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Column: So, you've made it into government? Here's how to avoid a democratic revolution

Congratulations, you’ve been elected! Luckily you can avoid living up to any promises you’ve made – just follow this guide.

Jonathan Victory

SO YOU’VE MADE it into government. In fact, you have the largest majority in the history of your country’s parliament. You describe this dramatic moment in your country’s history as being a “democratic revolution” and you stress in your Programme for Government that your political system needs “root-and-branch reform”. Don’t get ahead of yourself now!

You don’t want to be overburdened by the challenge of actually living up to promises you make. Luckily this can be avoided if you just manage optics even barely past the point of plausible deniability. Remember how the United Kingdom’s great civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby advised a staff member:

“Bernard, what is the purpose of our defence policy?”

“To defend Britain.”

“No Bernard. It is to make people believe Britain is defended.”

Pledge to hold a ‘Constitutional Convention’

There is a course of action you can take to make it appear that you are pursuing political reform without making any but the smallest of tweaks to the current political system. This will depend largely on your pledge to hold a Constitutional Convention, bringing citizens and politicians together to discuss proposals for reform. You have promised to establish this within your first year of office but wait until the end of your second year; fixing a dysfunctional system of government that contributed to a pervasive economic crisis and loss of national dignity is not the sort of thing you want to rush into.

This Convention must have an agenda of topics set for them, in case they decide to discuss something that directly challenges your interests. Tell them that they must not deviate from these set topics and not prioritise any recommendations over others when they come to suggest reforms.

The word ‘suggest’ is key here, as your government will retain discretion over which reforms to advance and which to ignore. You can defend any proposals you advance by saying your mandate derives from this Constitutional Convention. You may dismiss any of their proposals by saying the government must decide on which proposals to prioritise because the Convention couldn’t after you expressly told them not to.

Use language that will put people to sleep

The topics you give this Convention to discuss must be of defensible importance whilst not directly addressing the power structure of institutions in your State. To keep up appearances, you can include one substantive topic, such as Electoral Reform but be sure to also include a throw-away idea from one of your party members – perhaps a proposal that would put people to sleep before they’ve reached the end of the sentence like “reducing the Presidential term of office to five years and aligning it with the local and European elections”.

But what if the Convention actually conducts its meetings in a constructive and thoughtful manner? What if they actually arrive at reasonable proposals that are moderate but effective means of reform in crucial areas? Heaven forbid, what if they deviate slightly from the agenda and demonstrate a capacity for independent thought? Imagine, say, that the meetings on Electoral Reform include a discussion on direct democracy after a suggestion from the floor, and the Convention ends up voting 83% in favour of providing citizens a formal petition process to call for referendums?

It’s a good thing you retain discretion on which proposals to advance because giving citizens a referendum on letting them decide what referendums to hold would be a cumbersome check on your unrestrained power to do as much as you can get away with until the next election. But even the process of such a public forum arriving at such ideas could set a dangerous precedent of public participation in decision-making. You want this Convention to be enough of a success that it can stand as your fig-leaf gesture towards reform, but not so much of a success that people will support this sort of thing again in the future.

Public engagement is a major aspect of this – be sure to discourage it 

Luckily there are a few things you can do to discredit the Convention whilst still being able to claim its legitimacy when it suits you to. For example, public engagement is a major aspect of such a process so be sure to give this Constitutional Convention a dry, boring name like… “the Constitutional Convention” and have an awkward Twitter hashtag like “#ccven” as a barrier to public engagement through social media.

Allow members of the public to make submissions to the Convention through the internet but don’t commit resources towards publicising this. Thus when confronted with the low level of public engagement you can argue that the opportunity was there for anyone who wanted to participate, in much the same way a rural filmgoer can drive to their capital city to go to the one arthouse cinema in the country showing this one obscure film that they weren’t even aware was on.

You must then handle your responses to the Convention to ensure their proposals will go nowhere you don’t want them to. This will be especially important for your response to their report on Electoral Reform, which aside from the direct democracy proposal, also decided against radical change to the voting system in favour of a relatively modest idea; that the minimum number of seats a constituency can have is raised from 3 to 5, thus precipitating a parliament more reflective of the population.

Don’t have the relevant senior minister respond (obviously)

If you want proposals such as this to go ahead you make a big song and dance about it and have the head of government announce it in parliament. If not, wait for the head of government to be out of the country and don’t even have the relevant senior minister respond to the Convention. Have a junior minister make the announcement to a sparsely attended session in the last week before Christmas presided over by members filling in for the absent speaker and deputy speaker of the house.

At that point your junior minister should do one of two things regarding the report’s recommendations; say that they will be explored by an electoral commission which has yet to be established or dismiss them offhand. So for example when it comes to the proposal for a minimum of 5 seats per constituency say that “the present system has served the State well” and don’t provide any context behind this thinking. If you’re lucky, no-one will draw attention to how your Programme for Government said the system needs “root-and-branch reform”. You may have one of your own back-benchers question why you asked them to discuss the Electoral System at all if the current system has served us well but who cares about that guy?

Your junior minister should also dismiss any direct democracy proposal by saying there’s currently nothing stopping citizens from sending petitions to government, neatly avoiding the point that there’s currently nothing compelling governments to listen to such initiative from citizens.

Don’t be afraid to break explicit commitments

Having set up this process you will have to follow through on some referendums. Let’s say, for example, that you announce referendums to lower the voting age to 16 and to lower the age of eligibility for Presidential candidates to 21. These would be peripheral issues to the crisis of public confidence in politics but cannot be dismissed as worthless or unreasonable proposals. Until that is, you advance the lesser of the two reforms in terms of effectiveness and arbitrarily dismiss the other.

Prioritise the referendum on the age of Presidential candidates, being such an innocuous side-issue that members of the public unfamiliar with the constrictions placed on the Constitutional Convention would conclude that only a farcical process could consider such an issue a priority in the current political context.

Then break your explicit commitment to holding a referendum on lowering the voting age to 16 as this could lead to an expanded voter-base of younger, more progressive voters who began voting habits and political education in school. By all means pay lip-service to youth disengagement with politics but don’t do anything that might help resolve it! Break this promise and prepare for criticism from some aggrieved young people. Ignore them because they’re young and don’t vote. Provoke them further by having the president of your party’s youth wing claim the issue is not a priority right now.

Congratulations. You have performed the optics of a “democratic revolution” without actually putting in the work it would require. You have outsourced that work to citizens and public servants who earnestly believed in the potential for change in your country. You can make your country believe it is being reformed whilst obfuscating your lack of a coherent commitment to reform.

This all depends on whether you actually fool anyone but, in the end, it’s not important to you. Reform was never a priority of yours and you’re working hard to get re-elected to perpetuate the current state of affairs. How could you do that if the current state of affairs was to change?

Jonathan Victory is a writer living in Dublin. He invites you to leave a comment but thinks you should go do that thing you’ve been putting off all day. He tweets at @victorybyname 

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