Long-fingering politicians take refuge in committees

 

A long summer rest is as good as any change for change-averse politicians, writes NOEL WHELAN

THIS WEEK they did it again: our politicians kicked the hot potato of political reform into the long grass. For almost a year the All Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution took expert evidence and deliberated on whether we need to change our electoral system. On Thursday it published a detailed report, which while making welcome suggestions about fringe aspects of our electoral system, sent the central issue it was asked to examine off to a “citizens’ assembly”.

In essence what happened is: a committee which spent a year considering an issue considered by many similar committees previously has recommended that the main question it was asked to decide should be left to another wider committee which, if it ever happens, will take at least two years to offer a view on the same question. If that sounds convoluted it is because it is just another example of the convoluted way our politicians go about avoiding doing anything substantial about reforming our political institutions.

Suggesting that some constitutional review group or all party committee should examine the matter has long been the device employed by all political parties to long-finger political reform. Seanad reform has been the subject of no fewer than 14 reports. Instead of making big decisions, politicians love to set up big committees. Now the political parties have latched on to an even bigger gathering – a citizens’ assembly – as the means of delay.

Signs are that the political parties will manage their way through the current pressure for political reform. Government will comment on reform rather than do anything and the Opposition will defer key issues to constitutional conventions or citizens’ assemblies.

In the original version of its document New Politics Fine Gael promised within 12 months of coming into office to hold an omnibus referendum to abolish the Seanad, reduce the President’s term of office, grant constitutional status to four standing Dáil committees, enable a petition system for electors to the Dáil and elect 15 TDs by a national list system.

The decision to abolish Seanad Éireann was previously announced unilaterally by Enda Kenny in a moment of what Fine Gael called “leadership decision-making”.

The other radical proposal to elect 15 TDs by a list system was dropped, apparently after objections from the parliamentary party and in the final draft the proposal is to refer it to a citizens’ assembly.

Last March Labour leader Eamon Gilmore promised to establish a “constitutional convention” which would include some citizens. In a radio discussion last May Senator Alex White rejected my contention that Gilmore was merely sending the issue of political reform off to a “constitutional convention” to avoid giving Labour’s own view on the issue and he promised that Labour would publish detailed comprehensive proposals soon. This week, in one of the best speeches at the MacGill Summer School, Pat Rabbitte fleshed out some reform proposals particularly in the area of ministerial accountability. Full comprehensive detail of Labour’s political reform proposals is still awaited, however.

On the other side Government silence on political reform has until this week been deafening. Even if these were normal political times the Government could be seen as unimaginative and conservative when it comes to political reform.

If it manages to implement its programme for government before leaving office, all it will have achieved is a directly-elected Dublin mayor which is a relatively minor change in local – not national – government; the establishment of an electoral commission which is a largely an administrative change; a whistleblower’s charter which is non-controversial; and a ban on corporate donations which can be circumvented by the rich making secret donations in a personal capacity. It is peculiar that, in light of the shockwaves which have shaken our politics in the last two years, there has been no new impetus or new ideas on political reform from the Government parties – no acceptance even that our system needs to change in light of the lessons arising from the current crisis.

Instead of announcing groundbreaking initiatives on political reform in Glenties this week, Ministers simply played the role of commentators. I listened on Monday to Mícheál Martin make excellent suggestions about how parliamentary decision-making would be improved by better resourcing of the Opposition with research and policy support staff. On Tuesday I listened to Noel Dempsey passionately make the case for electoral reform. On Thursday Pat Carey set out terrific ideas for improving the power of the Dáil.

I thought how marvellous it would be if these men were elected to government – and then had to remind myself that they are in government.

A central criticism of our political system is that the executive has too much power, but on this central issue members of the current Cabinet imply they are powerless. They suggest, for example, that even minimum changes cannot be implemented without all-party agreement. The Government can apparently commit billions to banks without consensus and guillotine significant legislation but Ministers imply they cannot use their power and Dáil majority to change the system.

Power in our current system rests in the Cabinet so it is Cabinet which needs to get this reform done. They should knock heads together and ensure their existing commitments, like banning corporate donations, are implemented. They should sort out the Civil Service logjam delaying the establishment of an electoral commission. Then they should agree a further list of reforms including those they suggested this week, which do not require constitutional change, and order the necessary legislation ready for the Dáil’s return in the autumn.

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