I deliberately wrote the title of this post provocatively. What do I mean by “ordinary” and “decent”? Well, by ordinary I mean someone who has a 9-5 job that makes the flexibility needed by a candidate very hard to come by. By decent, I mean someone who isn’t going into politics at best for the good salary and perks and at worst to engage in corrupt practices.
But I’m also talking about something bigger: can an ordinary person sustain the disdain bordering on hatred directed at politicians (of all parties) mixed with the irrational and overly emotional expectations of modern voters? Imagine going into a clothes shop with your heart set on a particular jacket, and then discovering that you can’t afford it. You might haggle with the guy in the shop, but at some stage you will accept that your desire (the jacket) and the amount you are willing to pay are not realistically compatible. You won’t feel personally aggrieved by the guy who served you, or declare that he is obviously in the pocket of another customer with the intention of selling the jacket to him for a lower price. You will accept market reality. Yet we don’t accept that in politics. Candidates for office are treated with a rudeness and dismissal of reality that would get you a reputation for unpleasantness if it were applied to any other person.
I’ve mentioned this to people, and they always say the same thing: politicians deserve it. It is certainly true that politicians as a body have managed to create an image for themselves based almost entirely on their unwillingness to actually address glaring public anger about aspects of their professions. Most TDs have no problem with the current system of salaries, pensions and expenses, and I say that because if a majority of them decided to change the system, even the cabinet could not stop them, But they don’t.
Yet a by-product of that tolerance of public anger has been to lower the respect for TDs to a level where most people would, I think, be unwilling to submit themselves to the abuse of election.
How do you change it? I’m becoming more convinced that the normal party conveyor belt for Dail Eireann, party advisor to county councillor to senator to TD, or a variation of it, is becoming an obstacle not just to ordinary voters but even to politically active people who do not wish to become “professional politicians”. It’s an issue which I, as a former candidate now out of politics, have noticed, and tends to be dismissed by professional politicos as people just whinging because they don’t want “to do the work”.
But that is not it either. Indeed, having watched the way our legislature has dealt with the X case or banking regulation or white collar crime or monitoring of public spending for value, they’re not “doing the work” either. It comes down to the fact that many people have an interest in a specific area, and so don’t want to be county councillors. Let people like Labour’s Dermot Lacey, who actually has a passion for local government and what it can do, be county councillors, and let people who want to be legislators, if only for a single term to focus on an issue they want to focus on, be legislators.
How? We should start with term limits, forcing candidates to realise that politics is not for life. If you can’t get what you want you want to do in two five year terms, move on. It’s the single biggest measure to shaking up the cosy political system. And by the way, just watch and see how many opponents of term limits are aspiring pols themselves.
Secondly, and I know this seems loopy, but I’m coming to the conclusion that we should appoint a small number of citizens at random to parliament on fixed one year terms. We already appoint random citizens for murder trials, which are certainly more important than most of the daily crap that legislators do, and such a group would at least ensure that the voice of the non-institutionalised hack gets heard. They would almost certainly be voted down on nearly everything, but it sure would embaress the parties to regularly have to vote down things like cuts to TDs pensions.
It’s a radical suggestion, but one thing is certain: politics and normal everyday existence are getting further and further apart, and that chasm needs to be confronted.