Tuesday, May 5, 2009

George Lee eh? Putting your money where your mouth is, and why our system doesn't let it happen

Fair play to the guy.

Putting your money where your mouth happens to be is an unusual occurrence in Irish public life and you really have to commend George Lee for doing so.

There has been a lot of comment recently about the deficiencies of our political system. Along with the usual old chestnuts of Seanad reform and the number of junior ministers, more serious questions are now being asked about our political structures, not least the holy cow of PRSTV.

PRSTV is the system left to us by the British (who have since changed it) and inserted into the Constitution by deValera, that means we vote for candidates on a transfer-based ballot paper. Thus, the success of candidates such as Cyprian Brady, who have little personal appeal but can be carried by insanely popular constituency colleagues.

The system does have its benefits. More of the population gets a say in who represents them, because if our first choice doesn't get elected, our second, or third, might. This is directly in contrast to the English first-past-the-post system, in which, theoretically, 49% of the population could end up dissatisfied with the choice of the other 51%.

However, the drawbacks have become increasingly obvious over the past fifteen years, say some commentators - mainly the ones with an axe to grind with Fianna Fáil, which has learned to play the PRSTV system very skilfully indeed. These days, of course, most people have an axe to grind with Fianna Fáil.

One candidate's superhuman popularity levels - see above example - should not result in the election of a colleague simply because they belong to the same party. Usually constituency colleages profoundly dislike each other and transferring is last thing on their agenda (see Willie O'Dea's electoral record - he refuses to note transfer options on his election posters).

Also, the system means we put the small, local, picture ahead of national considerations. We are not a great nation for looking at the bigger picture and this is exemplified in the way many of us vote. There must be thousands of people in Ireland who "hate" Fianna Fáil, but always vote for Johnny FF down the road because of that time he got Mammy into the nursing home.

It also means that "sweeper" candidates with no real interest in the job (or hope of getting it, in many cases) are chosen to help strategically "better" candidates make the cut, and "strategy" can overcome talent and common sense. This is clearly not a feature of a healthy democracy.

And it brings us back to George Lee in Dublin South (not suggesting for a moment that he fits into the above category). Few people doubt that he will get elected. He is a genuinely good and capable candidate with a record of hard work and a solid knowledge of the economy, which is more than you can say for the vast majority of our TDs.

However, George Lee would be very unlikely to do well in a General Election in the same constituency. Why? The constituency is already home to Alan Shatter and Olivia Mitchell, two very respected and secure FG TDs.

To put Lee in the running in a GE environment, when Fianna Fáil would soak up votes with two, three or even four candidates, would be a terrible strategy for FG, and could even lose them two of their three seats by splitting the vote. Because of transfers, and despite the fact that I am pretty sure everyone in the country would like to be voting in Dublin South on 5 June, purely so they could vote for George Lee.

While we continue to use PRSTV, people like Lee (but who lack a timely bye election) will stay disengaged and uninvolved, because party strategies, and the vagaries of the system, will mean they would have to spend hours attending meetings and funerals just to become known by every Tom, Dick and Harry in the constituency.

The way transfers work means TDs (and councillors) spend the vast majority of their time "making representations" to disinterested civil servants who reply by rote, and attending funerals of people they met once at a match, and writing letters to people who rang every TD in the country about the pothole outside their front door. Any sane individual would realise that this is a scandalous waste of public money and time. But we allow it to go on.

TDs, quite understandably, are reluctant to be voted out, so even the best and brightest of them carry on this charade. If you look back over the electoral records of some of our more productive TDs and Ministers you will find them patchy. They might be churning out reforms and legislation, and making thousands of peoples' lives better in quantifiable ways, but if they don't respond to constituency letters within a week and send representations asking for constituents in prison to be moved to their local jail, they are dead meat.

So George, the best of luck to you.

But until the system changes, we will not see any improvement in our political system, no matter who's in Government.

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