A programme of meaningless Dáil reform
Guillotine practices will undermine plans
Dail reform promised - “There is simply no reason to believe that today’s promises of reform are any less cynical than those made two years ago.” (Photograph: Alan Betson)
There is just one thing worth knowing about the Government’s promises radically to reform the Dáil if we vote to abolish the Seanad. They don’t mean it. If you want to gauge their sincerity, go to Dublin Zoo and tell sad stories to crocodiles.
Last week, the Government briefed political correspondents on the plans for Dáil reform that are to be agreed by the cabinet today. From all the reports, those plans look mildly significant.
There will be new Dáil “super-committees” to examine legislation at different stages. These committees will have access to independent expertise. There will be some increase in sitting hours and wider consultation on legislative priorities.
All very fine and well. These are modest and obvious measures that should have been introduced a long time ago, whether or not the Seanad is abolished. But then there’s a “reform” that makes them meaningless: the Government will set a target of a reduction of 20 per cent in the use of the guillotine to ram through legislation without proper scrutiny.
Twenty per cent is a lot, right? If you got a further 20 per cent cut in your wages you’d really feel it. If footballers gave 20 per cent more than the 110 per cent they already give, they’d be super-superhuman. But, in this context, a better comparison might be with a mass murderer promising to kill 20 per cent fewer people in the future and then claiming to be a reformed character. Reducing the most egregious abuse of the democratic process by one-fifth still leaves an egregious abuse of the democratic process.
Let’s remind ourselves what the guillotine involves. Bills wind their way through five stages of consideration, though only three of them really matter: the committee stage, where amendments are made, the report stage where the amended Bill is debated, and the final stage where the Bill in its final form is passed or (very rarely) rejected.
This looks like a decent level of scrutiny – unless the guillotine chops off its head by short-circuiting the whole process, sometimes in a matter of a few hours. The problem is not just that Opposition amendments get short shrift. It is that the Government often introduces amendments of its own at the report stage, amendments that have not been scrutinised at all. These amendments are then rammed through without debate. Sometimes, this even happens at the committee stage.
While this process continues at all, it makes a complete nonsense of all the earlier scrutiny. We could have committees made up of the greatest sages, seers and savants in history and they could deliberate for aeons on every line of legislation. It would make damn all difference so long as the Government can, in the end, simply conjure up its own amendments and have them passed, literally without scrutiny.
Take, for example, the property tax, an issue that affects every household in Ireland. When the original legislation was passed last year, just three of 88 amendments were even discussed.
Not surprisingly, the legislation was flawed and the Government had to introduce a Local Property Tax Amendment Bill, with changes to 16 sections of the act, last March. There were 67 amendments.
How many were discussed, even cursorily? None at all. “Debate” began around 6pm. It ended around 6.15, resumed at 7.05, adjourned at 7.30, resumed at 9 and ended at 10.30 – not much more than two hours in total. Serious issues were raised – the situations, for example, of people with disabilities who had modified their homes, or of those living in homes built with pyrite. None was addressed with the slightest seriousness.
Is this an unfair example, an anomaly in a process of genuine scrutiny? No. The use of the guillotine is not an aberration – it is now the norm. Fifty two of the 90 Bills passed in this Dáil have been guillotined. So we can do the sums. A reduction of 20 per cent in the use of the guillotine would mean that, instead, just 40 of 90 Bills will be rammed through what is supposed to be the people’s assembly. And this is reform: parliament will abandon its basic responsibilities a little less often.
Even this monumental victory for democracy is, of course, to be taken on trust. It’s a “target”. And what reason is there to believe that the Government has the slightest intention of reaching that target? Its promises in this area are written on water.
The Programme for Government pledges to “restrict the use of guillotine motions . . . that prevent Bills from being fully debated, so that guillotining is not a matter of routine as it has become at present.” Instead, the use of the guillotine has actually increased significantly. There is simply no reason to believe that today’s promises of reform are any less cynical than those made two years ago.
This is why there is there is a case for going to the washing line, taking a peg, bringing it to the polling booth next month and putting it over your nose as you vote No in the Seanad referendum. The Seanad stinks – just not quite as highly as this parody of democratic reform.