On 26 October 1989, just 17 days after the Berlin wall fell, I was in
Estonia’s second city, Tartu, as guest of the Communist Party. I was
there as president of the University of Limerick, at the suggestion of
the philanthropist Chuck Feeney, to sign an agreement with the rector of
the University of Tartu.
Estonia was on its knees after 50 years of Russian occupation. Queues stretched onto footpaths outside drab shops. Shortages and neglect were evident wherever we visited. Hopelessness and decay was enveloping.
The formal dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 further compounded Estonian’s problems. A year later we saw vivid evidence of this when we sailed across the Baltic from Helsinki and then along the Estonian coast. We navigating with the aid of old Russian submarine maps. We wondered why the fishing fleets and canning factories we came across had been abandoned, and discovered that the Russians had gone off with the vital canning equipment. Apparently they had done likewise with many other parts of the infrastructure, including the bulbs for the lighthouses; as we discovered with much concern when attempting to make landfall in darkness off Tallinn.
These dire conditions are in vivid contrast to Estonia today. In less than 25 years Estonia has transformed itself into such a modern, efficient well-run country that in many areas Ireland appears dated and neglected by comparison. Estonia has grown personal incomes 19-fold since regaining independence. Budgets are balanced (current deficit is only 0.4 percent). Unemployment is below 7 percent . Government debt, at 11 percent of GDP, is the lowest in Europe; in stark contrast with Ireland’s 105 percent .
Estonian government is streamlined and efficient and is reputed to operate the world’s most effective joined-up digital administration . For example, it is policy that citizens should be asked no more than once to provide specific personal data to the State and one can register a company and start trading in less than 25 minutes. The rest of the public administration is similarly efficient and user-friendly. As a result the burden of government regulation in Estonia is half that in Ireland. According to the Global Competitiveness Report the wastefulness of Irish government is over 50% greater than the Estonian.
Radical reform of Estonian government and administration has resulted from the work of a succession of remarkably talented politicians who have served in the 101-seat parliament . Most notable amongst them is Estonia’s first Prime Minister Dr Mart Laar , who was only 32 when he assumed office. In just two years he managed to privatise most national industry, abolish tariffs and subsidies, introduce a 26 percent flat tax, balance the budget, peg the currency to the Deutsche Mark and prepare for EU membership. A 49 year old scientist, engineer and experienced businessman Andrus Ansip became Prime Minister in 2005, just one year after taking his seat in government. He built on the foundations Laar had created and transformed Estonia into Europe’s most developed digital economy. Ansip now serves as Vice President of the EU Commission with special responsibility for the Digital Single Market.
How did Estonia manage to get such transforming talent into parliament? The answer lies in the electoral system. Estonia, along with almost all of the post-Soviet states, adopted some form of the List System originally pioneered by Germany, Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries. While there are wide variations, it is normal that voters cast a single vote for one of the lists of candidates presented by the individual parties. Proportional representation applies: seats are awarded to the parties in parliament in proportion to the votes their lists receive. In many cases, as in Estonia , provision is also made for the election of individuals not on the party lists so that there is a balance between the local and the national. The political parties vie with each other in recruiting well known candidates to place on their lists. Many are household names who have already distinguished themselves in business, the professions, arts or community. As a result when the Prime Minister goes to form a government there is a substantial pool of experienced proven talent to draw upon. Most members of cabinet have already made their mark in society and are more concerned about taking the right long-term decisions for their country than being re-elected. In many countries where the List System is used it is a matter of policy to draw a clear distinction between the executive and the legislature and ministers are obliged to relinquish their seats in parliament while in office; they are then expected to devote themselves entirely to their portfolio. Having been elected from a national list they are not beholden to a local constituency: their focus is national and long term.
Democracies world-wide have gravitated towards the List System. New Zealand did so in a referendum of 1992. After the collapse of the Soviet Union almost all of the new democracies adopted some form of List System. Ireland has yet to do so and now, alone with Malta, remains the only country in Europe with the STV electoral system . Dail membership is drawn exclusively from local constituencies and consequently its focus tends to be local and short-term, rather than national and long-term. Indeed there are many examples of distinguished Irish politicians who, having taken the statesmanlike national and long term approach, are rejected by local voters because they neglected constituency matters or rejected auction politics.
With reform of the Seanad now on the agenda there is an opportunity to consider the introduction of international electoral best-practice. The well-tested List Systems used extensively throughout the EU should feature. Since the current Seanad electoral system is so curious, and unfathomable for most, the electorate should be well disposed to consider proven alternatives. A proposal to introduce a List System for Seanad elections using PR, similar to that used in Scandinavia, and extensively in Europe, could stand a reasonable chance of acceptance. Were the list system introduced and tested in the Seanad the available talent-pool would be significantly increased and open up the prospect of the Taoiseach exercising the provision under Section 7.2 of the Constitution to select two cabinet members from the Seanad. Acceptance and familiarity with the list system for Seanad elections could be the precursor to doing likewise for Dail elections.
Despite the shortcomings of our existing system we have been fortunate that Prime Ministers of high quality have now and again emerged to provide effective leadership and move the country forward. Lemass had the ability and vision to do so and address the stifling misery of his predecessor. The current coalition has demonstrated its abilities to provide perform under the most demanding circumstances and transform the seriously damaged economy they inherited into the fastest growing in Europe . Enda Kenny and his team can be proud of their achievements and we have been lucky that a man as talented as Michael Noonan was on hand to serve as Minister of Finance. But the available talent pool in our parliament is limited indeed and was so inadequate in the two prior administrations that well intentioned but mediocre people brought the country to its knees.
The quality of governance cannot exceed the quality of those who govern. Our STV-PR system results in the election of those whose focus is local and short term. Our parliament needs people of talent and proven experience whose concern is national and longer term. For this fundamental reason we need to change our electoral system and ensure that the talent pool in our parliament is enriched and strengthened. We have good reason to avoid the consequences of once again being governed by second-rate people who lack vision and competence.