Changing the electoral system will have no effect without reform to the political system

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.

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7 thoughts on “Changing the electoral system will have no effect without reform to the political system

  1. @Don
    Yes, of course.
    “The people had forfeited the confidence of the government and could win it back only by redoubled efforts. Wouldn’t it be easier to dissolve the people and elect another in their place?” Brecht

    Perhaps you would be kind enough to give more detail on your home page, in particular who is WE
    “The Irish Liberty Forum is a libertarian intellectual project. We are a non-political organisation and our goal is to spread the principles of individual liberty, personal responsibility. sound money, free markets, and a non-interventionist foreign policy,”

  2. @Don
    Yes, of course.
    “The people had forfeited the confidence of the government and could win it back only by redoubled efforts. Wouldn’t it be easier to dissolve the people and elect another in their place?” Brecht

    Perhaps you would be kind enough to give more detail on your home page, in particular who the WE is behind the Irish Liberty Forum
    “The Irish Liberty Forum is a libertarian intellectual project. We are a non-political organisation and our goal is to spread the principles of individual liberty, personal responsibility. sound money, free markets, and a non-interventionist foreign policy,”

  3. @Don
    That is a common (if rather depressing) argument – that the people get the government they deserve. But it is a fallacious one. The way the politicians/ government behave and the type of people we vote for is structured somewhat by rules such as the electoral rules, the Dáil rules and government rules. David Stanton is right, the people in the Dáil are in the whole hardworking and honest. Dáil rules mean that they cannot perform their basic parliamentary functions of legislating and oversight on government. In that situation, it is difficult for good legislators or rigorous investigators to shine. The fact that our public services are unresponsive or delivered so poorly and citizens have very few mechanisms for appeal means that we use the only route open to us, to contact a local TD. The public service is set up in such a way that they respond to TDs in a way they do not ordinary people. It’s hardly surprising that voters tend to reward certain types of behaviour and not others. But we should focus our blame on the political system not the electorate or the ‘politicians’.

  4. @David I’d be interested in what mechanisms you would put in place that would allow the legislature to hold the executive more to account. As Eoin says there are a myriad of rules and incentives which impact on this. For example, if bills were to go through the committee stage prior to a vote it would allow more time for scrutiny. Regular publishing of data from government departments would also help as would rule changes ensuring greater accountability of ministers…

  5. @ Jane Suiter: One proposal that would make the executive more accountable to the legislature would be to weaken the Whip system. I read somewhere (the FT, I think) long ago an idea that strikes me as workable.

    1. Have secret voting in the Dáil
    2. Because constituents have a right to know how their deputy votes, release the results after (say) a week.

    And a week is, according to the cliché, a long time, during which deputies can organise themselves, do deals, and generally insulate themselves from the wrath of the minister/whip/cumann against whose interests they have voted.

    Can’t see any senior party hack agreeing to give up that much control, but it’s nice to fantasise.

  6. Michael, how about a double vote, one secret, one public but a gap of a week or a fortnight between the secret vote and the public one during which time the issues that concerned the TD enough to vote against in private are sufficiently addressed such that they will give for the issue publicly.

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