Fine Gael’s proposals don’t hit the mark

Eoin O’Malley 14 March 2010

The Irish Times reports today that Fine Gael in government it would bring in a major package of political reforms. These would be introduced in a package of referendums to be held on a single ‘Constitution Day’. The proposed reforms include;

– the abolition of the Seanad;

– a new “list” system for selecting 15 (or some other number of) TDs;

– new constitutional recognition given to four Dáil committees;

– reduction of the President’s term of office from seven years to five;

– the introduction of a public petition mechanism for the Dáil.

It seems to me that the reforms miss the point (though I haven’t seen the details, the ‘New Politics’ document isn’t on the party’s website yet). What is the problem with the political system? Governments have been short-termist – focussed just on the next election (who can blame them for that?). Long term planning was largely absent and governments could get away with inconsistent policies that did little to address the problems that they were set out to solve. Arguably it’s because there is little or no oversight of dominant governments which have been, or had people in them and advising them, who are self-serving or incompetent, and sometimes both.  What will these reforms to increase oversight of the government or ensure that government are more competent? Not much.

Let’s look at each proposal. The Seanad may be a talking shop, but it has made some of the more interesting and useful contributions to policy debates in recent years – Nama for instance.  Unless abolition is part of a major reform of the Dáil, its abolition is likely to decrease oversight of the government.

A list system with 15 TDs elected will allow parties to bring in people that they feel would not be elected under the current system, or allow each party a certain number of people who don’t have to spend much time canvassing. Canvassing takes up a lot of time of TDs and it’s not unreasonable to want to reduce this, but why just 15? Why not the whole lot? If the list is controlled by the party leadership you could just have a group of party hacks who are even less critical of their party than the ones who at least have some independence from the leadership because they got themselves elected.

Giving certain Oireachtas committees constitutional status might be of use if they are also given powers. But putting something in the constitution is usually of only symbolic value. Local government got it, but no extra powers and is still as powerless as ever. Only if committees are given extra powers, such as power to compel witnesses to attend and answer questions (another reform suggested by Fine Gael) will the committees have teeth. Equally one needs to see committees that are independent of government. As long as the government chooses committee chairs this is unlikely t0 happen.

Reducing the term of the presidency is an odd suggestion. The presidency is irrelevant to Irish policy making (save the occasions whan she thinks about sending bills to the Supreme Court for adjudication). Reducing this term of our elected monarch will just increase the cost of this already expensive ceremonial office. Why bother?

A public petition to bring issues to the Oireachtas is something that is normally suggested in those places where the parliament is seen as distant from its country’s citizens. That’s why one exists for the European Parliament. This can hardly be said of the Dáil. TDs are very close to their constituencies  –  too close some might say. This would solve a problem that doesn’t exist.

In all the proposals don’t address the real problems in the political system, and give the impression of being ill-thought out and headline chasing.

Advertisements

7 thoughts on “Fine Gael’s proposals don’t hit the mark

  1. Jane Suiter

    “A public petition to bring issues to the Oireachtas is something that is normally suggested in those places where the parliament is seen as distant from its country’s citizens. That’s why one exists for the European Parliament. This can hardly be said of the Dáil. TDs are very close to their constituencies – too close some might say. This would solve a problem that doesn’t exist.”

    The problem I believe with this is not that it solves a problem which does not exist – many citizens appear alienated from their elected representatives in the Oireachtas. Rather it is simply too woolly. The proposal as reported merely appears to ensure that the Dail will debate the issue. Surely petitions on contentious issues, the bank guarantee and Nama come to mind, merit more far reaching consequences.

    In addition while you are correct that giving further powers to some constitutional committees may not solve the problem it is at least at step in the direction of increasing the power of the legislature vis a vis what is an overly powerful executive.

  2. The reason that the document isn’t on the FG website is because – as the second paragraph of the Irish Times article states:

    “The New Politics document, to be published in advance of the party’s national conference next weekend, promises to hold an omnibus referendum within 12 months of the party assuming office that will create what it describes as a “New Republic”.”

    It would make sense to leave the detailed criticism until when the document is published.

  3. It seems clear from the newspapers that the Irish Times story was based on a very limited leak of Fine Gael’s proposals. I really don’t see how any judgement – good or bad – can be made until the document as a whole is published.

  4. John and Observer – If FG (or someone in FG) choose to leak this level of detail, then they thought it sufficient to get coverage in the media. Are we not supposed to react when the main headline in the Irish Times is specifically on political reform? That’s ludicrous. I hope the actual document is better than what they leaked, because if this is all FG can come up with…

  5. I was hoping that this website would be a vehicle for political scientists to offer considered views on the Irish political system. The Irish Times report says the document is 67 pages long, so to cast final judgment and conclude that “the proposals don’t address the real problems in the political system, and give the impression of being ill-thought out and headline chasing” without even seeing the document (or for that matter an abstract of it) is disappointing.

    I am not saying not to react to such proposals when they appear in the media, but I would recommend taking a more considered view of them and not to write off proposals before they are published.

  6. Methinks I see some kite-flying by FG people with the leak to the Irish Times.
    I welcome the fact FG appears to be doing some thinking on how power is acquired, exercised, controlled and transferred in the Republic.

    Let us see what emerges – given that it is clear that there are different views within FG on this.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s