Wednesday 11 December 2019

Gender quotas and public funding of main parties distort democracy

Pictured at the launch of ‘Women for Election’, on International Women’s Day in 2012, inspiring women to ‘get on the ticket’, were co-founders Niamh Gallagher and Michelle O’Donnell. Photo: Conor McCabe Photography
Pictured at the launch of ‘Women for Election’, on International Women’s Day in 2012, inspiring women to ‘get on the ticket’, were co-founders Niamh Gallagher and Michelle O’Donnell. Photo: Conor McCabe Photography

David Quinn

Politics to a certain extent is a cartel. In most countries, there are long-established parties and it is extremely hard for new parties to break into the system. This is especially true in countries that don't have proportional representation.

In Britain, the likes of UKIP or the Liberal Democrats never get the number of seats their share of the vote would warrant.

Today, it is harder than ever to break into the cartel. That is because of public funding of political parties.

Since the last General Election, Fine Gael has received something like €23m from the State; Labour €15m or so; Fianna Fáil around €14m; Sinn Féin around €9m. These are very big figures.

State money is allocated in accordance with a given party's share of the first preference vote in the previous General Election. If your party didn't exist in the last election, then obviously you receive nothing.

Fair enough, you might say. The trouble is that no new party could possibly hope to raise anything like those sums and that was before very strict fund-raising restrictions were introduced, and made even stricter by this Government almost as soon as it took power.

The established parties therefore have two big advantages over new ones. The first is the huge sums of money they receive from the State, while the second is the severe restrictions on money that can be raised from members of the public or from private organisations.

The maximum that can be accepted by a political party in a given year from a member of the public or from an organisation is €2,500.

The maximum a candidate can receive is €1,000.

The purpose of the restrictions is to ensure that no one individual or organisation can use money to unduly influence the political process. But how much influence is €2,500 going to get you with a political party, or €1,000 with a candidate?

These limits completely suit the established parties, in view of the huge amounts of money they receive from the taxpayer.

There are various reasons why Renua and the Social Democrats are struggling to make a breakthrough in this election, but the manner in which the parties are funded is a big one.

The new parties have no State money but it should not have been made so hard to raise large sums from the general public or private organisations. How do you run a proper election campaign with very little money? How is that democratic? It isn't.

The amount of money the established parties receive from the public purse is doubly indefensible given that it is highly unlikely they ever received anything like the above-mentioned sums from corporations or trade unions.

If State funding of political parties is in any way defensible, they ought to be receiving no more than they used to receive in corporate donations.

The established parties are not supposed to spend public funds directly on election campaigns. But given that they can fund their party structures out of public money, it means anything else they raise can be spent on elections.

So public money is indirectly subsidising their election campaigns. In other words, public money is being used, in effect, to overwhelm the new parties.

Other countries have seen new parties break through. It happens regularly in Italy, where faith in the main parties broke down long ago, and it is happening in Spain and Greece.

In Ireland, we're instead seeing disaffected voters gravitate towards Independent candidates. And seeing as the new parties are finding it so hard to establish a real national profile, many disaffected voters are gravitating towards Independent candidates with strong local profiles.

If the strengthening of the cartel-like system of Irish politics is one undemocratic effect of public funding of established parties, there is another one, and it is the way public funding can be used to blackmail those parties into adopting certain policies.

In this election, all parties in receipt of public funding must ensure at least 30pc of their candidates are women or else lose half of that funding.

It should really be entirely up to each party to decide how many candidates of each sex to field. The public can then decide who to vote for. If a given party has a good balance of male and female candidates, then they can vote for that party if that is what they want.

If they prefer to vote on the basis of a party's policies - or the ability of a given candidate - instead of on the basis of the sex of the candidate, then they can do that instead. That is the democratic way.

Writing in this newspaper on Monday, Niamh Gallagher, of 'Women for Election', said that Ireland would benefit from having more women politicians, because: "Women tend to take an open and collaborative approach to making policy, engaging many voices and sharing information as plans progress."

She goes on in this vein. Note, by the way, how women and men are supposed to bring different qualities to politics whereas in the marriage referendum we were told they don't bring different qualities to parenting and therefore the sex of a child's parents doesn't matter a bit. Love is all you need.

On that basis, the quality of a candidate should be all that matters, not the sex of the candidate.

But maybe Gallagher is correct, and women on average do bring different qualities to politics. That still isn't an argument in favour of gender quotas. It is simply something the public should take into consideration when deciding who to vote for.

We will find out soon enough whether the gender quota will have a big impact on the number of women who actually get elected. I suspect it will have little impact. What then? Should we require that a quota of Dáil seats be set aside for women no matter what the public thinks or wants?

We see here again the undemocratic nature of egalitarian thinking. If the public won't vote for 'equality', then 'equality' must be imposed by diktat.

We also see how one undemocratic measure reinforces another. Public funding of parties is cartel-like. That funding is then used to foist gender quotas upon us, which is also undemocratic.

The answer is to reject both gender quotas and public funding of the established parties. Both measures distort democracy and it is all too typical of Irish politics that the measures met so little resistance.

Irish Independent

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