Comment

Elections are important

Dec 03, 2018
While social media has made it easy to express one’s views, our electoral process deserves more consideration.

Almost every hour of the day, there is some electronic device asking us to like or dislike, to swipe left or right, to make a comment or express a view. But do we run the risk of forgetting that marking a ballot paper in a voting booth is of far more consequence to liking a sentiment expressed in a tweet whose provenance we barely know?

Elections are important, but the conduct of this year’s presidential election in Ireland suggests to me that we might be treating our democratic process less seriously than we should. First of all, the two major parties decided not to field a candidate. One of them didn’t field a candidate in 2011 either. What does that say about the significance of a national poll, presidential or otherwise?

Accountability

What does it say about the electoral process if local government representatives can nominate, but afterwards have so little accountability over the campaign or conduct of the candidates on the ballot paper? That doesn’t happen when candidates are nominated through the political party system.

The end result was that we ended up with a campaign and an election that was hard to take seriously. I have no quibble with any of the individual candidates; rather with the quality of the debate. Over the course of the campaign and the televised debates, it seemed to me that the candidates barely touched on the primary duty of the president, which is to protect the constitution. Instead, we focused on matters that are entirely peripheral to the function of the highest office in the land. Surely one of the most democratic countries in the world (according to the Economist Intelligence Unit) can do a bit better than that.

Poll surge

It is hardly surprising that one of the main talking points was the dramatic rise of the candidate, Peter Casey, over the course of the campaign. In the space of a few days, Mr Casey’s share of the vote went from 2% (in an opinion poll) to the actual result of 23% of votes cast, leaving him in second place in the contest.

A 20% surge in polls just doesn’t happen in elections involving established candidates or political parties. Even in the 2011 general election, held in the wake of the financial crisis and which was by general election standards an outlier event, the swing to Fine Gael was
just 9%.

Candidate selection

If we are to have seriously elected representatives, the process begins not at the hustings, but at the time of candidate selection. Like any profession, political tradecraft has to be learned. It is perhaps unfair to expect any candidate to show seasoned political skills without having served an apprenticeship in local government or another form of elected office, or alternatively having been involved with a political party in campaigning for others. A merit of the party political system is that it has a structure which can provide a route to higher elected office, and then can support those who attain it.

There are currently six elected representatives in the Oireachtas who are Chartered Accountants representing three political parties. Many of our members have a direct entitlement to vote in Irish Seanad elections by virtue of their University qualifications. The Institute itself, along with a number of organisations such as IBEC, ISME and other institutes and voluntary bodies, has the power to nominate candidates for Seanad elections.

Perhaps this same power should be extended to nominating candidates to presidential elections. If nothing else, it might help focus future campaigns and provide a reminder to the political parties and councils that national elections are indeed of consequence.

Dr. Brian Keegan is Director of Public Policy and Taxation at Chartered Accountants Ireland.