It’s déjà vu all over again – what is blocking Oireachtas reform?

Vincent Browne’s article in today’s Irish Times takes up a familiar theme; typically described as the institutional ‘weakness’ of the Oireachtas, or as Browne puts it rather more forcefully, the idea that the Oireachtas ‘plays no meaningful role in our society’.

In many ways, this is the flip side of the debate on the electoral system reform issue. Even assuming that some sort of reformed electoral system would lead to the election of TDs  who were totally focused on playing the role of the national legislatior, engaging with their constituents only to bring their concerns and insights to the national legislative process; what exactly would such TDs actually be able to do in the Oireachtas as presently configured?

Deputy David Stanton made this point explicitly in his statement to the Constitutional Committee in a recent meeting on Dail reform and on this site.

‘Part of the hypothesis I put before the committee is that it would not make much difference if one changed the way of sending people here unless we also change what Deputies do when they get here, the way in which the House and committees operate and the relationship between the Executive and the Legislature in particular.’

He went on to outline a series of areas where the Parliament is subjugated to the executive; with regards to agenda setting , various aspects of the legislative process, especially the effective removal of Committees’ capacity to influence substantive aspects of legislation due to the fact that the principles are agreed upon at a plenary meeting before Committee Stage (this ‘second stage’ plenary meeting was described by Deputy Jimmy Devins as a ‘farce’, he argued that ‘in a serious analysis of what has been discussed in those 20 minutes, I would bet my last penny that 99% of it has no relevance to the Bill in question’) and the informational and procedural deficits that prevent the exercise of oversight of the government and particularly of quangos.

At each stage of his presentation, Deputy Stanton  pointed out that there exist relatively straightforward procedural reforms, based on observations of how legislatures work elsewhere in Europe that could improve the capacities of the Orieachtas in all of these regards.

But we know this already. What’s really striking from reading the transcript of the meeting is the level of cross-party consensus that exists on the usefulness of these reforms. All of the Committee members who comment, from FF, FG, Lab, and the Greens begin their statements with a declaration of agreement with Deputy Stanton’s core points or, in the case of Senator Dan Boyle, 95% agreement.

So here we have an area where there is evident need for some sort of reform, and broad political agreement on the types of reform that would be desirable. So what’s the problem?Senator Boyle’s explanation at the meeting was that:

‘while these seem obvious and logical and have been discussed heavily, the only missing element is the political will to implement some of them easily’.

Is the real problem the government’s stranglehold on legislative initiation? If so, is there a case to be made for encouraging a TD or Senator to put together a private member’s bill on this topic, comprising those reforms to the Oireachtas that seem to generate such broad agreement, in order to force the government’s hand? While such a bill could, of course, be voted down, it might be politically difficult for the government to oppose sensible reforms. Surely there is at least one TD or Senator who has sufficient interest in the issue to bring such a bill forward?

16 thoughts on “It’s déjà vu all over again – what is blocking Oireachtas reform?

  1. It is clear that there are procedural reforms which would command widespread support, but a government, commanding a majority, would be able to trump whem whenever they proved inconvenient. Reform will always founder on powers and resources. No governing party, or party aspiring to govern, will wilingly grant the necessary powers and resources to a legislature and its committees. And in the current climate, when most of the current Dail incumbents are implicated in the public mind, to some extent or other, in the current economic debacle, it is unlikely that there would be any popular appetite to grant them more resources and powers, for example, to retain dedicated staff and expertise, to sub-poena witnesses, to make findings of fact and to initiate legislation.

    I suspect a majority of voters would welcome the opportunity to pass judgement on the denizens of the current Dail and to elect a new one. But I doubt any incoming government would be prepared to initiate, or to countenance, the extent of reform required. It would require a backbench revolt across the aisles (with some confidence that it was echoing popular discontent) to enforce the required changes. And the chances of that happening….

    • Depressing, but probably true. Jim O’Keefe said at that same meeting that he’d heard most of the ideas 20 years ago and everyone agreed on them then, too.

      I hadn’t considered that the spin on this type of refrom might be ‘TDs vote to give themselves more power/resources’ – it’s interesting to consider how this would play out in the media, i had thought it might take the lines of ‘government blocks sensible reforms’ but you may be right.

    • Part of the problem is the “not invented here” mentality of both the government and elements of the media reporting on the Oireachtas. The government tends to feel duty bound to set out to defeat almost any bill from the opposition or even its own backbenches because the prevailing view is that it will be portrayed as a defeat for the government instead of a victory for common sense.

  2. It has echoes of a renowned TU stance in Dublin Bus: “In principle, I’m all in favour of one-man buses; but I’ve spent the last 19 years fighting their introduction.”

    In this context power has to be wrested from those who hold and exercise it – or who aspire to do so. It would be naive to think that any government would say to legislators: “Oops, we’re really sorry. We didn’t realise we had accumulated and exercised so much power and control. Here, please, have some back.”

    We can’t expect much change until enough TDs and voters see the connection between the misgovernment of the last decade and the inability of the Dail to exercise some restraint on government.

  3. Again, we come back to the Irish people – reform doesn’t happen because the Irish people don’t want reform.

    Just like chancers are elected because the Irish people elect them, what odds are being given that Callely will top the poll in Dublin North Central next time.

    Only when there is clear evidence presented to the political class of the anger of the public, if that anger even exists, will the political class move to change anything.

    Take for instance all that is missing from the Fine Gael new politics document, when that was being written you can imagine the meetings that were held: will we do this or that, nah no one cares if we don’t do that or we can get away without doing that as if we don’t nothing will happen.

    Fine Gael can’t even bring itself to make its own public reps publish receipts for their expenses so why would anyone think it is going to take on the mandarins who will strangle even the weakest attempt at reform at birth. Fine Gael won’t be as corrupt as Fianna Fáil is the best we can hope for because we set such low expectations of those we elect, which they regularly fail to meet and we never punish them for failing to meet even those low standards we set by our own example.

    So far, the political class have made zero adjustments to their lifestyle while pretty much every ‘ordinary’ person has either had to deal with their debts and cut back on everything or if debts are not a problem then try build up a bigger financial nest egg and help other family members who are struggling.

    Yet when you enter Leinster House you enter another world, you can be in there all day and never see the sky it’s that out of touch and then you have the plushness ofi t and complete and total disregard for the cost of anything be it your lunch or the desk you sit at because someone else picks up the tab.

    It seems the best of this generation will now emigrate and that means that like many times before, the pressure value that would in otherwise be expected to build up enough steam to force change, will instead disperse around the world. But these people have a mother and father and siblings and were is the evidence of them giving a s**t and getting angry for them?

    There should have been marches on the Dáil of hundreds of thousands of people every day but now they’ve gone on holiday until October – holidays they can afford to go on due to their recession proof salaries and expenses which the public, who can’t afford to go on holiday, have to pay for.

    So how low does the country need to sink before some anger is expressed and those who caused this mess are held to account. Why is Fitzpatrick the only one who’s been declared bankrupt and again his lifestyle won’t change as his millions were transferred to his wife and children. Why is the same professionals and advisers who were so much to blame for causing thism ess are now the same professionals and advisers profiting from the ‘solution’ at the expense of the majority of the public who are not insiders and yet no one kicks up a fuss.

    But try to stop grown men ripping an animal limb from limb and my God that’ll get the backwoodsmen and women going ….

    It’s a funny little country … I wonder if it is just because of the bad genes inherited by the generations after the famine that explains the weakness in people?

    • “Just like chancer’s are elected because the Irish people elect them, what odds are being given that Callely will top the poll in Dublin North Central next time.”

      I disagree I don’t think he has a hope in hell of being elected. Now if he was in a rural constituency thats a different story.

      I want to talk about the Elephant in the Room.
      Their is a massive difference between what your avarage rural Voter versus what you average urban voter expects from their TD’s.

      Their are various theories as to why this is but in general the Urban voter make decisions for the good of their society and Rural voters make decisions based on what they think is best for their Family. I think the fact that Rural people live further away from each other makes them less concerned with their neighbours problems. Its called centricity in Psychology.
      The worrying thing I can see is that many rural TD’s don’t think there is anything wrong with the system as they have used it successfully.
      Mr Cowan said recently that he preferred our more participative style of politics.
      He also said in the Dail a few months ago that Party loyalty was a characteristic to be admired.

      You don’t have to read to far between the lines to realise that political reform in any meaningful way is not something near the top of his list of Priorities.

      • That urban/rural split that one is more politically demanding than the other is a bit simplistic. Look at the urban areas of Ireland, who is the poll topper in Limerick? Willie O’Dea, who was topping the poll last time out in Dublin? Bertie Ahern! Who did the good people in Dun Laoghaire and Dublin South East select amongst their TDs but the latest scions of the Andrews dynasty! Who do the urbanites of Tallaght elect but Mr. Tallaght. Spare us the notional greater social conscience of the urban (in truth not urban at all but suburban) voter. Urban voters can be just as self centred as any rural voter.

        The problems that result from clientelistic minded voters exist across the board in Ireland. There are ideological votes in rural areas too, there just aren’t enough of them and too many are in 3 seaters and are shut out from banding together with others.

  4. @Desmond FitzGerald,

    I think you are being a tad harsh on us all. It is one of the cruel ironies of history that the English who probably first established and eventually practised the principle that all men are free and must freely consent to any constraint on their liberty also established a global empire that survived for so long by trampling on this principle.

    The residual effect, and this may be found in most former British colonies, is that most citizens’ concept of being free is confined to being free from rule by Britain. It seems to take a long time to develop the understanding and practice that citizens are free to decide by whom and how they are governed. It also seems to develop a mind-set (the extent to which it is entrenched seems to be directly proportional to the duration of colonisation) that focuses on maximising the extraction of whatever largesse might be on offer and on minimising compliance with any rules and regulations imposed.

    So it should not be surprising that we elect public representatives who compete among themselves (both between factions and within factions) to achieve these objectives. There seems to be a very limited sense among most citizens of ownership of the system of governance and that it is by their ultimate authority that laws are passed and governance exercised.

    It is true that some politicians chafe against the restraints and imbecility of this mind-set and approach to governance, but most are so deeply embedded in it – and their continued political survival depends on servicing it – that they can see no way out (and have little incentive to contemplate it). And the entrenching of executive dominance aligned with an architecture of vested interests and supported by a permanent machinery of government (that grew and developed from the previous colonial administrative arrangements) serves as an immutable obstacle to any change in the system of democratic governance.

    • Is 100 years long enough to have grown out of this mentality – that’s about 5 generations in some families?

      I understand that those around in the 1920s made mistakes due to lack of experience although Ireland wasn’t like Africa where those who took over literally had no experience, there was a civil service in Ireland who remaining in place and plenty who had been MPS so knew how a parliament and system of governance worked so why is it since then governance in Ireland has failed – we ought to remember that the common link between these disaster periods is that they were a direct result of Fianna Fáil:

      The civil war and economic war were a direct result of Dev’s ego, the decades of stagnation were a result of failed FF policies, the rampant gombeemism of the 70s (under JAck Lynch it should be pointed out) almost bankrupted the country then and whatever mistakes FG/L governments made sorting things out they were not the cause of the problems they faced, then CJH took over FF and things went even further downhill and his rule allowed the conditions for the likes of Harney, McCreevy, Ahern, Cowen and all the others to come through the ranks.

      So how long does it take for an independent country to grow up and realise the only people to blame for its mistakes are themselves.

  5. @ Desmond, Eamonn, Daniel (and anybody else who would care to speculate).

    I’m interested to hear your views on whether, for ‘self-centered’ voters and politicians, be they rural, urban, suburban or whatever, it is a question of such voters and representative being apathetic about political reform or, rather, are you arguing that it’s a question of such voters/represntatives being actively opposed to any and all reform.

    • Matthew,

      I wouldn’t say it’s an issue people are not actively fighting against so probably apathetic.

      The point being the great Irish public have done nothing to make their voices heard as decisions have been taken that will effect them, their children and grandchildren for decades.

      Nor while the goodies were being doled out during the Celtic Myth did people want to know this would all end in tears.

      There is a strange immature mentality toward the use of power and the issue of transparency and accountability in Ireland – you can see it in the way Callely almost reverted to being childlike in defending the indefensible and making remarks about ‘other things’ but withdrawing them when pressed – and until we understand where that mentality comes from then where is the pressure for change going to come from.

      I think it stems from the famine and like so many things that are passed from one generation to the next, isn’t it sensible that the mentality toward politics would also be passed on too? We know people vote certain ways because of the household they grow up and we know emotional problems are passed on from parents to children and onwards so why wouldn’t the wraped attitude to using authority properly not also be passed on?

    • I think it is a combination of a couple of factors, 1) the post colonial mentality that screwing over the state wasn’t screwing over ourselves, 2) the indirect nature of power and decision making with a perception of decision making happening at a far remove (up there in Dublin) and a culture of people getting elected to the Dáil and while voting to support the decisions of their party in government then getting away with it by claiming to be opposed to it locally (which is a failing on the part of the local press) 3) a lack of immediacy in decision making, a legislatively drawn executive is much slower to act than a directly elected executive.

      I think if you put a program of reform before the public on its own and argued its merits it would pass easily. Yet putting it via the fog of an election campaign, buried in a manifesto it loses its potency.

  6. From the 2007 Irish election study, on urban -rural differences in views on the role of TDs:

    “The assumption that TDs should provide a local service is a strength of the Irish political system”

    Disgree Neither Agree Total% N
    Country 10 11 79 100 871
    City, notDublin 12 5 79 100 96
    Dublin Co/cty 16 11 73 100 291

  7. Urban/rural divides and post-colonial mentality etc. aside, there seems to be a systemic block between conceiving political reforms and implementing them.

    Look at all of the reports on Seanad reform, and the suggestions on Dail reform dicussed in the post – I guess my frustration comes from knowing that there are good ideas that could improve the way that we govern ourselves which seem to be widely supported, even among the TDs and Senators themselves, that never come to fruition.

    Mostly it comes from keeping the issue off the agenda, which is why i was thinking that a private member’s bill could at least force a debate on the issue, followed by a vote. My thinking was that voting against reforms is another thing from keeping them off the agenda.

    That’s not to say that everything is terrible, there can be a tendency in Ireland to over-exaggerate the ups and the downs. We weren’t an economic miracle in the boom, and we’re not a complete basket-case now.

    However, there are aspects of the system that just don’t work at the moment. One obvious problem is not just the emasculation of the legislture, but outdated work practices that are extraordinarily inefficient. We have to look to TV and radio for examinations of the executive that provide genuine scrutiny.

    Commitees are where modern legislatures can really engage – they allow for forensic examination of executive actions and legislative proposals by members who gain expertise on a specific area. Yet ours are hamstrung at all angles: procedurally, in terms of resources and prestige, in terms of the information that they can solicit and the findings that they can make.

    It’s a bit like a relationship – if there are major problems you can just go on, pretending everything is ok and not talking about it, or you can have some courage, look your problems in the eye, and try to find ways to solve them.

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