Double-jobbing politicians are short-changing voting public
Double-jobbing by elected representatives is creating a crisis of confidence in the Assembly. It must stop, writes Dawn Purvis
I recently announced the findings of the Progressive Unionist Party's public consultation on double-jobbing - when a politician holds more than one elected position at a time.
Double-jobbing is a real problem in Northern Ireland. We have one of the highest rates of double-jobbing politicians in Europe.
At least 75% of Assembly members hold another elected position, with more than two-thirds of MLAs also serving as local councillors. Only two of 18 MPs from Northern Ireland do not hold other elected posts as well.
Since December 2008, I have been working on a Private Member's Bill in the Assembly which would prohibit members of local councils from also being members of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
It is my view that double-jobbing is contributing to a crisis of confidence in the Assembly. It protects political dynasties and creates the appearance of politicians and their families motivated by personal gain rather than public service.
It keeps new people out of politics and imposes another barrier between voters and the political systems that are there to serve them. And, at a time when many people are struggling to find or keep one job, it's simply not appropriate or fair for politicians to have two salaries - or, in some cases, three or even four - coming from the public purse.
The findings from the PUP's consultation on double-jobbing support these perspectives. Those who responded overwhelmingly supported an end to dual mandates. They also supported the idea of legislating to make this a permanent change.
Respondents expressed a lack of confidence in the sincerity of political parties to end dual mandates on their own, as most have pledged to do. Voters do not appear to believe that parties will actually do this, or stick to these changes in the long term.
Those who were uncertain, or disagreed, with a bill to end double-jobbing were primarily concerned that this could inhibit the movement of experienced politicians from local government to the Assembly. This is a reasonable concern, so the bill would be designed to ensure this was not the case.
Moving from local to higher office came up again on the matter of how candidates would be affected if Assembly and local elections are held on the same day, which will likely be the case in 2011.
Consultees ultimately favoured the option of allowing candidates to stand for both levels of office if local and Assembly elections are held on the same day and to require their disqualification from one of those offices within a short period of time if in fact they are elected to both.
With interest and confidence in politicians at an all-time low, what is needed are new faces with fresh voices. Local councils are one place where that renewal can and should be encouraged.
Ending double-jobbing is about vitality: bringing in new people, new perspectives, new voices and more diverse ideas.
The argument of those who hold dual mandates is that they work hard. Are they suggesting that other party colleagues would not, given the same opportunities?
No matter how hard one politician works, no matter how many hours per week, they cannot put in as many hours as two could - which means double-jobbing short-changes the voters.
It is my firm belief that ending double-jobbing is critical to the future of this Assembly.
Northern Ireland's political leaders need to make a clear and unequivocal commitment to transparency, accountability, and inclusion as daily operating principles for politics and decision-making in our province. Double-jobbing violates all of these. I am planning to bring this Bill before the Assembly in the coming months and hope to gain the support of the other parties, who have all publicly stated their support for the idea.
But will the turkeys ultimately vote for Christmas? Will Stormont deliver what the people want?
I want this change to be meaningful and permanent. An end to double-jobbing can help parties move towards electoral competition based on issues and policies rather than fear and division.
Ending double-jobbing can improve our politics and our politicians. What are we waiting for?