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.