New coalition must make political reform a priority

 

OPINION:If Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore are serious about changing the system, they must show it from the start. Here are five practical suggestions

GIVEN THE fiscal, banking and employment crises faced by Ireland in 2011, it is not surprising that the election campaign was dominated by debates about economic policies. However, the emergence of political reform as a major issue was far less foreseeable, as the topic has not featured heavily in recent Irish campaigns, and politicians have strong incentives not to make reform politically salient to the public.

Nonetheless, all of the parties devoted a lot of space in their manifestos to the problems in Ireland’s political and governmental systems, and they have proposed some promising ideas for political reform.

There are emerging indications that this topic is of real concern to the Irish public: candidates reported that political reform was regularly mentioned on the doorsteps, and a survey conducted on the RTÉ webpage found that a plurality of respondents feel that political reform is more important than the economy, health or education.

Now that the election is over however, we need to see real action from the new government. If previous governments are anything to go by, the gap between campaign promises and policy implementation may mean that few meaningful reforms are implemented. New governments often baulk at reforms that appeared to be good ideas when in opposition, farming them off to a committee whose report is then ignored.

Many will argue that the scale of Ireland’s economic crisis means that the government cannot afford to devote too much time or resources to an area as ephemeral as political reform. We have argued in these pages before that political reform is no panacea to the problems that Ireland faces in the short term, but that it is necessary if we wish to prevent the country from sleepwalking into a similar crisis in 20 years’ time.

In any case, the division of political labour that allows our system to function means that not all 15 ministers will be focusing exclusively on the economy. Public sector and political reform is deserving of a full ministry and is patently more important to our future welfare than a full ministry of defence.

The process of reforming a national political system is highly complex, and there are several issues that require extensive deliberation and public consultation to be resolved. Nonetheless, the leaders of the next government can show themselves to be serious about this agenda by taking a number of straightforward steps from the first day the Dáil meets and the government is formed.

Here are five specific proposals which we think that the new government should consider immediately on assuming office:

Let the Dáil, not the government choose the ceann comhairle

This currently happens in theory, but in reality the Dáil majority simply confirms the taoiseach’s choice. The first duty of a new Dáil is to elect a ceann comhairle.

We propose that a temporary ceann comhairle be elected until the standing orders are changed to allow for the next permanent ceann comhairle to be elected by secret ballot with open nominations and hustings. The new government must not agree on and then push through a candidate for this office; if it does so we will know it is not serious about reform.

Use the Seanad route to appoint ministers

Enda Kenny has said that ministers will only be appointed on merit and that ministers should not be expected to service constituencies.

But it is difficult to make this happen. Ministries often get divvied up to ensure a reasonable geographical spread and to reward senior TDs who brought in running mates. Geographic origin and partisan loyalty should no longer be prime considerations in nominating ministers who after all, are responsible for deciding on matters of crucial national importance on a daily basis.

Kenny should use his power to bring two Seanad members (who can be specifically appointed by the taoiseach on the basis of their expertise) into cabinet to prove that coalition building in a reformed Ireland is not all about “jobs for the boys”.

For example, the ministry of Foreign Affairs, a post that has previously been filled via the Seanad route, will be a vital position in the coming years. Why not use the Seanad appointment route to fill the post with a figure who has the experience, contacts and stature to be listened to and treated seriously?

Allocate committee chairs proportionately, and establish a system whereby legislation is placed before committees before going to the floor of the House

Committee chair positions, though formally elected, are typically doled out by party leaders as a way of placating those who missed out on ministerial appointment.

We propose that the new government follow best practice from other European parliaments and allocate the chair positions across parties using a proportional formula.

In addition, the new government should make it clear that it intends to move to a system of pre-legislative scrutiny which is commonplace across the EU. This would mean that the heads of all new Bills should be placed with the new committees for debate, discussion and redrafting before being placed on the floor of the House.

Impose a system where publishing departmental documents and reports is standard practice

The culture of secrecy and the assumption that civil servants are there to protect (rather than serve) ministers has been shown to be a major failing of the Irish system. We recommend that all new ministers should publicly tell their officials to publish or make available all departmental documents, reports and spending data unless the minister specifically intervenes.

A new website such as opengov.ie could be developed to facilitate cheap, transparent and accessible publication. Ministers should also instruct civil servants that answering parliamentary questions will no longer be a game where concealing as much information, while staying within the rules, is the object. A parliamentary ombudsman should adjudicate on whether the ministers have failed to answer questions fully.

Change the Dáil’s standing orders so that they favour TDs, not the government

At the moment the taoiseach (through the office of the chief whip) controls the agenda of the Dáil. The Dáil must be allowed to take control of its own business and it should be reformed to enable the opposition to raise issues and scrutinise government in a timely and effective manner.

We recommend that a sub-committee of procedures and privileges be set up rapidly to advise on and implement a complete reorganisation of the standing orders.

The new government’s tasks will be immense. Reforming politics is key not just to addressing the needs of the country at present but also to giving us the best possible chance of avoiding similar crises in the future. Even if the reforms that we recommend are implemented, much will remain to be done.

Political reform needs to encompass many strands in Irish life – the Civil Service, local government, the Oireachtas and the cabinet. This will take time. However, if there is to be a “new politics”, as both Fine Gael and Labour have promised during the campaign, both parties must demonstrate that they are serious from the start.


The authors are editors of politicalreform.ie. Dr Elaine Byrne is an adjunct lecturer in politics at Trinity College, Dublin. Prof David Farrell holds the chair of politics at University College Dublin. Dr Eoin O’Malley is a lecturer in politics at Dublin City University. Dr Jane Suiter is a lecturer in politics at University College Cork. Dr Matthew Wall is a postdoctoral researcher at the Free University of Amsterdam

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