The next election must be about political reform

The fundamental problem remains that the Dáil cannot and does not do its job properly

The 2011 election shook up the Irish party system. Photograph: Brian Farrell

The 2011 election shook up the Irish party system. Photograph: Brian Farrell

 

The 2011 election was remarkable for shaking up the Irish party system. It was also remarkable in showing just how much the citizens recognised that problems with the political system were at the heart of the manifold mistakes that caused our economic crisis.

The incoming Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, claimed the result marked a “democratic revolution”: the new Government promised to “radically overhaul the way Irish politics and Government work”. In its programme for government it correctly recognised that the key problem was an over-powerful government vis-à-vis the Dáil. In any walk of life if too much power is concentrated in the hands of too few it leads, at the very least, to careless and possibly corrupt decisions.

The Government’s programme wasn’t as ambitious as we might have hoped. It did achieve some reforms: for instance, it is now easier for TDs to raise topical issues in the Dáil. Many of the reforms are not headline grabbing in the way the Seanad abolition referendum was, but some were important in rebalancing the power of the Oireachtas and the government.

One such seemingly small measure is pre-legislative scrutiny, which allows committees to debate the ‘heads’ of bills (the bullet points of what a Bill is to achieve and how it will achieve it). This is instead of a situation where the Bill is given to a committee fully drafted and whose basic principles have been largely set in stone, rendering the committee’s role irrelevant.

But like its predecessors, once in power the Government has found it hard to resist old instincts of control which governments the world over tend towards. Conceding the principle of pre-legislative scrutiny is one thing but it’s not much use if the government gets to choose when it is used in practice.

Another problem is the tight government control over the Dáil agenda. In power the Fine Gael-Labour coalition has made liberal use of the guillotine, effectively closing down debate on issues that deserve more time.

This hasn’t helped the Government’s or the people’s causes. It is probable that had the Irish Water proposals been subject to greater scrutiny than they received the Government would not have had to u-turn on its pricing policy so quickly.

The next election may not see as much focus on political reform as the last, but it should. The fundamental problem remains that the Dáil cannot and does not do its job properly.

This is not to do with the types of people in Leinster House, who are in the main intelligent, honest and hard-working. It’s a problem with how they are asked to do the job. In order to address the issue the Dáil needs to be given the opportunity and the incentive to hold governments to account.

It is pretty obvious that opposition parties have strong incentives to oversee government. If the opposition can show that the government is doing a bad job then it has a better chance of replacing it.

One way the government can counteract this is by doing a good job and introducing policies that it can stand over in a rational debate with evidence and argument to defend its decisions. Another option is to hide the policy from public scrutiny and evade answering questions to as great an extent as possible. Unfortunately all too often the latter tends to be the option of choice by successive governments.

This Government’s reforms offered some ways to increase the opportunity of the Dáil to strengthen its oversight. But on their own they aren’t enough. More reform - and more reform of the right type - is needed.

Attitudes also need to change. In some respect, the Dáil is already quite powerful. Nobody could have stopped a Government TD from voting against the Irish Water proposals, but it didn’t happen. Government TDs had no incentive to vote against it. So there’s not much point in having more time in the Dáil, a Ceann Comhairle with more power to censure ministers, or more opportunity to question on issues of topical interest if the TDs and Ceann Comhairle have no incentive to use these to good effect.

Government backbenchers who make up a large proportion of the Dáil membership may also wish that their government introduces good policy because this can be rewarded by voters. But they will not have any interest in exposing government failures.

This is particularly the case because of the current career structure of politicians. We have a career-driven political class, but there are no career paths not effectively controlled by party leaders. This removes the incentive for critical engagement by the Dáil of government activity.

In the next few weeks we are going to make proposals that will both increase the opportunity and incentives for the Dáil to do its job properly. These proposals will help rebalance the division of power between the government and the Dáil. They are also proposals that can be easily achieved. They won’t require constitutional changes or fresh legislation, and so a new government serious about reforming the Irish political system could achieve these changes in its first 100 days in office.

David Farrell (UCD), Eoin O’Malley (DCU), Jane Suiter (DCU) and Theresa Reidy (UCC) will be launching their ‘100 Days’ initiative in the coming weeks.

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