Eire Nua – The Scandinavian List System

November 16, 2009

Ed Walsh, whose article in the Sunday Business Post I quote in full below, is someone I’d like to salute for his insight, clear thinking, wisdom and smarts. In the world of leprechauns and the FF pot of gold that is NAMA it is refreshing to know there are people around of his calibre, who tell it like it is:

Enjoy the following, italics are my comments:


“It’s time to change the way this country is run

15 November 2009 By Ed Leahy

If Ireland were a business its directors would be held liable for reckless trading and the concern would be wound up. Angry shareholders would have good reason for demanding answers to a litany of complaints.

Why did you stimulate rather than curtail the construction bubble? Mention of a property tax and withdrawal of tax incentives would have done the job even though you no longer control interest rates or currency.

Why did you narrow rather than broaden the tax base and ignore warnings that the building bubble and the associated tax bubble were going to burst? Why did you increase public sector salaries by 25 per cent above the consumer price index since 2000 and at the same time add 71,800 people to the public payroll? As a result you have unnecessarily increased the annual tax bill by €7 billion.

Why did you fail to curtail pay increases or deal with the sustained erosion of competitiveness? Why did you fail to act prudently in regulating the banks? Why did you fail to take evidence-based policy decisions in a whole spectrum of areas that you have got seriously wrong, such as planning policy, energy policy, decentralisation policy, Irish language policy? Why did you not tidy up the 25 separate pieces of labour legislation and the seven enforcement bodies that make Ireland one of the most regulated countries in the EU and, for that reason, less attractive for foreign direct investment?

Why have our fishermen got such a bad deal from the EU compared e.g to the Spanish. Why is our agriculture industry so poorly developed with a lack of add on value, R & D, to what is arguably the best grassland in the world. Why is forestry so poorly neglected? Why is our infrastructure, broad band, rail, luas/metro system in such a minuscule state of development. Why are our universities so poorly supported. Why is our film industry in such a state of neglect. Why has our dormant Civil Service not been modernised/restructured with IT state of the art systems and training…How come our opposition parties ,  vulnerable to the most basic divide and conquer dismantling of their opposition to NAMA, have not been able to agree and coordinate an effective challenge to the  NAMA’s  illusory, leprechaun pot of gold.

From this litany of complaints must follow the key question: why has national governance been so defective?

It is not because members of the government are lazy. Anyone who is familiar with the ministerial workload can only marvel that it can be sustained. The ministerial executive role of managing a large budget, the portfolio of public organisations, party politics, ceremonial duties, media doorsteppings, exhausting international travel and the petty, but vital, constituency issues, combine to make the life of an Irish minister unenviable.

Most ministers I have had the opportunity of knowing over the years have been totally dedicated to doing their jobs in the best possible way. But the best possible way is constrained both by the extent of their own ability and the need to be re-elected.

There are vivid examples during the past decades of effective ministers who focused on major national issues of the day, who took the correct and difficult decisions but who failed to pander to their local constituents and were not re-elected.

Given this backdrop there is good reason to conclude that the solution to improving national governance can best be found in changing the electoral process. It is self-evident that the quality of national governance can not exceed the quality of those who govern. We have one of the most conservative and unaltered constitutions in Europe.

Since 1950 almost all the countries of Europe, with the exception of our nearest neighbour, have introduced new constitutions, new electoral processes and new systems of national governance: systems geared to the need for proactive response in a fast moving world. Those that had electoral systems similar to Ireland have long since abandoned them, leaving Malta, with Ireland, as fossilised remnants of an old-fashioned, unresponsive political system.

fossilised remnants of an old-fashioned, unresponsive political system. The word ‘and culture’ could be added here, there is a deep culture in Ireland that is dedicated to preserving the old hierarchy’s and attacking the new!

The new European democracies have shunned the Irish system of election and national governance. All have adopted versions of the Scandinavian List System whereby members of parliament are elected partially from local constituencies and partially from party lists of individuals who have proven records of distinguished national and international achievement: many from business and the professions.

When a government is being formed in these countries the prime minister has available a rich pool of proven talent from which to select the government. Inmost advanced democracies such as Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the Netherlands a clear distinction is also drawn between the executive (ministers) and the legislative branches of government.

As a result those who are appointed to executive roles as ministers do not have conflicting parliamentary duties: their challenge is not to be re-elected but to make the right things happen. Without the distraction of constituency and legislative affairs, ministers, and the government as a whole, can focus on their demanding executive responsibilities and when necessary take timely and unpopular decisions that are in the best long-term interests of the country as a whole.

We should not blame the current and former members of government personally for their grave mismanagement during the past decade.

I disagree. We’ve had a cultural dislike of apportioning responsibility when things go wrong onto the shoulder of individuals in power. We prefer instead to distribute blame onto nebulous causes beyond the individual. We’ve got to get back to ‘the buck stops here’ mentality. If a minister endorses buggy voting machines that cost millions, e.g if his policy of decentralisation wastes millions and does not work, he/she should should carry the can and go.

Each has acted to the limits of their ability. Our system of election and national governance in effect deters the government from moving swiftly and taking difficult decisions. While our electoral process results in the election of a small number of excellent people, the pool from which a taoiseach draws when forming a government is limited indeed, because in effect it bypasses leaders of enterprise and the professions with the necessary strategic management skills and experience.

Our system of election draws over 80 per cent of the Oireachtas from a group of some 1,000 people: the members of local authorities. While a county or city council would certainly be a source of pleasant and well-intentioned people it would be an unlikely source of the experienced talent required to strategically guide national policy and effectively manage a multibillion budget. Every democracy needs participation from the parish pump in its parliament, but when all of its members are drawn from that same source, to the exclusion of the necessary available talent, the outcome is as we have it: not good.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny has shown leadership and a willingness to challenge the status quo while facing down his own colleagues. He has had the courage to address the elephant in the room: the failure of the Oireachtas and the need for radical reform. The most important element of his proposal is the introduction of the List System, since it represents the best and proven means of introducing the most experienced and talented citizens into parliament.

Whether or not the Seanad is retained, or Dáil membership reduced, are matters of lesser consequence. If the Taoiseach has a rich pool of talent from which to draw when forming a cabinet, better government can be expected irrespective of the size or structure of the Oireachtas.

Under the existing electoral system, and based on the performance of the opposition members, there is no reason to believe a change of government would significantly improve the current dire situation: opposition membership is drawn from similar sources and if in government would face the existing constraints.

Unless Ireland does as New Zealand did in 1992,along with the new European democracies at about the same time, and replaces its existing outmoded electoral system, its governments will continue to be constrained in taking difficult decisions and acting promptly. Ireland will continue to have well-intentioned but inexperienced ministers fearful of making serious mistakes as they attempt to learn on the job, or, worse than that, postpone difficult decisions indefinitely.

Ireland is in grave danger. Continuation of the kind of governance and leadership we have endured during the past decade not only threatens Ireland’s economic prospects but possibly also the stability of the state.

While demonstrations are still peaceful, and one sincerely hopes they will remain so, there is no cause for complacency. The trauma of debt, job losses, taxation, home repossession and frustration will intensify in 2010.Far better for a prime minister to give leadership and show statesmanship in a peaceful environment rather than being forced to act in what appears to be a response to street violence.

Serious unrest may well make an appearance in 2010, as it did in Iceland, unless things change, and are seen to change significantly. It is imperative that Brian Cowen acts now and behaves with the kind of statesmanship citizens expect from their prime minister at a time of great national crisis. He and his government have failed to respond swiftly and effectively since the onset of the crisis.

The Oireachtas has not risen to the occasion by conveying a new seriousness appropriate to these dangerous times; rather it has continued the pursuit of trivia and political bloodsports in a raucous way that has not enhanced its standing. It is unlikely that the Oireachtas still commands the confidence of its citizens. Both time and patience are now in short supply.

There is still hope that the Taoiseach can give the kind of strong leadership expected at a time of crisis in addressing major national issues. Reform of national governance is one of the most important. He should respond to Kenny in a spirit of partnership with a view to jointly appointing a small international commission, including former distinguished EU prime ministers, to report by next April on Oireachtas reform and a new electoral system, followed by a September referendum.

As an immediate measure Cowen could announce a government reshuffle in December and bring world-class talent and experience into the cabinet.

Were they willing to do so, people of the calibre of Intel’s Jim O’Hara or Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary could be government ministers by December 15.Howcould this happen? Article 7.2 of the Constitution permits two members of the Seanad to be members of government. Three Seanad vacancies are due to be filled on 14 December.

The government’s majority in both houses gives it effective control over the filling of these seats. It is expected that three county councillors will be nominated.

However, the Taoiseach has an opportunity to rise above the mundane at this time of national crisis and do the unprecedented by reaching out into the national talent pool and bringing the best of it into government.

Were he to do so, his own ratings would be transformed and a clear signal would issue nationally and internationally that the Irish government is serious about recovery and the long haul back to prosperity.”

Dr Edward Walsh is the founding president of the University of Limerick

May I humbly add my poor voice to Ed Walsh’s call for the introduction of political reform along the lines of the Scandinavian List System. May I also suggest he is well worthy to be one of the three members of government, worthy member of the Seanad to be filled on 14 December.

We urgently need political reform to bring our game up to the level of advanced democracies such as Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

I would like to absolutely endorse and humbly subscribe to the proposal put by Ed Walsh for a small international commission, including former distinguished EU prime ministers, to report by next April on Oireachtas reform and a new electoral system, followed by a September referendum.

Thank you, Ed Walsh!


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