10-year limit for TDs would deny voters valuable experience
Published 05/09/2016 | 02:30
Scarcely a week ago, Junior Minister Sean Canney of the Independent Alliance called for a two-term limit for TDs in office. Under the proposed limit, the maximum time any elected representative could serve would be 10 years.
This move - made all the more bizarre by the fact that it is being suggested by a sitting politician - is yet another one designed to discredit politics and play to public cynicism towards politicians.
It is a ridiculous suggestion. In what other profession would experience be sniffed at in favour of greenness, and expertise thrown to one side? Can we imagine a surgeon being asked to lay down his tools after 10 years, or a university lecturer with years of wisdom being asked to step to one side in favour of a junior colleague? As a patient or student, who would be satisfied with that?
Canney's rationale, it appears, is that TDs in office for more than 10 years might experience a 'divine right' to the job. And well they might. But luckily it is not up to them whether that right is realised. TDs - unlike others - face a rigorous job interview every five years and it is up to voters whether they are reappointed to their post.
Canney is also concerned that TDs' "enthusiasm might wane" and that those of more than 10 years standing won't bring a "fresh approach". He might have a point. Those in the job for a while might not be quite fresh but often what they bring instead - experience, expertise, insight, resilience, worldliness - is of enormous value.
Is not the beauty of our Dáil that it is a mix of older and younger, experienced TDs and novices? It is one of the few places where those with little experience and those with lots sit alongside one another as equals in the chamber, at committee and in their engagement with media and constituents.
What Canney misses is that politics is a job like any other: it requires certain skills that are built up over time. Many first-time TDs will talk about the initial years spent learning on the job - to navigate their party, realise the nuances of working within Leinster House, understand the policy and legislative processes, establish good constituency practices, build relationships with party and committee colleagues and grow and nurture a team.
Add to that the expertise gathered during that time, policy-based through committee work and the harder skills - like negotiation - learned and practised through hours spent representing constituency and voter interests. Reaching the top can - and should - take years; careers that start on the Council move to the Dáil, then to the Cabinet table and then, often, to EU level.
The experienced politician is an asset to voters, he or she can negotiate the best outcome locally for their constituents, nationally for voters and, at international level, for Ireland.
It is worth asking what might have been lost had this 10-year limit been in play to date. Taoisigh, like Sean Lemass, Liam Cosgrave and Jack Lynch - three of the longest-serving politicians in our history with 44 years, 38 years and 33 years respectively - may never have held the highest office, nor would Bertie Ahern, John Bruton or Enda Kenny. Mary Harney would never had led the PDs.
Leaving political preferences aside, it is fair to say that time spent by these men and women within the system and honing their political skills played a huge part in their ability to lead. The move from an agricultural to a knowledge-based economy, Ireland's entry to the EU, the Peace Process, our exit from the EU-IMF programme and so many other policy milestones were carefully negotiated by people of experience. Could we expect such precision from people learning on the job?
Let me be clear, this is not a one-sided defence of politicians. On the contrary, it is an attempt to demonstrate what is most valuable to us, voters, in selecting those who represent us. Aside from denying voters valuable experience, a move to 10-year limits undermines the democratic process by removing an element of voter choice: forcing even popular and effective politicians to stand down for no reason other than their time in office.
It hands power to civil servants, the unelected bureaucracy, who will know too well the short-term tenure of their masters and relish their inability to scrutinise and challenge to maximum effect, and it takes opportunity away from those who genuinely and competently seek to serve their constituents and their country.
There was a fleeting moment this summer - brought about by the tragic murder of Jo Cox, the British Labour MP - where cynicism towards politics and politicians was suspended and difference that one person, true to their values, can make in public office recognised. Sadly, this moment was brief and - judging by Canney's call to arms - we are back to the same old. What's even sadder is that the charge is being led by someone who should know better.