Reform of political system key to developing national policy


OPINION: A robust system of parliamentary oversight is vital to the restoration of public confidence

ASSERTIONS THAT the Houses of the Oireachtas are underperforming are not new.

For many of its 90 years, Dáil Éireann has been derided as impotent, puny, weak and akin to a rubber stamp for government, while the most earnest discussions about Seanad Éireann relate to its abolition.

A large part of the explanation for this is laid at the door of the political system, which stands accused of failing to move beyond party or local interests towards non-partisan and detailed engagement in national policy. Others point to the greater role now played by the courts, media, the EU and (as the credit crunch has demonstrated) international organisations such as the IMF in the determination of government policy.

Monday’s conference in Trinity College, Dublin, on the subject of political reform heard how weaknesses in relation to one core function of the Oireachtas – holding government to account – have increasingly serious consequences as the responsibilities of government expand.

Might the need for tribunals of inquiry, failures in public spending controls and weak regulation of key sectors of the economy have been prevented if there was a more robust system of parliamentary oversight? And how can our national parliament fulfil its potential or the role constitutionally envisaged for it?

Popular remedies include electoral reform aimed at producing national legislators (rather than local ambassadors), and limiting the seemingly untrammelled power of the party whips.

While these proposals are not without merit, I would suggest that there are considerable benefits to be reaped by informed reflection about what parliament, or rather members of parliament, can do given the realities of the political environment in which they work.

The most important commodity in parliament is time, and using parliamentary time to best effect is central to the Houses improving their performance. Few members will disagree that many of the elaborate late-Victorian procedures which still govern parliamentary proceedings and debate are of questionable value.

Set-piece use of standing orders to raise matters of local concern or to raise spurious objections might elevate local profiles but do little to address issues of genuine national concern.

Why have a multi-stage legislative process in each House when many of these stages contribute nothing to the quality or content of legislation?

Most modern policy issues are complex and cannot be adequately considered in a question time format that does not allow proper engagement between members of government and opposition.

Notwithstanding better (and long overdue) funding and resourcing for the Oireachtas, growth in the State’s capacity and the fragmentation of the public service has not been matched by an equivalent expansion in the capacity of the parliament to comprehend, the extension of public authority beyond departments and core government offices and agencies.

Of course, the committee system has been of considerable benefit in bridging this gap and increasing the volume of work produced by the Oireachtas.

There is, however, substantial variety in the quality of work and attendance within the various committees, and most committee reports go unheeded. The work of government is increasingly cross-cutting, and greater fluidity is required within parliament to oversee policy developments.

Would not committees provide a more useful forum for ministers or ministers of state to answer parliamentary questions and to engage members on policy choices?

The Seanad has arguably the greatest potential for reform and is in my view an untapped resource.

In Britain the House of Lords has completely reinvented itself by acting as a filter for EU legislation, looking at the range of issues and identifying those in need of detailed examination by the Commons and its committees. It has also produced influential reports for government on key issues of public policy, for example on the accountability of regulators.

In a similar fashion, it may be time to move the Seanad beyond its principally legislative role to meet some of the needs of modern government.

It is no mere nod to classical ideas of representative democracy to assert that our parliament has a central role to play in modern Ireland, and that parliamentary accountability should be strengthened. Ultimate accountability must reside with public institutions, and policy choices made by governments can only be legitimised through exposure to parliamentary scrutiny.

Though exceptional in nature, the recent parliamentary debates over the Ryan report and the authority it provided for subsequent government action demonstrate what can be done when parliament is engaged.

A generation ago government chief whip Barry Desmond expressed his concern that without reform the Dáil would “ossify into a permanent state of preservation”.

For the Oireachtas to be relevant in the 21st Century, meaningful reform of parliamentary procedures and organisation must take place.

Moving beyond party politics, this will serve to narrow the gap between public expectation and parliamentary performance.

Dr Muiris MacCarthaigh works in the Institute of Public Administration and the Geary Institute, UCD. He is author of Accountability in Irish Parliamentary Politics (IPA: 2005) and Government in Modern Ireland (IPA: 2008), and editor of a forthcoming book on the Houses of the Oireachtas. This article is based on his presentation at Monday’s conference on Political Reform in the Republic of Ireland.