Ten reforms Enda Kenny should bring in now
The Dáil purports to do a 21st century job but shelters behind 19th century privileges
The Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, likes to use business metaphors but our Dáil operates on principles that no business could afford. Photograph: PA
Taoiseach Enda Kenny is fond of using business metaphors. “Ireland is open for business.” It is “the best small country in the world to do business in”.
That declared focus might raise hopes that the Coalition would seek to have parliament adopt some of the efficiencies of business. We have a Dáil that operates on principles that no modern business could tolerate. Its productivity is poor. Its working disciplines are lax. It purports to do a 21st century job while sheltering behind 19th century privileges.
If the Coalition were in earnest about reform of parliament, here are 10 things that they could do to make the Oireachtas more effective, more accountable and better respected by the people it serves.
1 They should put up a proposal to modify Article 16.5 of the Constitution which, through the Electoral Acts, prescribes our current system of proportional representation. It was devised almost 90 years ago to address the democratic sensitivities of a new State emerging from civil war. Nowadays, it makes messenger boys and fixers of TDs. It is a breeding box for the worst kinds of clientilism.
2 They should put to the people an alternative model of PR that does not pit members of the same party against each other at election time. They are obliged to pledge themselves to deliver more favours to sectional interests. There are list systems that do not subject candidates to the tyranny of tiny pressure groups while preserving the principle of proportionality.
3 In a system that does not require candidates of the same party to outpoll each other, it logically follows that fewer legislators would be required. Thus the numbers of TDs in ratio to population could be reduced by amending Article 16.2 of the Constitution. A Dáil of, say, 120 members would arguably function more efficiently and effectively than a House of 166 members. Reducing the Dáil by 46 members would save more in salaries than abolishing the Seanad.
4 The parliamentary working year should mirror the real world of work. Last year the Dáil sat for 123 days. In 2012 it sat for just 99 days. Even the House of Commons, no great model of industry, sat for 150 days. A private sector employee working a five-day week, allowing for public holidays and for four weeks leave, would work 226 days in the year. Because the House’s sitting days are so few there is a constant pressure on debating time. The majority of Bills are guillotined. In effect, most legislation is rubber-stamped and goes through on the nod.
5 They should abandon the myriad system of members’ allowances which at best generates cynicism and is, at worst, open to abuse. There should be a fixed rate for the job, with inbuilt provision for mileage, accommodation, telephones, office supports, research etc. There is a long and questionable tradition in the Irish public service of viewing allowances and expenses as untaxed income. The Oireachtas should take a lead by consigning it to history. Arguments that deputies living in Dublin would be advantaged over their rural counterparts are marginal but could be addressed.