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?
‘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?