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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: March 15, 2010 @ 3:33 pm

    Will Fine Gael really turn the Oireachtas upside down?

    Harry McGee

    We have given extensive coverage in this newspaper to Fine Gael’s radical policy reform policy, New Politics (see original story here).

    Unsurprisingly, Fine Gael describe it as “most ambitious programme for political reform since the 1930s”.  

    Expect the following line, from the document, in Enda Kenny’s presidential address in Killarney next weekend: “Fine Gael, the party that created the State and declared it a Republic, will build a New Republic in Ireland.”

    There have been some row-backs. The quota system for woman has been sent back to the drawing boards. And, as we reported this morning, the list system has also divided the party. A lot of its senior TDs don’t like it and don’t think it will work. While others, like Simon Coveney, think it has merit, especially if the Seanad is abolished.

    But there’s lots more in there. Besides the obvious abolition of the Seanad, there’s the notion of a petition. There was a similar idea floated for Lisbon. To me, it smacks of lip service. Even if you get your petition heard at parliament, will it die a death there, like Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly’s report on the Lost at Sea scheme?

    Interestingly too, Fine Gael confirms in the document for the first time that it will introduce water charges and other local charges to fund local government.

    It also wants to give constitutonal status to four parliamentary committees and give committees  the power to vet public appointments, such as CEOs of semistate companies, agency heads, and regulators. All in the name of restoring power to parliament.

    The question is will it happen? My own impression is that Kenny and his leadership circle are determined to see it through (and that includes the list system).

    There’s many a slip between cup and lip. I can see diluton happen. At the Constitutional Forum.  I think Constitutional Day (the super referendum day when up to five questions are put to the people) will be pushed back and then watered down. There’s too much to do within a year. Some of the measures won’t be popular.

    In addition, Fine Gael will have to compromise with their coalition partner (probably Labour) who will object to some of the more radical reforms, including possibly, abolition of the Senate.

    And also what sounds great in opposition often begins to look less appealing when you are in government.

    I’m not being cynical. But I will be surprised if half of the major reforms being proposed become reality in the next decade.

    • Joanna Tuffy says:

      Harry,

      You might be interested to know that the Seanad Standing Orders allow for people to petition the Seanad. This standing order hasn’t been put into practice since it was adopted prior to the 2007 election. The point is though that you do not need a referendum to introduce the right to petition the Dail. You just amend standing orders.

      You will know my opinion that list systems are profoundly undemocratic making the decision as to who sits in our parliament solely the preserve of political parties, whereas under the present sytem the voter gets the ultimate say.

      I am with Michael McDowell that the abolition of the Seanad will be a mistake. And he has raised an important spectre, namely that there would be no check on the Dail handing over some of its current powers to the European Union. The slowing down of legislation the existence of the Seanad provides for would at least make it more difficult for a Government to do this.

    • Fiona says:

      Agreed on all of the above, while trying very hard not to prejudge the constitutional proposals without seeing the reasoning when the document is released. BTW your points on referendum complexity and coalition were made earlier this morning by Cian Murphy over on HRinI as well (http://humanrightsinireland.wordpress.com/2010/03/15/constitutional-revolution-iii-further-thoughts-on-process/) where there has been a good discussion on the proposals (http://humanrightsinireland.wordpress.com/2010/03/13/constitutional-revolution-ii-the-dangers-of-piecemeal-reform/)

    • Fiona says:

      Agreed on all of this Harry, You might note also that Cian Muprhy at the Human Rights in Ireland blog made the same points re coalition and practicality of referendum this morning. Seems these will be real sticking points. Also had some excellent discussion there this weekend on the proposals themselves which you might be interested in (http://humanrightsinireland.wordpress.com)

    • Desmond FitzGerald says:

      There is so much wrong with the ‘political’ system in every sense of the word that a document like this can’t possibly address all that needs to be.

      All of the proposals are fine. If they are also backed up by reform in the areas that don’t need a referendum – for example abolishing the Seanad in a country the size of Ireland makes complete sense but where is the replacement for the checks and balances – as The Mad Hatter pointed out do we really want just one rubber stamp when FF is in power – then again if the penny drops with people maybe FF’s days of permanent government are coming to a close and we are growing up.

      I agree with quotas and the list. Quotas are crude but again linked in with proper reform of the Dáil they can make the shock impact that is needed. Where are the plans to reform how the Dáil does it’s business ie there is no reason at all for midnight sittings or any of that nonsense. 9-6 is long enough for proper politics to be done.

      The list system is fine if local government is reformed too so that it deals with the clientism attitude of Irish people.

      What is FG going to do to break the link between business and financing politics – where are its plans to state fund parties – it would be far cheaper to fund parties than to pay the cost cornyism for the backhanders and bail outs given in secret in return for changes to a law here and there in favour of the person who gave the money.

      If the main proposals that need a referendum are supported by more detailed reform on the interlinked issues then go for it.

      However, if anyone expects FG to reform deeply they need to temper their ambition because to date FG can’t even get its own public reps to provide and publish receipts for what they claim.

      Then you have former FG leaders patronising the rest of us about cuts and the like while they line their pockets. Garret welched on a debt and since then has more more than enough money to pay that debt – even belatedly. John Bruton and Alan Dukes continue to bleed pensions while also being in receipt of huge private sector income and then to say the government is right to cut spending from the bottom up.

      When FG leads by example on the issues it does have control over, such the pensions, expenses and allowances its own reps claim and refuse to provide receipts for ( ever check how many FG reps are claiming for accomodation costs who do not have a mortgage or rent to pay) then it can claim some credit – until then ‘on your actions ye shall be judged’.

      So of course FG will be a better government than FF – that doesn’t mean it will reform to the degree that is required.

    • barbera says:

      So having fallen victim to its own propaganda, FG must now convince the rabble that it really means business. Smacks of desperation. I doubt if Dunnes Stores will be out of blue shirts by close of business today.

    • enda says:

      hmmm, a lot of talk from FG about political reform, yet nothing about the political appointments to state agengies and boards, nothing about introducing any regulation to political lobbyists and nothing about removing unvouched expenses for TDs. Perhaps most importantly theres also nothing about introducing a transparent system of government in which spending, expenses and activities are freely and transparently in the public domain. Without these reforms, all the rest will be so much window dressing.

    • Michael says:

      Harry, I’ve been thinking of a national list system for 15 Dail seats replacing the Senate. With such a system would it be feasible to have independent candidates run on a list of one?

      I mean lets say someone like David Norris was to run by himself on a list in such a system. The options on the paper would be something like; FF, FG, Lab, Greens, SF, Independent list 1, Independent list 2 etc Such an independent would only need to secure 1/15 of the votes in order to be elected.

      A local politician like Healy Rae or Lowry wouldn’t be able to muster the vote, but an independent who can draw votes all over the country could. And may have more appeal to the sections of the electorate that are not strongly party affiliated.

      Such a system could work for celebrity independents or those from niche parties. Declan Ganley may have had more of a chance getting in on a list than on the current system. What do you think?

    • solenoid says:

      I strongly believe that we need to begin a major process of constitutional reform. Bunreacht na h-Eireann is a document from another era and reflects the beliefs and moral code of its time. Clearly the moment has come to re-formulate large parts of this document to better suit the principles that we aspire to in 21st century Ireland.

      But is this the way to go about it? Fine Gael’s latest proposals seem to me like a shallow attempt to portray themselves as “having ideas” and to tap into popular disillusion with politics. I don’t believe that a ‘referendum day’ is the way forward here. A nationwide, consultative process would be a far more and meaningful way of re-examining the constitution. If FG want ideas from outside of politics (as per the reasons given for their list system) then they should begin by proposing something like this.

      And there is much more to be dealt with here besides such relatively inconsequential things as the president’s term of office. Bad as our political malaise is, it pales in comparison to our farcical judicial system, where paedophile priests and middle-class drunk drivers get a slap on the wrist and a suspended sentence while troubled adolescents are readily condemned to the institutions that prepare them to become psychopaths.

      That the judiciary are appointed by the Government probably accounts for the high level of corruption historically prevalent in Irish political life. Notwithstanding the great work of Fergus Flood and others, the fact remains that many judges from the District to the Supreme courts are deeply politicised and many others are unfit for office due to their plain stupidity. A meritocratic system of appointments would be far more appropriate and may actually help engender a more just society…and surely that is what justice is about?

      If we want to talk about change, everything should be on the table. Its time for National Forum on the Constitution, the referendum day can come afterwards. Let the people have their say first.

    • robespierre says:

      Elaine Byrne hits the nail on the head yet again today. I have to say, notwithstanding the reservations of somebody like Joanna, I think a partial list system is a good thing.

      It makes it easier for people with specific experience who can add value to the legislative process and committee work to do so. I am less convinced by McDowell’s argument but think that when the Seanad is abolished, the balance between the Dáil and the executive needs to be more firmly struck.

      Frankly the glaringly obvious gap here is the fact Ministers are drawn from the Dáil. Have much greater flexibility in appointing the cabinet from within and without the Dáil would demand that Ministers are called to account by parties in the Oireachtas.

    • I think that having a mix of TDs elected by different means is a recipe for unnecessarily and unhealthy tension in government. Imagine trying to sell a potentially unpopular jobs program if you were a minster elected as a TD by the list to colleagues in cabinet who are mostly PT-STV folks. They will shut you down saying you don’t know the reality on the ground etc. The mix in electoral systems does make sense but in the context of the overall parliament i.e. the Oireachtas not in a single chamber. That’s the whole point of having more than one chamber to broaden the expertise and opinion while not setting up unnecessary and wasteful conflict for its own sake.

      Also, for those who protest that lists will only be controlled by party hacks list can be open as well as closed meaning the public can decide the order and tear up the script lead down by HQ. That said, and having been on the ballot, I’m not blind to the power of HQ in candidate selection and support across the parties. And let’s face it FF in recent elections proved that often times HQ does know best. Would they have gotten the results they did if the locals had picked the candidates every time? Reading Pat Leahy and others as to who the locals might have gone with, I very much doubt it. Remember those locals are hacks too, just with more loyalty to an individual than the party.

      So I would retain the Seanad and being pragmatic open up voting to all citizens via a list on a provincial basis with a national top up though my ideal would be people voting an open list system for dynamic panels the size of which reflects the number of votes cast for them. So in one parliament we might have 15 senators elected on the health panel with only 7 on the education one, the next time it would be the other way around. The point being that it would allow the people to prioritise the policy focus of the Oireachtas a bit more.

      That said, and before someone from this government decides to come out denouncing this stuff from FG as some pie in the sky effort and then responding with some so-called sensible counter proposal, I would note that the issue of changing the 3rd level seats which Gormley said he would bring proposals to the cabinet by the end of the year (that year being 2009 or was it 2008 or did it just seem like that) on still hasn’t happened. With no bill before Cabinet this side of Easter meaning no chance of being before the Dáil before the summer and then we’re into the budget cycle and who knows if that will bring down the government or not. And sure he’s got a Dublin Mayor to get up and running by the summer, I mean the autumn, well the end of the year at the latest. When he says the end of the year he really means it right?

      Fact is, I think that Labour will oppose the abolition of the Seanad for the reasons I’ve outlined previously and which this blog highlighted that if FF got under 30% in a general election and this combined with the current make up of the local authorities they would be able only to elect 12 or 13 Senators. It might seem like a life raft for them but in fact the far greater number of FG and Labour senators would mean they could man mark the FFers and swamp them thus preventing FF from easily rebuilding within a single term. Taking those extra FG/Lab senators off the pitch reduces the electoral advantage that being in government would give them and marking FF out for two consecutive and substantial terms is the only way Labour can aim to make the jump to 50 plus seat that would undermine the reason that prevents so many who in the words of Pat Rabbitte think Labour from voting Labour.

      Reducing the Presidential term makes sense as 14 years is much too long for someone to be president.

      Stronger powers for committees too would make sense in particular to deal with the consequences of Abbeylara judgement.

      I would also like to see recall powers like those the Tories are proposing in the UK and which exist in the US though with a high threshold required given the partisan nature and low votes required in PR to get elected.

      I would also look at doing things like replacing co-options with rerunning / recounting the previous election results by eliminating the person who has departed and distributing their votes. After all, we already keep the ballot papers in store why not make use of them.

      I would open up legislation to greater public scrutiny and contribution by means of the web; let us the voters point out problems where we think they may exist instead of having to use middle men. The more eyes the better.

    • Murphy's Law says:

      ‘Go n-eiri an bothar i t’aghaidh
      Go seide an ghaoth tri t’thiacia
      Go raibh an phutog i gconai ar do chulaith Dhomnaigh
      Go dtaitni an ghrian ar do namhaid is measa
      Go dtoga na pucai do bheithigh’
      Don’t bother to correct it Deaglan it won’t make any more sense to me that the above probably does to you…
      Feile Padraig…Have a ShamRockin’ Day tomorrow…EVERYBODY :-)

    • Harry says:

      I know this sounds uber cynical and as a non-drinker I have an agenda. But it seems to me that in terms of populism, Fine Gael’s reforms don’t hold a penny candle to the campaign to get Limerick’s pubs open on Good Friday.
      By the way, thanks for so many thoughts

    • Murphy's Law says:

      @8 There may be many problems with the Judicial Appointments System and holders of Judicial office but ‘stupidity’ is not one of them, as you would know if you had undergone the rigorous academic and professional training required to be called to the (Professional) Bar.

      Transparency in Government…? An oxymoron… as any moron knows…
      Remember Blair’s ‘Big Conversation’…
      Politics by definition is about gaining and holding power by sleight of hand duplicity or double dealing…anything else is smoke and mirrors!
      .

    • Harry says:

      On a more serious note, I agree with Joanna and Dan about the list system. I don’t like it. Ireland is a small country and we should know who we are voting for.
      That’s one of the reasons I don’t like the Seanad as it’s currently constituted. Nobody votes for most of these guys, except by a wholly unrepresentative indirect votes. Thus the Seanad is a kind of quasi list system, in which the unelectable get duly elected. I don’t like it. For that reason, I would disagree with Robespierre (above) on a partial list. Nor would I like too many of the Cabinet to be unelected. As well as anything else it would act as a disincentive against good people entering electoral politics.
      Back to the Seanad. The vocational panels are completely anomalous, anachronistic and meaningless.
      There is some truth in Michael McDowell’s that it is part creche, part convalescent home.

    • Martin Knox says:

      That reform is identified by Fine Gael as being of some importance is a step in the right direction. Reform of what passes for the ‘democratic process’ in the Irish republic is long overdue. What is blindingly obvious is that we cannot continue the way we’re going: reform has to be linked to personal responsibility for those who make key decisions on our behalf. Our masters must be held accountable. The way the business of state is currently managed, leaves the public purse massively exposed and those with the responsibilitis for public financial control don’t seem to understand what their responsibilities are as most, if not all of them received inadequate training for their roles.
      Reform is a major undertaking requiring a road map which must be realistic,attainable and time bound. Failures of government are massive at both national and local level. It has also been apparent for some time that our democracy is being undermined by non-democatic forces which are allowed to exercise undue influence at the expense of the rights of citizens, including children. Since the foundation of the Irish Republic we have allowed at least two governments to co-exist here, one which is based in Dáil Éireann and the other based in the Vatican. It is gradually becoming apparent that decisions in governance are taken without proper control by our elected representatives. Reform must take back control from undemocratic forces and the vested interests such as the members of the Golden Circle, the Churches, the trade unions, the banks etc. We need strong leaders capable of making unpopular decisions if necessary, based on strong ethical grounds. It is quite frightening to realise that those with power consistently abuse it and when things go wrong they are not held accountable. There are several examples of this, one of the most recent being the efforts of Cardinal Brady to wriggle out of his duty to the state, placing his own career ambitions and unethical loyalty to his organisation above the needs of children. This kind of dereliction of duty by those in high places must stop and reform of governance must put systems in place to eliminate these kinds of risks to citizens.

    • Murphy's Law says:

      Like the un/quote from McDowell but then again he is a Barrister…

    • Buttercup says:

      I haven’t read all the FG proposals but I’m perhaps in the minority who does not believe the abolition of the Seanad. However, and pardon the understatement, it is in dire need of reform. Of course it should be open to general election and if a list system has to be made to fit somewhere, that’s where it should be slotted.

      I would really like to see the Seanad being what I understand was envisaged at its creation: a chamber of experts and minorities to examine proposals and so make sure that populist legislation is tempered by the input of those who know what they are talking about through experience and study.

      The Seanad has been destroyed by the party political system, filled with those on the way up and on the way out who are firmly whipped into line.

      If (what an optimistic word that is!) my ideal second house is unattainable, at the very least election to the Seanad should be reformed so that candidiates are not allowed run for both houses in the same general election. This would mean that candidates choose to be senators and do not view it as merely a second best to the Dáil where they bide their time until the next election.

      I can’t resist commenting on the unrelated pubs in Limerick topic. People who argue the only societal issue involved is church/state separation and that having to watch a match sober from beginning to end is a violation of human rights are yet another faction who make me feel a stranger in my own land. I’m not a non-drinker but I do think there’s a whole lot more to life than pubs (St. Patrick’s day and not in one!) so maybe I’m biased too.

    • I suspect but I hope I’m wrong that somehow someone will try and work the 15 lists seats into a top up system which means all those and only those standing as TDs will be on the list. And so if party X is due 3 of the 15 seats by getting 20% of the national vote that they will get dibs by some odd D’Hondt allocation system. In other words, it will simply be 15 people who stood as TDs but didn’t get in.

    • Desmond FitzGerald says:

      Why hasn’t Fine Gael included directly elected judges and other officials like they have in the USA? Also why not one single mention of politicians’ pensions and perks anbd the abuse of those claims?

    • Cathal says:

      Its interesting that FG are now using the ‘new republic’ line which Eamon Gilmore has been using for quite some time.

      http://www.labour.ie/blog/archive/2009/07/22/learn-lessons-from-the-past-to-build-new-republic/

    • hanna- says:

      @ 20. What are you saying Cathal — Enda and Eamon in civil partnership?

    • Thomas says:

      Well, I don’t really know.. Kenny is slated one moment for not doing enough and now when he comes up with his newpolitics document he’s yet again slated by people saying that none of these proposals will see the dawn of day…

      People are too easily influenced by the Dublin based Media (including The Irish Times), who want to see another Dublin Taoiseach.. such as Gilmore or Bruton.. And it is obvious by reading the comments on here..


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