Weak reform plans do not bode well for FG's election prospects

 

FINE GAEL is to be complimented for at least being prepared to publish proposals for political reform. In so doing the party has moved beyond the unfocused and vague clamour for political change of which we have heard much in recent months, writes NOEL WHELAN

The downside for Fine Gael is that in publishing specific suggestions for change, they leave the proposals open to the type of scrutiny to which I am about to subject them here, to which Young Fine Gael has already subjected them, and to which others are likely to subject them in weeks to come.

Senior figures including party leader Enda Kenny and environment spokesman Phil Hogan have apparently been working on a document called New Politicsfor over a year. The product of their labours is due to be published at this weekend’s party conference. However, what have been characterised as the document’s “five key reform proposals” have already made their way into the public domain.

In a front-page story in this newspaper last Saturday, Harry McGee revealed that Fine Gael promises within 12 months of going into office to hold an omnibus referendum that would abolish Seanad Éireann, reduce the president’s term of office from seven to five years, grant constitutional status to four standing Dáil committees, enable a petition system for electors to the Dáil and provide for the election of 15 TDs by a list system.

Of these five key initiatives in Fine Gael’s New Politicsdocument, the first is old news, the next three are political trivia and the last one is flawed.

In October 2009 Enda Kenny, in what he described as a “leadership decision”, announced that in government Fine Gael would abolish Seanad Éireann. It was a superficially attractive suggestion at a time of populist demands for a reduction in the number of politicians.

In reality, however, moving to a single chamber parliamentary system would only enhance the executive dominance of our politics. It would also diminish the pool of talent available to participate in national debate or in shaping legislation.

As argued here last autumn, even if genuinely meant, the Fine Gael proposal to abolish the Seanad is unlikely to see the light of day because the Labour Party will not sign up for it in post-election negotiations.

The idea of reducing the presidential term is a wise one, but hardly an earth-shattering shift in our political system. Neither is it original. For decades many have argued that leaving a president in office for seven years before requiring a mandate renewal is too long, while expecting anyone popular enough to be returned for a second term to give 14 years of their life to such a limited office is unfair.

Even if Fine Gael sticks to its promise to put this proposal to referendum within 12 months of coming to power, it is extremely unlikely the change could be effected before the next scheduled presidential election in 2011. Reform is too grand a title for this proposal because, even if implemented, its impact will be minimal.

Fine Gael’s promise to grant what it calls “constitutional recognition” to four Dáil committees sounds impressive but of itself adds nothing of substance to the power or standing of parliament.

As Dr Eoin O’Malley said on the politicalreform.ie website this week, putting something in the Constitution is usually of only symbolic value. Local government got constitutional recognition a decade ago but is still as powerless as ever.

The concept of a national petition of electors to Dáil Éireann is again a proposal designed for maximum populist appeal rather than systemic impact. It amounts to little more than incorporating the Livelinetext poll phenomenon into our political institutions and indeed has all the signs of pandering to such audiences. There is no clear idea yet of what Dáil Éireann will be required to do, apart from debate the proposal sent to it by petitioners.

The most interesting of the Fine Gael proposals is the suggestion that 15 members of the Dáil be elected by a national or regional list system. This is accompanied by a promised reduction of the number of TDs elected in our current PRSTV (proportional representation through a single transferable vote) multi-seat constituencies to 146, meaning the number of seats in the Dáil overall would fall from 166 to 161. This reduction in the number of TDs, although only by five, is again tailored to the public mood rather than based on any real demographic or comparative criteria.

While the proposal to switch just 15 seats to a list system is more practical than some of the more outlandish proposals to change our entire electoral system, it still presents practical difficulties and offers few obvious benefits. Fine Gael has not yet indicated whether the manner in which the candidates would contest the national list constituency would be set out in legislation and, if so, how this would sit with constitutional rights to political participation and freedom of association.

Introducing some kind of primaries would be impossible in our system because we don’t have fixed terms and the Dáil can collapse at any time. All of this means that in any list system in Ireland, the decision about who appears on each party’s list and, more importantly, the order in which they appear would be made by party leaders or backroom operatives, thereby further diminishing the power and independence of individual TDs rather than enhancing it.

If these proposals for political reform are indeed to be the centrepiece of Fine Gael’s conference this weekend and ultimately of its offering as an alternative government, then the results of the next election may end up being closer than current opinion polls suggest.