Proportional Representation – why we should support it and why the Greens need to defend it

Ireland uses proportional representation to elect members to Dáil Éireann, the national parliament and has done so for decades without the catastrophe predicted by opponents of PR like The Australian columnist Jenet Albrechtsen (article here) and without complaints like those of my local federal MP Kelvin Thompson who writes in his most recent electorate newsletter about the number of candidates contesting the 2012 Moreland Council elections as “confusing for voters” (you can read the Summer 2012 Wills Report here).

Proportional Representation gives parts of our community unlikely to gain political representation in single-member electorates the chance to play a formal role in our democracy. It means political interests that are single-issue, a little outside the mainstream or have struggled to gain voice within the big political parties can still aspire to be elected to local councils or Parliament.

PR’s opponents have tended to be critical of how this system reduces the threshold of votes required to elect a candidate and it has undoubtedly been good for smaller or newer parties like the Greens to have a chance of election to public office. Without PR it is likely Australia’s political system would more closely resemble that of the US where it is virtually impossible for new political movements to break into the elected political system.

Similarly, PR gives the community the chance to assess the qualities of new parties without the requirement of electing them in single-member electorates. Voters get to make judgements about whether to give them a greater say in future elections as they have with the Greens who now have a Deputy Leader representing a single-member electorate in Melbourne or consign them to the political waste basket as they did with Family First.

PR is an important safety value within our democracy making sure significantly sized and supported minority groups are not alienated from representative politics – it gives them a stake in the system and it removes the temptation to join existing political parties to internally pursue their single-issue agenda.

As MPs go, I have found Kelvin Thomson to be a pretty good local representative and have been delighted with his involvement with issues like the campaign against live animal exports, his interest in environment issues and the positive community role he played following the tragic death of Jill Meagher (giving credit where its deserved – Thomson’s work here was in cooperation with the local State MP Jane Garrett). But I disagree with his views about PR in Moreland Council.

Moreland Council is a fast changing part of Melbourne including the suburbs of Brunswick and Coburg and should actively encourage as many voices as possible to participate in elections. This doesn’t mean sitting Councillors will (or should) be changed but rather it allows more people to seriously participate in the council’s democratic process.

And if there’s anything Moreland Council has needed lately its new and different ideas. True, Moreland does some things very well, its Libraries for instance are excellent as are local parks, but the lengthy closure of the Brunswick swimming pool (it was closed when I moved here last summer and is still a building site) and regular news reports about failures of the Council to reliably separate recycling from other garbage doesn’t convince me the solution lies in limiting the number of candidates who think they might have a chance to be elected to Moreland Council.

And that’s what this change would be about – limiting the numbers of candidates contesting future council elections who believe they have a genuine chance of election and who consequently make a campaigning effort to match. There’s a huge difference for candidates between contesting council wards with four Councillors to be elected and wards who will elect just one – and this can be seen early in such campaigns where many candidates simply realise they have no chance to winning the single position up for grabs and curtail their campaigning, often leaving their issues to similarly quickly recede into the background.

From a party political perspective removing PR from Moreland Council is likely to have a sudden and dramatic influence on the Greens’ ability to gain local council representation. So for that reason at least I would expect the Greens to strongly oppose any such change, just as Labor could be expected to support it.

I’ve written before about Labor’s electoral strategy of chasing the support of Greens voters but this suggestion to change an electoral system goes a step further. It removes political structures that give the Greens a beach-head to build their party. Its smart but tough politics by Labor and could cripple the Greens in the longer-term by denying them local representation and all that comes with that including resources, profile and importantly the ability to train future state and federal candidates. It would also make it more difficult for the Greens to recover from any future electoral downturns which could turn a temporary electoral setback into a more permanent situation.

The Greens, from a party perspective, should be worried about attempts to remove proportional representation from Victoria’s councils but the broader community should be worried about the impact such changes could have on the vibrancy of Victorian local government elections – I see large council electoral fields as a positive sign for our democracy rather than a bothersome confusion.

The electoral commission is considering these matters so you can make comments about this or other aspects of Moreland Council’s elections by visiting the Victorian Electoral commission website here.

What the Melbourne by-election tells the Greens.

My article about why the Greens went so close to winning the Melbourne by-election without getting over the line first is available at Online Opinion today. You can find it here.

Jennifer Kanis, Labor campaign poster, Melbourne by-election, July 2012

Cathy Oke, Greens poster, Melbourne by-election, July 2012

Why the Green Vote Will Rise in 2012, article in April ‘The King’s Tribune’

In April’s The King’s Tribune I respond to Drag0nista’s piece ‘Have the Greens Peaked Already‘ and argue the Greens vote can rise in 2012. Here is the link to my article.

Also, you should encourage local publishing and public policy debate by buying The King’s Tribune at your newsagent.

‘Burma and Bipartisanism’ Online Opinion article

Suu Kyi home on University Avenue

Here is the link to my article ‘Burma and Bipartisanism’ available on the Online Opinion site from today:

“It is time the west made some efforts to demonstrate at least something like the domestic bipartnership they are demanding of the Burmese”

Dustin the Turkey and why Fianna Fáil are letting Ireland down (…again) by not contesting the Presidential election

Dustin...not in the race...much the same as Fianna Fáil

First a confession. Feck, this is already sounding Irish… anyway a confession: recently I joked my favourite candidate for Irish President, of those who seem to be in the mix, was Dustin the Turkey.

My fondness for Dustin’s singing ability and devil may care attitude is well known. And over a few Tigers we were discussing the potential entry into the race of celebrity candidate Gay Byrne and the exit of Senator David Norris. My beer-assisted argument was if a celebrity like Byrne, who claims no political affiliation, can be taken seriously then surely a celebrity like Dustin, who’s taken an interest in public policy previously advocating extending the DART to Cork, would be taken just as seriously.

Byrne, after all, never made it to Eurovision or released a single, ahem CD, with Geldof. And what’s one more bird in the Phoenix Park? At least this one can sing and I am lead to believe, use indoor plumbing [this we know because the RTE takes a dim view of guests who don’t and probably wouldn’t have them back]. Dustin himself started the rumour about a possible run via his twitter feed.

Ok, obviously, I was joking and obviously there’s no way Dustin can stand. Being a Dub he is unlikely he could garner the requisite number of council nominations. And, well, he’s a turkey.

Chirping about the faux candidacy of a celebrity bird is a result of my exasperation with the Irish political class’ treatment of the Presidency as just another office and just another election.

The Irish Presidency is hugely historically significant and a position of great honour and responsibility. For the Irish abroad the Presidency’s importance should never be underestimated. The diaspora who remember how they felt hearing President Robinson’s placement of a symbolic light in the window of Áras an Uachtaráin as a beacon of hope and welcome for the Irish abroad will know just what I mean.

This all means I’ve found another reason to be ticked off with Fianna Fáil. A long list just got a few lines longer. Last week it was the party’s vacillation about whether to nominate a Presidential candidate. Today its FF’s decision not to field a candidate because, according to news reports, it wouldn’t be in the party’s best interests.

Ireland’s biggest and historically most successful political party isn’t interested in contesting the Presidential election because they might lose. FF is only interested in the Presidency if success is assured. Were this a Cavan County Council election or an MEP ballot fear of losing might wash as a reason not to participate but when it comes to a contested Presidential poll I feel every party who can field a candidate should field a candidate.

Political parties play an important role in democracies and one of their duties must be as an important source of potential national leadership. Once they lose interest in this role, or can’t fulfill it, really all that remains is for them to turn off the lights and close the shop.

We all know FF would lose the Presidential race. Folk are rightly peeved by their stewardship of the country over the last decade but since when did fear of a loss ever give the Irish reason not to race onto the field? It would be like a Irish rugby team the pundits decided was too weak to win simply sitting out a 6 Nations – waiting for the next season. No Irish sporting team would let this happen. But that’s more or less today’s FF tactic.

Right now, Ireland’s economy isn’t far from where it was in 1990 and again Irish are leaving home in significant numbers. These are people who in other economic circumstances would prefer to build their lives in places like Dublin or Donegal or Kerry but circumstances are taking them away from home and in the coming years the Presidency will take on a significance in Irish lore not seen since the last exodus in the late 1980s/early 1990s.

Domestically, things aren’t exactly rosy. So I hasten to add, the Presidency just might have some extra resonance for the Irish at home in the next couple of years.

Fianna Fáil’s tactic of hiding and waiting until people have forgotten what a mess they made of the country is also a politically silly tactic mainly because it ignores one of the simple rules of politics – while people will punish you electorally for what you have done in the past, in FF’s case throw them and the Greens resoundingly out of government, folk will only reward you in politics for what they believe you can offer in the future. Voters want to see the best in their representatives and leaders, and will frequently forgive them for past public policy failings if they can see future potential.

FF’s failure to participate is a tacit acceptance not only of their failure as a government in the past but a statement they have no positive agenda for Ireland’s future. Not participating in the Presidential poll will only make the party’s malaise worse and serve to convince even more voters FF has nothing to offer ‘going forward’. This is not only a decision that’s bad for Fianna Fáil, its bad for Irish politics generally.