[Given to Political Reform in Ireland Conference, University College Cork, 26th March 2010]
If the appetite for political reform emerged as a result of the economic crisis, then we should probably look at what caused the crisis. Power within the political system is centralised to government. It was government decisions that got us here, so we should probably think about how to improve government decision-making and government behaviour. But we should be cautious – we don’t want to go about changing a system that has by and large served us well in the last 90 years without good reason.
On paper the cabinet system is a good one. Proposals are made by ministers, usually on the basis of a point in the programme from government, in turn based on inter and intra party negotiations and subject to scrutiny by the media and maybe even the electorate. The elite of a country’s political system then subject the proposal to rigorous scrutiny, and from their different perspectives, poke at and punch holes in the argument, until bad proposals get rejected and acceptable ones are improved.
Why cabinet doesn’t work The problem is that this doesn’t seem to happen. Why not? One problem is ministerial overload. Ministers are busy with their own departments and don’t have time to start thinking deeply about other ministers’ responsibilities. There is also log-rolling – whereby a minister who wants to get her proposal through cabinet will refrain from questioning another minister’s proposal so they will return the favour and support your proposal.
Another problem is the type of ministers. In juries we think that if twelve people’s opinions converge, they’re likely to converge on the truth. The same assumption can be made of cabinet government. But if jurors and cabinet ministers’ convergence on an issue is to make it more likely that they got the right answer, then their opinions should be independent of each other. In statistical theory two events are said to be independent if the occurrence of one event does not affect the probability that the other will occur. We may assume that cabinet ministers (and jurors) are independent. But we’d be wrong. Most ministers (like jurors) follow what goes around the table. So if a minister’s proposal appears to be gaining acceptance, sceptical ministers might remain silent – what in public opinion theory is known as the spiral of silence.
And why would they be independent when the political system throws up a remarkably homogenous lot? We have six school teachers in cabinet, a couple of lawyer, but not much else. No economists, social scientists, or people with much experience of business. They’re all full-time career politicians, so even the youngest minister in the cabinet, Mary Coughlan, at 44 has been in the Dáil for almost 23 years! All of these people live in a strange world around Kildare Street and while hardly cocooned from the real world, view the real world through an unusual lens, and crucially almost all have the same lens. So instead of having fifteen different points of view – government is centralised into one or two particular points of view.
Lack of oversight That these failures could happen is in part because there is not enough expertise/ diversity of views in government but also because governments, particularly ones in power for a long time, get lazy. When opposition parties have few resources to challenge government research and few mechanisms to challenge government in a timely and effective manner, government can get a bit too comfortable.
But government should not be a comfortable place to be, and if we are to reform our political system it should be with this in mind. People work best if they know everything they do can be observed and is open to scrutiny. Labour finance spokeswoman Joan Burton pointed out at her party’s economic forum last weekend that there was a huge information deficit which prevented real debate about Nama and bank bailouts. When the Minister for Finance controls all the information, and the timing and nature of its release it’s difficult for opposition parties to set the agenda. What we were told would be the most of the Bank Guarantee scheme now seems hopelessly optimistic. How can the cabinet do its job if it doesn’t have access to good information? How can the opposition do its job if the information it receives is misleading/ inaccurate.
Emily O’Reilly recently criticised the government for refusing to accept or allowing the Dáil to debate her report into the ‘Lost at Sea’ scheme. Where government can effectively bury criticism like this, government will be less thoughtful in how it behaves.
Reforms If we want to reform the political system we need to rebalance power within the political system. We need to enable greater scrutiny of government – to allow the opposition and backbenchers do their job. The public should have greater access to independent information, not spun by government departments.. Government statistics should be generated by independent agencies and government policy could be independently analysed, and tested against their stated objectives. The Dáil procedures should be changed to allow cabinet ministers be subjected to better oversight. At present ministers can dodge questions. Vincent Browne can ask ministers the same question until s/he answers it or made clear to the public that s/he’s dodging it. TDs can’t do this. A minister can answer another question and then the CC will move them on. Replies to PQs should not be written to protect the minister but to enable the proper accountability of the minister to the Dáil In short we should enable greater scrutiny.
As it is currently structured TDs have neither the opportunity nor the motive to provide robust oversight of government legislation. The political career path for most TDs leads to the cabinet at its summit. One way to do this is to make the committees independent of government by making chairs elected by the Dáil rather than being effectively appointed by the Taoiseach. If ministers were forced to resign as TDs or minsters could be appointed from outside electoral politics the cabinet system might be have the plurality of views and expertise it needs to work. It would also mean that government TDs would be less attached, personally or politically to the government. This would not be without potential costs. It would move the political system in a decidedly presidential direction and may increase the power of the Taoiseach within cabinet.
If democracies die behind closed doors, we can reinvigorate our democracy by (metaphorically) opening the doors of government. By giving the Dáil access to more and better information from government and opening government to people from different backgrounds and expertise we can in the future avoid the type of policy failures that have us in the political and economic crisis we find ourselves in.