Unfit for purpose

 

Ambition to reform the Oireachtas and rebalance the powers of the Executive always loses its attraction when opposition parties get into office. Some Government members still talk about the need for change, but their objectives are limited. Where new Dail procedures were introduced, senior ministers are now failing to turn up and answer questions, a situation described as “deplorable” by the Government’s chief whip. Meanwhile, Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s big idea – to abolish the Seanad – looks increasingly like a sop to the electorate that will absorb more time and energy than it is worth.

All parties acknowledge the system is not fit for purpose. The absence of adequate checks and balances between government and parliament is the most obvious weakness. Blaming the Seanad for not preventing the economic crash of 2008 makes no sense when a more powerful Dail was impotent in the face of an unresponsive Executive. Mr Kenny has offered new structures, once the Seanad is gone, and has suggested strengthening Dail committees and a four-day working week. Details of what is envisaged, with an ambitious timescale, should be published. The issue of ministerial and official accountability should also be clarified.

The PR voting system in multi-seat constituencies has been blamed with some justice for promoting sectional and parish pump politics at the expense of national governance. Competition between candidates of the same party at constituency level is far more intense than across party lines and further reduces the time spent on legislative duties. To broaden the pool of Dail members, while reducing constituency pressures, support for the German electoral system, involving “first past the post” in single seat constituencies and party lists of candidates, was advocated by Fianna Fail and the Green Party. Fine Gael and the Labour Party made no commitment.

Having considered the matter at the weekend, members of the constitutional convention opted for reform of proportional representation, rather than its abolition. A major concern was that a list system would centralise power within parties and impact heavily on Independents. The outcome accorded with the findings of a two-year-old study, which showed the electorate to be deeply attached to PR. Back then, voters from outside Dublin wanted their TDs to devote an even greater proportion of their time to constituency work. They also wanted more women and young people to be involved.

The convention suggested that future constituencies should have a minimum of five seats. Non-elected experts could be appointed as ministers and – a poisoned pill – deputies would be required to resign their Dail seats on becoming ministers. The Government is not obliged to accept any of the recommendations made by the convention. It should, however, give them careful consideration if the failures of the past are not to be repeated.