Fine Gael’s New Politics reform proposals

Phil Hogan today: Fine Gael’s ‘New Politics’ plan is the most ambitious political reform package since the 1930s and will place the Citizen firmly at the centre of government, Party Environment Spokesman, Phil Hogan TD said at its launch today (Monday). See document here

What do you think?

“This comprehensive reform package contains the most radical proposals put forward by any party in 70 years. Fine Gael wants to build a ‘New Republic’ where a smaller, more nimble government is held to account, trust is restored in our democratic institutions and the concerns of the Citizen, rather than the elites are placed firmly at the centre of government.

“Fine Gael’s starting point is simple: political failure lies at the heart of Ireland’s economic collapse. The old politics does not work. Real, tangible change is needed and Fine Gael’s proposals will provide it. It is built on four principles:

•A Single Chamber Oireachtas.
•A New Dáil: Fine Gael wants toto expand the role and power of TDs so that they can truly hold the Government to account.
•Open Government: Trust in Government will be restored by opening it up to outside scrutiny and making party political funding more transparent.
•Empowering the Citizen: We want to shift the balance of power between the State and the Citizen so that local communities and individuals have more power over their own lives.
“Specifically, as outlined in ‘New Politics’, Fine Gael will:

•Reduce the number of TDs by 20;
•Hold a referendum on the abolition of the Seanad;
•Provide a vote in Presidential elections for Irish citizens living abroad;
•Reduce the President’s term from seven years to five;
•Significantly strengthen Freedom of Information making it cheaper and easier for the public to receive information to which they are entitled.
•Fortify the Dáil committee system to hold the Government to account;
•Shift power from the Cabinet to the Dáil and reform the legislative process to give TDs real influence over the drafting of legislation.
•We will radically overhaul our archaic Budget process.

“Fine Gael wants to put the Citizen at the heart of decision making and give people real influence and real power. Within its first hundred days a Fine Gael Government will establish a Citizens Assembly, along the lines of similar assemblies which have been used in Canada and in the Netherlands to consider political and electoral reform. It will have up to 100 members who will be chosen from the public to reflect the demographic make-up of Ireland and will play a crucial role in the development of the broad constitutional agenda.

“The Assembly will also be asked to consider how the representation of women in politics might best be increased. Fine Gael believes it is crucial that there are more female TDs and local councillors and will adopt measures internally to encourage this development at all levels in the electoral process.

“Of course, some of the Fine Gael proposals will require major constitutional change and, within 12 months of assuming office, Fine Gael will hold a ‘super referendum’ on Constitution Day, at which the people will be asked to approve a single chamber Oireachtas and changes to other articles of the Constitution covering the institutions of the State.

“This year, we also want to see two additional constitutional amendments to be put to a referendum on the same day of the Children’s Referendum. These would allow Judge’s salaries to be adjusted and would allow the effects of the Abbeylara decision to be reversed.

“Ministers should also never again be allowed to avoid responsibility. Significant changes in the way senior public servants and departments work are badly needed and Fine Gael will create a new Senior Civil Service where key officials can be employed across the public sector, wherever the need is greatest, and not just in one department. Each senior civil servant will sign a contract with their individual line Minister outlining in detail their areas of responsibility. This will allow senior officials to be held individually accountable for their performance in these areas. We will also ensure that there is greater involvement of senior personnel from outside

“Fine Gael is convinced that public confidence in government can be restored but only if there is real tangible change in the political system. The New Politics is designed to tackle head-on the major weaknesses in our archaic system of government, so that the huge policy mistakes of the last few years will not be repeated.

“We are not suggesting that political reform, by itself, is a panacea for all that ails our country. But we are convinced that political failure lies at the heart of Ireland’s economic failure. If we want to fix the economy, and return Ireland to growth and prosperity, we must also fix the political system.”

7 thoughts on “Fine Gael’s New Politics reform proposals

  1. Looks like what was leaked a couple of weeks ago provides the main planks of the document. But there is a more detailed defence for the proposals – though not that detailed – excluding appendices and pr bumpf it’s about 25 pages long. In fact it deals with some major changes with suprisingly little detail.

    Much of what Fine Gael put up is interesting and worthy. The basic premise that the government has too much power and subject to too little scrutiny is the right one. There are suggestions such as a whistleblower’s charter; a new budgetary process including an independent advisory council for the budget committee; a new senior civil service, with increased flexibility and changes to TLAC; a register for lobbyists; an electoral commission; elect the Ceann Comhairle by secret ballot. It hopes to increase the role of the Dáil by including it in the pre-drafting stage for Bills, so presumably just after cabinet makes a decision, it can start work on the legislation. The Dáil would have some more research back up to support its oversight functions.

    Much of this is good, and will have an impact on opening up government to further scrutiny. I’m not sure about the proposal to reduce the size of the Dáil. This will further reduce the pool from which taoisigh can choose, and will still mean that the ‘top’ to which most TDs aspire will still be to become a minister. This usually (but not always) requires them to be kind to the party leadership. Look at the profiles of all those talked about for propmotion in the cabinet reshuffle – the phrases ‘is not afraid to go out to bat for the Government’ or is ‘a competent performer and a loyal servant’ are common. A government that was made up primarily of people who are not legislators would ensure that legislators took their legislative duties seriously and broaden the skill set available to party leaders and government.

    The reforms are presented as being built on four key pillars – abolishing the Seanad, a new Dáil, open government, and empowering the citizen. A fear one would have is that in offering this to the public in a series of separate referendums, one could find that the public accept the need to abolish the Seanad and reduce the number of TDs, but rejects other proposals like to allow the Dáil make decisions of fact and or impugn the reputations of people who are not members of the Oireachtas (and I would have thought that the Abbeylara Supreme Court decision was based on broad principles like the separation of powers that people might want to protect). If the four pilars are missing one or two pillars or a pillar is particularly weak then the whole thing may (to extend the party’s analogy) come crashing down. One solution to this problem might be to have a referenda (where all changes are voted on together, so one must accept all or nothing).

  2. Reducing the size of the Oireachtas while not changing the electoral system at all means relying on some mere expectation that TDs will all decide to take on more committee and legislative work than they do now. That expectation is misguided at best and at worst a recipe for a complete breakdown in the functioning of parliament. I don’t think for a moment that Senators as a rule do oodles more than TDs when it comes to scrutinising legislation but to reduce the capacity by almost 30% while increasing the load strikes me as foolhardy.

    Of course, the Citizen’s Assembly and the forthcoming report from the Oireachtas committee might turn up such electoral change and might be a more palatable means of floating it.

  3. I’d have to agree with Eoin’s assessment that the document ‘deals with some major changes with surprisingly little detail’. It’s a bit of a mishmash; some of the proposals (e.g. abolishing the Senate) have clearly been more thoroughly thought out than others (e.g. the Citizens’ Assembly).

    Some of the proposals are highly populist, most notably with regard to the proposed constitutional amendment to allow judges’ (note the apostrophe :)) salaries.

    Some seem a little redundant, nearly to the point of being wasteful, after all there is only so much money and energy available for issues of constitutional reform – I’m not sure how excited people are going to be about being able to vote from abroad in Presidential elections, or about a 5 (instead of the current 7) year term.

    Generally, one might dispute the contention that the ‘institution of the President has performed well’ (p. 7), given that we couldn’t even muster an election to the post last time one fell due.

    One idea that wasn’t flagged in the media, but that caught my eye and seems like a sensible policy (though not maybe a popular one among those who have long been waiting for their ‘turn’ to occupy such positions), was the use of PR in attributing committee chairs to parties.

    Generally, the best-developed ‘pillar’ in the document is to do with Dail reform – though the overarching tenor appears to be that they will somehow do a lot more with fewer members (and, of course, no Senators).

    Overall, however, there is a lot to like about this document – certainly a grater emphasis on transparency in government and an obligation to report candidate and party spending over a longer period are to be welcomed.

    The proposed Electoral Commission couldn’t possibly do worse than the current situation with regards to an electoral register, although John Gormley was outlining a quite similar proposal to the Committee on the Constitution a couple of weeks ago.

    On a side note, I’m pretty sure there should be an apostrophe after the “s” in “Citizens’ Assembly”, though I am open to correction. This is not the case in the FG new politics document which proposes a “Citizens Assembly” which is a rather abstruse point but one which poses somewhat worrying questions about the rigour with which this particular reform (which, according to the document, will be introduced within the first 100 days of an FG government) has been thought through.

  4. This is a long overdue initiative as the document rightly points out the Budget is little more than political theatre. Control of the budget process is central to relative influence of the executive and the legislator and under current arrangements the legislature is merely a rubber stamp. In no particular order the legislature needs to be able to influence
    revenues, expenditures and the balance, have some control over the allocation of funds rather than merely budgetary aggregates and crucially have enough time to examine the budget and propose changes. Committee structures and resources such as adequate research capacities are crucial. At first glance, the proposals appear in an Irish budget context to be thorough and to meet these objectives to a large extent. The proposal for an extended timetable and the Parliamentary Budget Office are interesting, although much will of course depend on the membership of the Independent Advisory Council. Likewise the overhaul of the budget documentation to include outcomes and a new evaluation mechanism is entirely welcome, particularly if indeed this marked a shift in emphasis in the public service. It is notable, however, that there is mention only of monitoring budget aggregates and not specific spending programmes.

  5. @Matt
    “One idea that wasn’t flagged in the media, but that caught my eye and seems like a sensible policy (though not maybe a popular one among those who have long been waiting for their ‘turn’ to occupy such positions), was the use of PR in attributing committee chairs to parties. ”

    This sounds similar to the present system of allocating Ministerial positions in Stormont.

    In the context of having a complete separation of powers between the Dáil and the Government (Rialtas), I made a similar suggestion in my 1996 submission to the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution

    “Dáil Committees.

    Why not give those Deputies chairing up to fifteen Dail
    Committees the same status as Ministers (eg. a car with
    two drivers)?

    Each of these fifteen Dail Committees should be so
    staffed and resourced as to be able to monitor the
    executive effectively as well as being able to draw up
    their own policy and legislative proposals.

    Why not ensure that the allocation of these chairs are in
    accordance with the party strength in the Dail?”

  6. @ Donal – yes this seems like a good idea – though I’m not sure that extending the ‘Mercs and Perks’ package for Committee chairs is a great idea. More generally it may go a small way towards building a career path for TDs that doesn’t have the sole objective of Ministerial office.

  7. Glancing briefly at the comments it seems the Mercs & perks is being advocated here and it is not in my humble view what the 2nd Republic Movement is about. We have seen huge expense incurred on junkets, quangos
    Tribunal and lobbyists with disasterous consequences,
    Citizens’ funds being squandered by the ‘powerful’. So it is vital that the 2nd Republic Movement influences the checks and balances necessary to counteract the gross waste of Citizens’ funds !

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