Posted by Jason O on Nov 5, 2013 in Irish Politics
I recently attended a seminar hosted by Dr Teresa Reidy, Jane Suiter, Prof David Farrell and others on the outcome of the Seanad referendum. One point, made by Prof Michael Marsh, which made a lot of sense, was the fact that because we didn’t carry out extensive exit polling after the vote, we have no idea what voters were thinking. It’s a very valid point. We go to all this trouble to have a referendum, and then have no scientific way of measuring the outcome.
Dr Reidy and Prof Farrell also made very solid points about the need for a proper Electoral Commission to manage elections, registration of voters, etc, and it got me thinking.
If political parties are using business-style marketing methods to influence voters, why can’t we have consumer protection style laws and agencies to ensure that the product we buy, a policy through voting, does what it is supposed to do on the (party) label?
Consider the challenge that faces us. We need a body to ensure that elections are run properly. Indeed, if you were to subsume both SIPO and the ad hoc referendum commission into it, you would have a body that not only policed elections to keep them fair, clean and accurate, but also took responsibility for voter education.
It could, by law, establish a eurobarometer style permanent polling operation to carry out exit polls and publish an analysis on each electoral outcome. It could also carry out ongoing polling on attitudes to politics and the system in general.
Of course, such a body would be quite powerful, and so would need to be ultra-transparent, with every group in the Dail and the social partners nominating its board members. But it is doable, and desirable.
After all, it’s completely normal for us to have consumer protection laws and agencies to police and protect our rights as consumers.
So why not an agency to protect us from candidates and parties who try to pull a fast one? Politics is now, effectively, another consumer activity where entities (parties/companies) try to sell us stuff (products/policies) for a return (profit/votes). Is it really that weird to suggest an agency that demands the same standards of our politicians that we expect from our service providers?
How would it work? Well, we could start with a Which? style expert analysis of each parties manifesto at election time, where the VPA could cost and analyse each manifesto independently, put a cost to taxpayers or promises, or point out where parties have not costed things properly, if at all. It could also criticise parties for giving vague promises.
Secondly, it could operate a website where, by law, candidates would be required to fill in a questionaire to allow voters to find the candidate closest to their values. Take the abortion issue: supposing voters could now check a website which gives a clear and unambigous guide as to where your local TD stands on the issue?
Finally, at the following election, the VPA could rate the governing parties as to their manifesto promises and record of delivery.
The obvious question is: Do we need this, and can we afford it? I think it would force politicians to recognise that there is independent scrutiny, and we can fund it from a tax on party political donations.
The key question about an agency like this is this one: How will politicians feel about it? That’s an answer in itself. I wrote about such an idea a few years ago, and was attacked by a load of political hacks who claimed that it was unnecessary, and that the Irish media do an excellent job holding our leaders to account.
That’s the decider: candidates would absolutely loath having to clearly state where they stood on specific issues and values, and that is a single good reason why we should do it.