On Thursday last the hopes and political aspirations of many hundreds of aspiring and existing City and County Councillors were either dashed or revived with the publication of the new local government electoral boundaries.
Within seconds of being posted online the reports and maps containing the details of the new wards and local areas were being downloaded by political junkies and local election hopefuls across the country, looking to see how the new boundaries would impact on their community.
While these changes, reflecting shifts in population measured at the last Census, are always anxiously awaited, this review had a particular significance as it had been heralded by the Environment Minister as important next step in the Government’s programme for local government reform. Unlike previous reviews this one had a specific goal of improving balance and consistency in representational ratios in local government.
This has been an issue for many years with huge variations in the size of local council constituencies between Dublin and many rural areas. While someone running for election in Dublin City would need 2,500+ votes to secure a seat, someone else running in Leitrim or Roscommon might only require 900 or so votes.
In order to redress this imbalance the Government decided to set terms of reference that reduced the ratio in certain rural areas and reduced it in Dublin. The net effect was that Dublin and other major urban areas get more councillors and many rural areas get less.
The net effect of this rebalancing coupled with the Government’s already stated policy of scrapping Town Councils is a reduction in the number of council seats from 1,627 to 949 and in the number of local authorities from 114 to 31.
This is a significant reduction and it is not going down too well across the country.
While much of the analysis of the review and the changes has understandably focussed on this particular aspect, there is another area which is also worth considering, in the contexts of the Government’s plans to propose the abolition of the Seanad in a referendum later this year.
In scrapping the town councils and reducing the number of local elected representatives so dramatically; have they – to use a phrase from a bygone Fine Gael era – just shot their own fox?
Over the past few weeks and months Fine Gael has been claiming that Ireland does not need a Seanad or second parliamentary chamber based on its size. They have been particularly eager to draw comparisons with a number of the Nordic countries, pointing out that they only have one Chamber and that their average number of national parliamentarians is 160. They even put this claim on their Seanad Abolition posters saying that its time that we too had “fewer politicians”.
The problem with this assertion is that it is just plain wrong. The comparisons Fine Gael try to make don’t work because they compare apples with oranges. They compare bicameral (two chambered) parliaments with unicameral (single chambered) ones and shriek with terror that the bicameral ones have more members – well, of course they have. They are two chambered.
What Fine Gael don’t tell you though is that this is just half the picture. While countries like Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark do not have an upper house of parliament, i.e. no Senate, they have far more powerful, advanced and resourced systems of local government instead. That is how they maintain the checks and balances essential to a proper democracy – balances this Abolition proposal will eliminate.
The statistics country by country are quite impressive:
- Denmark has 98 local authorities and 2,500 local Councillors.
- Finland has 304 local authorities and just under 10,000 local Councillors.
- Norway has 423 local authorities and 12,000 local Councillors.
The most impressive one by far is Sweden. It has a whopping 50,000 public office holders. In other words 1% of the entire Swedish adult population (ie between 18 and 80) is a politician.
Over 3,500 of these public representatives serve on regional council governments. There are 20 of these councils based on Swedish counties. But these are not our Irish county councils – these councils control local schools, health services and have the power to raise their own taxes. Below this regional government tier there are about 46,000 local Councillors running their own local municipalities.
Sweden has approximately twice our population. So to match the Swedish level of public access and participation we would need to create an additional 20,000 + elected positions. Even before Fine Gael put up a single poster we already had fewer politicians per capita than Sweden or any of the Scandanavian countries.
But Fine Gael has such a cock eyed view of its own logic that after the changes introduced by this government:
- Ireland will have 31 local authorities and 949 Councillors.
Doesn’t this run counter to their argument? Surely the way to end elitism is to create more opportunities for access and participation – not less!
Doesn’t this expose and even widen a hole in the Government’s Abolition argument?
The Nordic countries may not have Senate, but they have a sound reason for not needing one. Their systems of government and administration are considerable more devolved than ours, with the Government and parliament retaining less centralised control over day to day services than we do.
In practice this means that the scrutiny and oversight we need to conduct in a Senate can be done by them at the local government level.
The Danish ambassador to Ireland, Niels Pultz, explained this approach in a recent column for the Irish Independent:“Another important fundamental in Danish politics is the division of labour between the national parliament and the local municipalities. The philosophy is basically that issues of importance to the daily life of citizens are best taken care of at the local level. That goes for primary and secondary education, social services, health, child care, local roads, water and waste management.”
If the government seriously believes that it can move our parliamentary system to resemble the Nordic model is it not going completely the wrong way about doing it?
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