Fine Gael’s New Politics

A couple of things strike me about Fine Gael’s ‘New Politics’:

1. Much of the debate in the last few months concerning political reform has focused on two assumptions: (a) ‘Ireland is broken’ (taken from The Irish Times series on ‘Renewing the Republic’) and (b) the political institutions are responsible for this.
While there is no doubt that at the moment there is definitely something wrong in this country, where is the evidence that institutional reform will right these wrongs?
For example, in the context of one particular institution – the electoral system – which has unjustly been the target of a considerable deal of blame, it is particularly ironic that when the citizens’ assembly in British Columbia assessed all the world’s electoral systems, it favoured our own PR-STV.
The political institutions seem to be used as a scapegoat upon which to lay culpability when things go wrong. However, in this context, the old adage ‘a bad workman blames his tools’ springs to mind. Rather than focusing on the actions of individuals or groups (be it the clientelist culture supported by politicians and voters alike or poor policy choices made by politicians and civil servants alike), we quickly look to shed blame. It’s not our fault, goes the argument, it’s the conditions (i.e. the institutions) under which we work. In this way, neither we as an electorate nor the politicians as a legislature can ever be held truly accountable for their actions.
Think about this. Do we ever thank the political institutions when things go well? Certainly no one in either Canada or Australia, two western countries that have escaped the worst of the global recession, is suggesting that their electoral systems are responsible for this.

2. The lack of public debate about these issues. Even if, as seems likely, Fine Gael leads the next government, to what extent will it have a mandate concerning its New Politics document? This would only be the case if it was the main issue affecting people’s votes. We all know that the length of presidential terms or even the presence of an upper house of parliament will not influence the next election. It’s the economy, stupid.
That is why we should have a citizens’ assembly on these issues (as Fine Gael proposes), but before any such constitution day.
If we rush ahead with changes without fully considering their consequences, we may have another e-voting type fiasco that cost the taxpayer millions.

3. Why is Fine Gael tampering with the presidency? It appears a rather soft option for reform, particularly given that it’s an entirely symbolic position with no real powers. Does anyone really care about the presidency? After all, where was the fuss when there was no presidential election in 2004, 1983, 1976 or 1974? Shortening the term of office and expanding the franchise will certainly not help to create the New Republic to which Fine Gael aspires. If anything, the latter change creates the possibility of a republic headed by a president without a mandate from its inhabitants. For example, could the granting of a vote to Irish citizens abroad, although in line with comparative experience, expand the electorate in such a manner that overseas voters will outnumber residential voters? If so, what if the overseas votes swung a presidential election in such a way that we were left with a president who did not win majority, or even plurality support, amongst voters living in Ireland?

4. I don’t wish to appear pedantic on this matter, but I have to agree with Matt Wall on the typos in the New Politics document. These include:
• Citizens Assembly (sic)
• Fianna Fail (sic)
• Children Rights (sic)
• Peoples’ concerns (sic)
• Private members time (sic)
• the peoples’ representatives (sic)
• Fine Gael will give backbench TDs establish a bigger role (sic)
• whistleblowers charter (sic)
• Fine Gael will register all lobbyists are ensure that their activities are overseen (sic)
• Irish peoples’ trust in government (sic)
• A desire to afford every term it deems important with upper case status. Why not then write the whole document in upper case font?

I am quick to reproach students for sloppy errors, usually because it indicates a lack of time or care afforded to their efforts. It is in this context that Fine Gael’s typos surprise me. One would imagine that in such an important document as this, every word and phrase would have been carefully considered, more so than in a regular undergraduate essay.
If the party can’t get this wholly right, should we be concerned about its abilities to forge this new republic?

Liam Weeks

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4 thoughts on “Fine Gael’s New Politics

  1. I would agree with you — and, indeed, have been arguing — that meddling with political institutions is not the basis for a solution to our problems. Certainly not if it to involve only piecemeal and unstructured tweaking of systems, What we need, to my mind, is a fundamental rethink: actually I think the ‘renewal’ title in the current Irish Times series encapsulates that nicely. Renewal — the re-establishment of our political system. In short, I believe that what’s needed is a fundamental, root-and-branch overhaul. This is the only way that we’re going to start changing the political culture of how we work as a political system: i.e. not just changing how politicians operate, but also changing voters’ expectations of their politicians.

    If you accept the premise that major change > minor change > no change (which, of course, you may not), then it becomes a case of seeking the best agency to achieve this. In a party-based system like this, such an agency realistically is going to be one or other (or, hopefully, several) of our major political parties. Yesterday, it was Fine Gael that came forward with proposals. This morning the Labour leader indicated in a radio interview that his party is also looking at this agenda. And, who knows where the work of the Joint Oireachtas Committee might lead Fianna Fail.

    For now, the only party whose policies we know something about on this issue is Fine Gael. As I’ve said before, there are details in their proposals that we might all disagree with. But: (1) they are undoubtedly of a large scale nature (i.e. there are a fair number of them, and some of these undoubtedly are ambitious); and (2) there is enough of a linkage between some of them to present a consistent picture of reform (e.g. strengthening local government and improving civil service delivery could help reduce constituency demand pressure on TDs; reducing the number of committees, the appointment process to them, allowing the Dail to set its own agenda, and changing legislative and budgetary procedures could help increase the power of the Dail).

    I’ve already given my views on the citizen assembly (this is the usual spelling!) proposal — which I greatly welcome as a brave and bold step. I don’t understand your point about why it should occur after Constitution day. Surely the whole point is that it’s deliberations should feed INTO that day.

  2. Typo on my own part this time!
    I’m just not sure whether a year after entering office is an adequate time span within which to hold such a constitution day.
    Maybe it’s the cynic in me expressing doubts about reform. Fine Gael are quite correct in their claim that we have had no real reform since the 1937 constitution. Isn’t there a reason why?
    I didn’t hear similar cries for reform in American when the sub-prime mortgage crisis began. We seem to believe that the answer to problems is to devise more legislation or to initiate reforms. Maybe the problem is the workmen, i.e. the electorate and the politicians, not the tools.
    Many of the calls for reform have centred on the nature of those we elect, i.e. too few women, too few pothole politicians, etc.
    If that indeed is the problem, perhaps we need to focus on reform within the parties. It is the process of candidate selection that determines what candidates are offered to the electorate. It is this process that offers so little choice to the electorate.
    Perhaps we should then think about introducing primaries a la the American model. Of course, this may well then require some institutional changes, such as fixed term parliaments, etc.
    Since you rightly state that in a party-based system parties are the only medium through which change can occur, perhaps we then need to open up parties. I welcome some of Fine Gael’s proposals on this, e.g. to make public their accounts. This will help give some ownership of the parties to its voters. Maybe it is time to make the private institutions that are parties far more public. Since they control so much of the process this could be a crucial area for meaningful reform.

  3. Interesting take on this Liam, your point about Canada, Australia etc. is well made. Institutional design seems to get a lot of the blame when things are going wrong and not much of the credit when they are going well!

    I think that any Citizen Assembly is highly unlikely to recommend a move away from PR-STV in any case – the alternatives all essentially remove power of selection over the identity of TDs from their hands or, in the case of open-list systems, employ methods that are less sensitive to their ordered preferences.

    On public debate/engagement generally I don’t know if i can entirely agree with your point regarding the mandate that FG would have to enact their proposals. It seems to me that the absolute most that they can do is publish their plans and let people make their mind up on how they weigh these when casting their vote. Otherwise, you could argue that no governing party has a mandate for enacting policy on issues apart from the most important issue in a given election.

    On typos, I tend to make the point to my (first year) undergraduate class that such mistakes undermine the authority of their arguments and lead to their work being perceived as sloppy and poorly researched. I would recommend a perusal of ‘The Elements of Style’ by William Strunk, Jr., which covers proper usage in about 45 pages, to both undergrad students and to those drafting party policy documents 🙂

  4. I agree with you on the issue of the presidency, Liam. If any reform was to be proposed for the presidency, it would make sense to look at the nomination process. It is unlikely that another Dana or Derek Nally would be nominated to contest the presidency by local authorities. It might be worth looking at whether or not 100,000 citizens or so would be allowed nominate a candidate. Another area that could have addressed the “diaspora dimension” of the presidency would have been to allow non-resident citizens to vote in a presidential election. Given that the presidency is largely symbolic, these reforms could certainly add to its prestige in the eyes of the people.

    Ironically, the fact that the more controversial measures (not least inside FG) concerning the list system and the gender quotas are excluded means that attention can be focused on the other good ideas that are in the document, like the proposals for a new budgetary process.

    In relation to the recognition of Dáil committee, I find it puzzling that a Banking Committee is recognised, as opposed to a Health Committee or an Education Committee. Should the Constitution just be amended to deal with current crises or should it take a longer inter-temporal view?

    Above else, I think Fine Gael should be given credit for bringing this debate to the forefront, and I really do hope that it captures the public’s imagination.

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