Democratic scrutiny is dead in the Dáil

 

The best way to bring Irish politics into disrepute is simply to describe it. Let’s take a little snapshot of our democracy at work.

Whatever one thinks of it, the introduction of a property tax is an important policy innovation with major implications for citizens, for the taxation system, for the role of the Revenue Commissioners (whose powers are drastically increased) and for local government.

How did our democratic institutions deal with this major change? The Bill to bring it in was not scrutinised – at all – by either of the relevant parliamentary committees, the select subcommittee on finance or the committee on the environment, community and local government. It was “debated” in the Dáil on December 18th. There were 88 amendments to the Bill, some of them quite complex. How much time was set aside for this work? Three hours.

At the halfway stage of the “debate”, when it was interrupted for other business, the Dáil was still discussing section 1 of the Bill. The Bill has 157 sections. Not one amendment had been discussed. When the “debate” resumed, Michael Noonan thanked the deputies (almost all of them Opposition TDs) for their “very interesting interventions and comments” but a moment later dismissed those contributions as “rambling on”.

After his speech less than an hour was left for the 88 amend- ments. A single amendment was put by Pearse Doherty of Sinn Féin. It was not “debated” in the sense that no one from the Government side argued against it. The charade was so farcical that time ran out even before Michael Noonan had a chance to reply.

At 11pm the Ceann Comhairle piped up to say: “In respect of each of the sections undisposed of, the section is hereby agreed to in committee, the schedule and the title are hereby agreed to in committee, the Bill is, accordingly, reported to the House without amendment, fourth stage is hereby completed and the Bill is hereby passed.”

In other words, the 156 sections of the Finance (Local Property Tax) Bill that had not been discussed in the Dáil for a single minute between them were passed and 87 amendments put down by elected representatives of the people but not discussed either were deemed defeated.

Not a single amendment was accepted by the Government. The legislation as passed is exactly, word for word and comma for comma, what emerged from the Cabinet and, presumably, from the office of the parliamentary draughtsman. The Dáil had no effect at all on the passage of a Bill that will have a significant effect on the lives of citizens.

Is this because there was no time? Certainly not – a planned Monday sitting of the Dáil was summarily cancelled that week at the behest of the Government. Or am I being unfair in highlighting an atypical episode? No. In the same week, the Personal Insolvency Bill, a highly complex piece of legislation, and the cuts to social welfare that have awful consequences for real people, were rammed through in the same way. And this is not just happening with financial Bills.

Last July, for example, the “debate” on the Bill to scrap elections to Údarás na Gaeltachta became a perfect expression of the way parliamentary scrutiny really works. So little time was given to the Bill that all 34 Opposition members present walked out. The “debate” thus consisted of Minister of State Dinny McGinley making a speech and Government Chief Whip Paul Kehoe saying “hear, hear”.

Last week, Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte told The Irish Times: “There is an all-pervasive negativity in the media that is not helping the mood of a people that is in distress and difficulty. I don’t think the media give a damn about where this is going to bring politics. It is worthy of some thought of where the constant denigration of politics is going to bring us.”

Pat Rabbitte is quite right to be alarmed by the depth of public cynicism about politics. He’s not wrong to think that parts of the media simply feed and exploit that cynicism. But media contempt for politics is as nothing compared with the self-contempt of our politicians. There are boy-band fan clubs with more pride, assertiveness and independentmindedness than our democratic parliament. This state of affairs hinges on the cynical willingness of the Government to abuse parliamentary democracy and the pathetic willingness of loyal backbenchers to be abused.

Pat Rabbitte could end this cynicism tomorrow: by cutting his bloated salary; by remembering that promises to voters are not just “what you tend to do during an election”; by not asking us to believe that the system that was so rotten when Fianna Fáil was operating is now fine; and by not showing such open contempt for any TD who upholds a principle.

If he’s as alarmed as he says he is about where the corrosion of faith in democratic politics is leading us, he has it in his power to prove the cynics wrong.

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