emer Costello. In 2011 both Alan Kelly and Joe Higgins resigned from the Strasbourg legislature to return to the Dail. They were replaced - without by-elections - by Phil Prendergast and Paul Murphy respectively. The reason the European Parliament operates this way, and has always operated in this way, is because it is the norm in most European democracies. Nobody to my knowledge in Ireland has ever claimed this way of doing things is bad. If it is good enough for the European Parliament and good enough for most other democracies, then why not do the same for the Dail?

One possible answer to that question is that by-elections improve the quality of governance. But there is no evidence that they do, and plenty of evidence pointing in the opposite direction.

By-elections are distractions. National policy decisions are sometimes put on the long finger for fear of irking voters in a single constituency and populist, crowd-pleasing measures can be adopted in the run up to by-elections in order to boost the governing parties' chances of winning a vacant seat.

Another reason to scrap by-elections is because they are often influenced by anti-incumbent impulse and frequently become an exercise in kicking the sitting government. This may be satisfying but it is very hard to make the case that it leads to a better quality of governance.

If the case for abandoning the by-election tradition, inherited from the British, and adopting the more normal European way of replacing parliamentarians between general elections is strong, the case against referendums is more nuanced.

There is a very positive role for national votes on big issues, including such defining social questions as same-sex marriage, Scotland's place in the UK or the UK's place in the EU. But the case for insisting the Constitution be changed, no matter how small the issue, only by a popular vote is weak. The weakness of the case is illustrated by the fact only a handful of other democracies around the world use the mechanism.

Most countries change their constitutions by parliamentary super majorities. In some countries, changing the constitution can only happen over a longer period of time where there must be two votes on the proposed amendment, which are separated by a general election.

In the near future, a referendum will be held on Ireland's involvement in a new international system of patenting. As very few citizens lie awake at night pondering issues around intellectual property, it seems bizarre an entire nation will have to spend time thinking about the issue and then go out to vote on it. If there was ever an illustration of why representative democracy long ago replaced direct democracy, this is it.

And voting on arcane matters is becoming more common. As the world becomes more complicated and as the pace of change accelerates, more changes to the Constitution are needed. This is very well reflected in the increasing frequency with which referendums are held. In the four decades after the constitution came into effect, just eight referendums were held. In the last four decades there have been almost four times that number.

For many citizens, the reaction to being asked to vote in referendums more frequently is to ignore them. In half of the referendums held over the past 20 years, most eligible citizens didn't bother to vote. In some cases, turnout has been as low as one in three.

Another downside of using referendums as the sole means of changing a constitution is that it builds a pro-status quo bias into the system. Because the holding of referendums take lots of time on the campaign trail and because they carry considerable political downside if the proposed change is rejected, governments can shy away from holding them.

European issues provide an example of this. The current Government, like others before it, is very wary about changes to the EU treaties because of the requirement in most cases to hold a vote. This is despite the fact that issues around the structure of the euro will almost certainly require treaty change in the future, and such changes would probably benefit Ireland and other small countries (a stronger institutional framework would lessen German dominance by reducing the number of decisions taken on an intergovernmental basis).

The pro-status quo bias as a result of the need to put all constitutional changes to a vote is nicely encapsulated by the frequently heard advice around referendum time of 'if you don't know, vote no'. This argument is not only a bias against change, it is corrosive to democracy as it urges people to exercise their right to vote without carrying out the duty to inform themselves.

But none of this is to say referendums themselves are bad. If the way referendums are used in Ireland inhibits change, the way they are used in some other countries encourages it, and empowers citizens to boot.

In a good number of democracies, citizens' initiatives can lead to the holding of plebiscites. Such votes are usually held if campaigners can obtain a given (large) number of verified signatures. This empowers citizens and takes from politicians the monopoly they have on initiating legislative and constitutional change.

Becoming more normal in how we amend our Constitution would make our constitutional superstructure less rigid. Adopting a system whereby, say, the signatures of 150,000 citizens triggers the holding of a referendum on changes to both the Constitution and secondary legislation, would empower citizens by giving those advocating change - of whatever kind - a means of bringing it about.

Sunday Independent

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