Would term limits help?

In other countries new situations bring change. In the US, Barack Obama was elected. In the UK, a coalition is in power. In Ireland…sigh. Here we have an bitterly unpopular government, yet the lead opposition party still fails to raise any excitement. Why is that?

There are a wide range of factors why, but one key issue I feel is the fact that politics in Ireland has become primarily, for many, a way of having a career and paying the mortgage. As a result, we have a large number of our politicians who are just there, taking up mass but actually doing little with the job other than what is needed to get reelected. They’re involved in “politics” but not that interested in politics. Imagine you applied that practice to, say, football, where someone was very good at getting on the national side, but not much good at,  or even interested that much in, actual football? 

In fairness to them, it’s as much the voters fault for electing them on that basis, but that does not mean we should not change it. Why should someone be a TD, for example, for longer than, say, three terms? Is our system really being served well by people who are becoming a permanent political class? 

The negative side is what, that we lose “experienced” people like Enda? The argument that someone should “wait their turn” to become a minister is a false construct, put up by primarily by timeservers. Term limits would churn up the system, and get the clock ticking as far as getting things done in politics counts. What’s wrong with limiting a Taoiseach to two five year terms? Show me a Taoiseach who was doing great work after 10 years anyway? Dev was useless after 1937 (we’re very sorry to hear that Herr Hitler is feeling poorly. I’ll bet even the German ambassador’s jaw clunked on the table when he heard that one) and Bertie’s third term is something we’d all like to forget about.

Lemass did 7 years and we’re still talking about him. Noel Browne was minister for 3 years. What’s the difference? Both men went into politics to actually do stuff, as opposed to be there. We really need to have a nice sit down and a think about this.    

5 thoughts on “Would term limits help?

  1. John,
    The problem is that your average punter is currently almost completely excluded from the political system at the moment. Look at the preponderence of teachers and effectively self employed members of the professions. Secondly, it’s a very “inside the beltway” attitude to assume that every job must last longer than five years. People change jobs all the time, sometimes by choice, sometimes by factors outside their control. We tell people that a job for life is no longer a viable option, yet our political masters want that for themselves? If someone will not go into politics because they are not assured a job for life, then they should not be in politics, because that is not life in this republic. I can lose my job tomorrow, and if my elected officials think that’s odd, then they are not representing Irish life as it is.

    You assume, for example, that politics seems to attract the inherently corrupt. People change high paying high powered jobs all the time. That does not mean that they are engaged in corrupt practices in their existing jobs. My own experience in politics and dealing with politicians, is that most are not corrupt. I suspect that your own experience in FG is the same. Is every retiring FG TD or senator selling his services to future employers? I doubt it. As to expending considerable resources to get elected, whilst this is true, it’s surely an argument for reforming the costs of getting elected, as opposed to assuming that the purpose of a long term job in politics is to pay back one’s debts.

    I do agree that term limits alone are not the only reform I aspire to seeing implemented. As to hurting the opposition, considering that even the opposition parties in the current Dail support the idea that the opposition role should be marginal (going by their plans for political reform, anyway) that’s not something I’d lose sleep over.

  2. If you are interested in term-limits, it would make sense to look at a country where there are term-limits – e.g. Mexico where a one-term limit applies. A problem which arises there is that parliamentarians then face a problem of having expended considerable resources getting to where they wanted to be, they will still have to fed and clothe themselves post parliamentary career.

    Since a five year career gap is considered fairly significant in most areas of employment, it is very difficult for your average punter to give politics a shot in the knowledge that it works out – the very best outcome – you’ll be back looking for work in a few years time but with a significant disadvantage compared to everyone else. So, such systems tend to favour those who can take those risks i.e. the financially secure. Or, what seems to happen from my understanding of the Mexican system is that politicians use their positions to curry favour with future employers. Obviously you can put safe-guards around such systems but by denying politics as a career and imposing term-limits, you are favouring the wealthy and encouraging corruption. If you are serious about term-limits it would make sense to read up on how they operate in other jurisdictions.

    With regard to cabinets and Taoiseachs and all that, I may well be adopting an old-fashioned view of politics. However, your initial post seemed to suggest term limits as a form of change meritorious in their own right and I think you’ve now realised that they’d be disadvantageous without wider reform, as in a system where the opposition’s role is marginal, term limits would clearly hurt them the most.

  3. Sorry, John, I don’t think you got the point. You are assuming that the candidate for Taoiseach would always be someone hanging around in the Dail for years. How would it penalise the opposition? They could still make a good contribution as legislators. Again, I think you are taking the old fashioned view that the whole point of being in politics is to be in the cabinet. As for using their position to attract employment, who are you talking about?

  4. By reckoning, a three terms would have meant that you wouldn’t have any of our Taoiseach’s except for Cosgrave. Lemass would never have got his 7 years as he had been a TD for about 40 years by the time he took over.

    In particular it would penalise any member of parliament who serves for the opposition parties.

    The other aspect of term limits is that politicians in the final leg of their term, because they can’t be re-elected anymore, so they use their position to attract future employment. Which isn’t exactly a good thing in my book.

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