Wednesday 20 November 2019

John-Paul McCarthy: Original thinkers losing out in PR electoral system

Shane McEntee's death reminds us that a bit of distance from citizens might be no bad thing

John-Paul McCarthy

The sad funeral for the Minister of State Shane McEntee reminded me oddly enough of a classic confrontation between an Australian prime minister and an irate member of the public.

Paul Keating had just been handed a copy of the famous Mabo judgement on native title by the High Court of Australia in 1993, and many people feared that the judges were about to turn over millions of stolen acres to their original aboriginal owners.

Prime Minister Keating took phone calls live on a radio show the morning Mabo came down, and before too long the rights-for-whites brigade started jamming the switchboard.

Having patiently explained that Sydney Harbour was not about to be seized by aboriginal mobs, Keating's patience snapped.

His brown eyes narrowed as he took a sip of tea, and then told one especially wearing caller: "I am not here to soak up your prejudices, mate."

Another caller was told: "I think you're talking prejudice mostly, aren't you?"

The full 16-minute interview is up on YouTube and offers a compressed master-class in the nature of representative government.

On occasion, it helps if politicians can push back against the waves that threaten to engulf them every day.

It also helps if we think more carefully about the limits of the representative principle in and of itself.

You don't need to be a fan of the Tammany-style party list system that has done such damage in post-apartheid South Africa to register the problems of our version of proportional representation.

It is a measure of the conservatism that lay at the core of much of the recent "renewing the republic" publications that no serious thought seems to have been given to the connection between our economic implosion and our clientelist electoral system.

The McEntee funeral might also have people reaching for their battered copies of Tom Garvin's classic Preventing the Future: Why was Ireland so poor for so long?

Garvin's book is the most sophisticated critique we have of the serious inadequacies of the PR system as it has operated in Ireland since independence.

Garvin showed the way this kind of highly local and cannibalistic system created an Irish version of Mancur Olson's famous 'free rider effect' – the let-George-do-it phenomenon that afflicts all collective enterprises with various degrees of severity.

PR also made TDs unusually vulnerable to what Garvin called 'blocking coalitions', the infamous 'factions' that were immortalised in James Madison's Federalist No 10 essay just before the ratification of the US constitution.

The blocking coalition is the ugly Siamese twin attached to the representative principle.

Some people said that for all the problems with PR, at least it keeps politicians 'grounded' and in touch with the populace, unlike those rootless British ministers who visit their constituents in their safe seats once a month if they are lucky.

This point overlooks the fact that it has proved a fair bit easier for talent to work its way on to the green Treasury benches in Westminster than it has in Ireland.

Think of all the quality Irish minds that have seriously struggled over the years to make up a miserable quota at a general election and then to defend it next time round.

Conor Cruise O'Brien, Michael McDowell, Dick Spring and even John Bruton in 1992 all either barely managed to hang on in the Dail or lost their seats over local issues on various occasions.

No mature democracy can be proud of the fact that people as smart and original as these found the PR ride so excruciating.

That's not to say, of course, that we need Italian-style life senators or a slew of cabinet appointments via an Irish version of the UK House of Lords.

It is merely to register the way our system makes life that bit harder for unconventional minds who might be prone to Paul Keating-like outbursts.

A major investment of time would be required of course if an Irish government decided to work through the problems identified by Tom Garvin and others.

But it would probably be well worth it and would qualify as a serious contribution towards modernisation as distinct from being one more round on the "renewing the republic" carousel.

Only PR allows a situation to develop like the one that unfolded on the night of the bank guarantee when two technically overwhelmed politicians faced an armada of bankers.

Them's the breaks in a democracy, you might say.

But the sad death of Shane McEntee reminds us that a bit of distance from 'the people' might not be such a bad thing.

After all, no one dreamt of discovering a line of longitude by the vote of a majority.

And another Irishman told the world over two centuries ago that great representatives owe their electors their analysis, not their souls.

To do otherwise, Edmund Burke warned, was merely to forge our own fetters.

Sunday Independent

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