Women in the Dáil

Ken writes: The Irish Times reports that the Fine Gael government has proposed a quota system requiring political parties to put forward a minimum of 30% women candidates in general elections or lose government funding.

Because the Irish system of proportional representation has multi-seat constituencies, an easy way to implement a quota system would be to mandate that each party stood at least one male and one female candidate in each constituency. That wouldn’t automatically translate into more women in parliament, but it would give voters a chance to vote for women.

I’m all for changing the law to make parliament more representative of the general population because I don’t think the normal argument against affirmative action applies in the case of politics. The normal argument is that decisions made in accordance with affirmative action policies tend to result in jobs going to people who are not the best candidates for the job. When that happens, the best candidate has been wronged, the health of the employing institution suffers and the successful candidate can endure the stigma of knowing they have someone else’s job just because they got a free pass for something they have no responsibility for (their sex). They didn’t personally deserve the position, but were successful because of an institutional need to make up the numbers.

I think the normal argument against affirmative action is convincing in most cases. Politics is different. In politics, unlike academia and the professions, it’s much less clear what counts as one’s qualifications for standing as a candidate. There’s no comparable skill that successful candidates should excel in. So there’s no way of determining merit or desert. Let me change that, politicians may have all sorts of skills, of course. But the job of a politician doesn’t involve the exercise of some special skill the way medicine or law or academic roles call for the exercise of a skill. Politicians don’t even have to be intelligent. They don’t have to have the people’s touch, as Bertie Ahern did. They don’t have to be charismatic (think of Gordon Brown, for example). Gordon Brown was emphatically a better than average politician despite not being a man of the people. The politician doesn’t have to have specialised knowledge of anything. Being a politician is not a technical profession at all. So for this reason there isn’t an objective way to rank candidates, internally related to the needs of the job they are candidates to fill, that would determine who has more merit or who deserves it more.

In fact, I think the way politics works in practice makes the disanalogy with true professions even starker. Politics is the classic place where it is who you know not what you know that matters. Over the years the many successful male candidates have been successful because they had the right background, the right family connections, the right friends, went to school with the right people and so on. None of these things should determine merit for the purposes of being a candidate for election because if it did it would lead to a self-perpetuating elite (when politicians from that background channel influence and money back to others with that background).

If there isn’t a way of measuring merit relevant to the job of the politician, then the normal argument against affirmative action doesn’t apply. And the reasons in favour of a more representational parliament are obvious, so there should be a quota system of some kind. A nice thing about the simple proposal above is that, if there were two exceptional male candidates, neither need miss out because the party could choose to stand two men and one woman. There is nothing stopping parties putting more than two candidates forward if they think they have the support in the constituency to sustain it.

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2 thoughts on “Women in the Dáil

  1. Helen Conrad-O'Briain

    Politicians are a necessary evil since divine right monarchy simply doesn’t work (and is bad for the soul).
    I find it impossible to believe that wanting to be one does not signal a deep personality flaw. I suspect, therefore, we could get anyone of them for considerably less money than we are paying for them now.

    1. Dot

      Well, I do think that there have been and I hope still are people who go into politics because they see it as a route to trying to make things better. Probably even those people experience some sort of thrill of their own importance, but it would be foolish to dismiss all efforts to effect change through the parliamentary system because of its fringe benefits for the ego.

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