Thursday 27 October 2016

Stop endless speculation over elections - fix Dail terms

Allowing one person to decide when the rest of us vote is unfair, distracting and destablising, writes Dan O'Brien

Published 04/10/2015 | 02:30

FEVER PITCH: Election date hype was ratcheted up last week after Phil Hogan intimated to a group of visiting Fine Gaelers in Brussels that it’d be November
FEVER PITCH: Election date hype was ratcheted up last week after Phil Hogan intimated to a group of visiting Fine Gaelers in Brussels that it’d be November

That the sitting Taoiseach has the power to decide when elections are held is an unfair and extravagant privilege. The uncertainty it creates distracts from the substance of politics in favour of chattering speculation. And it exacerbates political instability, something which we may well be facing on a semi-permanent basis.

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The practice - inherited from the British but since abandoned by them - gives the Government of the day, or more precisely that largest party in the incumbent coalition, a very unfair advantage.

The power to call an election at the moment the sitting Taoiseach believes will be best for his party is very hard to justify, and if a political system was being designed from scratch the practice would almost certainly not be adopted.

It is not only unfair. The hype about the timing of the next election reached fever pitch last week after Phil Hogan intimated to a group of visiting Fine Gaelers in Brussels that the contest would take place next month. This has further heightened the expectation of a looming poll among the other parties and led to a distraction from the many serious issues that need to be addressed over the coming months.

Oireachtas business, government business and even Civil Service business all suffer as a result. Given that our system of governance is far less efficient than it could or should be, the near guarantee of a frenzy over the timing of the election in the final half year and more of Dail terms makes matters even worse.

As always in politics, there is no perfect solution to the problems caused by the manner in which incumbents can call elections and the related issue of how governments can fall, but it is surely time to consider fixing the problem by fixing Dail terms.

As alluded to above, Britain traditionally gave the prime minister of the day the power to decide the timing of elections. But that changed when the previous coalition administration adopted fixed parliamentary terms.

The reform has achieved its desired objective. The knowledge that David Cameron could not pull a fast one on his coalition partner by cutting and running ensured that the last British administration functioned with something approaching normality in its final year.

Many other democracies do not bestow an unfair advantage on incumbents. The world's most watched electoral contest - the US presidential election - has been set in four-year cycles since the 1700s. France's presidential terms are fixed. And, of course, the other legislature to which Irish citizens elect members - the European Parliament - has always had fixed terms.

The most obvious benefit of fixing Dail terms is that it ends the unfairness whereby the incumbent Taoiseach gets to pick the time that best suits his party. It is particularly unfair on the opposition parties, which must remain on an election footing and can be deliberately wrong-footed by a sitting Taoiseach.

It is also unfair on the junior party or parties in a coalition government and can upset the power balance between them.

(Incidentally, one reason my money is still on a 2016 election is because going early would badly damage relations between the current coalition partners, making both vote transfer arrangements during the election and a renewal of the Coalition after it more difficult.)

While there has always been a case for fixing Dail terms, the profound underlying change that has occurred in Irish politics is likely to make mechanisms that favour stability more necessary.

While the rise in support for independents and Sinn Fein is very well known, there tends to be a view among political analysts that this support is soft and a good deal of it will disappear when voters are faced with a choice of electing a government at the ballot box. There is much to this analysis.

But the deeper and more long lasting change in Irish politics is the decline in support for Fianna Fail. As this column has argued before, while the party managed to maintain around 40pc of the vote up until 2007, its success in the boom years masked an underlying structural decline in support.

It is very rare for any party to win 40pc of the vote in any European democracy, and particularly those with proportional representation voting systems. Societal change, declining loyalty to parties and a general disgruntlement with politics have all contributed to more fragmented voting patterns in most countries. Ireland did not experience such fragmentation in the 1990s and the pre-crash Noughties because Fianna Fail was in the unique position, thanks to soaring tax revenues, to buy up huge numbers of votes.

The collapse in Fianna Fail's support in 2011 was partly a reaction to the severity of the crash, but also a result of the evaporation of the fair weather support it had attracted during the long boom. The party's support in polls, at a little over 20pc ever since, makes it very hard to see it ever again winning anything close to 40pc of the vote.

If that turns out to be the case, it will amount to a structural change in Irish politics and will make for much more diverse Dails. That, in turn, will make coalition formation and cohesion more difficult.

We could very well be in for a descent into Italian-style politics, with administrations being short lived over the longer term.

One way to lessen the destabilising effect of more diverse Dails would be to make it harder for their participants to cut and run to the electorate. Here is where the fixed-term Dail would be beneficial.

When Britain shifted to fixed terms, the act that brought the change into force included a stipulation that to bring a government down, two-thirds of MPs, rather than a simple majority, would have to vote to dissolve parliament.

If something similar was introduced here, it would allow a government to be defeated on a specific piece of legislation without precipitating an election. If we are headed for much more diverse Dails without any party being close to a majority, doing as the British have done could at least mean we are not condemned to a big increase in the frequency of elections, with all the downsides that that would entail.

With parties and political groupings now desperately drafting manifestos for the election, whenever it is held, some might well consider including fixed-term parliaments.

Sunday Independent

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