By David Stanton TD
It is clear to everyone that our parliamentary system needs reform. Dáil Éireann in its current state is not fit for purpose. Fine Gael recently published a policy document “New Politics” which sets out wide-ranging proposals for Dáil reform including the abolition of the Seanad. We have not addressed the electoral system as we are awaiting the publication of the Oireachtas Committee on the Constitutions report on electoral reform. I would maintain anyway that changing the way we elect Deputies to Dail Eireann will have no impact unless reforms are introduced to improve the workings of the Dáil.
While some of the proposals contained in “New Politics” would require referendums to be introduced, there are many worthwhile reforms which could be implemented immediately to the workings of the Dáil and do not require constitutional change. Simple changes to the daily Dáil business such as improvements to Taoiseach’s and Minister’s oral question times could enhance debate. Changes could also be made to how legislation is drafted and debated in the Dáil and Committees to allow for better interaction between Deputies. The practice whereby Deputies read scripts to each other or to an almost empty Dail chamber must be urgently addressed.
One of the main reasons quoted for reforming Dáil Éireann is its failure to hold the Government to account for its decisions. The Ombudsman, a very respected and independent commentator, was recently extremely critical of how parliament functions. She stated that the Dáil was largely a “charade” and parliament in Ireland has been side-lined and is no longer in a position to hold the executive to account. From my 13 years as a Dail Deputy, I would have to agree with her. Dáil Deputies and our entire legislature are very weak in comparison to the Executive. As the Executive makes all the decisions in relation to Dail business and timings, it is the Executive who controls the Dáil.
The legislature should also have more say in state expenditure. In “New Politics” Fine Gael proposed a radical overhaul of the budgetary process. The hundreds of quangos established in the last ten years must also be held to account through the parliamentary question system. Despite some receiving hundreds of millions of public finances Ministers are not accountable to the Dáil for their actions.
Urgent reform is needed of our political system. The above are just some of the things that could easily be implemented immediately and would bring tangible improvements to Dáil Éireann making it more efficient and effective. We also need to look at a longer-term process for large-scale overhaul of our entire political system. Such reforms however cannot be implemented by politicians alone; all of our citizens must have the chance to be involved. If the Dáil is even to become relevant to people’s daily lives, public confidence in politics must be restored.