If Not Now, When? Why we need parliamentary reform.

Posted by Matt Wall.

Gay Mitchell’s article in this morning’s Irish Times again raises the issue of Oireachtas reform. While the text of the article focuses on the development of the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General, Mitchell lays out 7 steps that he feels would improve parliamentary oversight writ large. I would love to see peoples’ comments on these, but I would like to focus here on the broader topic of parliamentary reform. Because, let’s face it, there is little evidence at this point that any serious reforms are even being considered.

Professor Michael Gallagher recently posted on this website asking, ‘What’s the point of political reform?’. Prof. Gallagher pointed out the difficulty of identifying institutional reforms that could have prevented or alleviated the reckless mismanagement of the national finances, and the abject failure to properly regulate developments and the banking system that have led Ireland to its current unemployment and deficit crises. The difficulty, of course, is that we will never know. Time only runs in one direction and we cannot replay history. This leaves us ‘political scientists’ with a bit of a problem when we seek to identify relationships of cause and effect – especially as the interplay of institutions, culture, and ‘events’ in politics is so complex and intricate.

One approach to overcoming this problem is, basically, to make up a story of what you think would have happened in history had one thing been different. For example, this ‘counterfactual’ approach allowed Prof. Gallagher to speculate that a dramatic reduction of maximum allowable donations to parties and an expansion of public funding could have cut the link between Fianna Fáil and the building/development industry, and may have led to more responsible planning and housing market policies being pursued.

I would propose another counterfactual: perhaps, if we had employed more open and transparent government, and if the legislature had taken a greater interest in monitoring the behavior of the executive and its agents then more economists, journalists, and TDs would have picked up on our economic problems sooner. It is imaginable that figuring out the extent of our banking system’s over-exposure to the property bubble before the Lehmann Brothers collapse may have facilitated proactive corrective action, rather than the reactive, ‘firefighting’ governance style that has characterized Ireland’s response to the banking crisis.

Of course this is just speculation – we cannot know for sure whether reformed party financing or improved parliamentary oversight would have led to better governance and policy making. We do know that unquestioning deference to authority meant that we, the citizens, were in what turned out to be a very costly state of ignorance regarding the solvency of our banks until the point where they collapsed (and, some would argue, this ignorance has continued even after that point).

The other side of the ‘why bother to reform?’ debate should focus on the cost of inaction and the failings of the status quo. The Oireachtas, as an institution, appears to have atrophied into near total irrelevance. Any serious accountability of government comes in the form of TV or radio appearances, where presenters and audience members at least try to force Ministers to answer for their decisions, rather than simply allowing them to read scripted answers that avoid the question. Committees spend months investigating topics and compiling reports, which then are quickly shelved, never to see the light of day again. The executive completely dominates the legislative agenda, and the legislative process generally. Our public decision-making is consequently so secretive and non-transparent that it is seen as a revolutionary and extraordinary measure that opposition party leaders would receive a detailed briefing (in secret, and behind closed doors, of course)on the economic state of the nation from the Department of Finance. Indeed, secrecy is so embedded in our politics that it is seen as acceptable that the government charges its citizens a fee for requesting public information.

If anything sums the asymmetrical relationship between government and legislature in Ireland up it is the following: in the midst of the ongoing frenzied process of planning a budget that will have dramatic effects on citizens’ lives, with the cabinet deliberating in intensive day-long sessions, and with the future of the country in the balance, the Dáil voted to give itself an extra day off today. As far as I can see, apart from some grumblings on thejournal.ie, politics.ie, and on Twitter, not many people in the media even noticed this stunning dereliction of duty. They didn’t notice because, due to the way the system is currently configured, it doesn’t really matter that much if the Dáil decides to stretch out the bank holiday weekend a little. One wag on politics.ie pointed out that at least this will represent a saving to the state in expenses that will not claimed by members for turning up. Is this a state of affairs that should be permitted to persist?

As I pointed out in a previous post, parliamentarians themselves are well aware of the shortcomings of the current system; they know that the vast majority of their number spend their time in Leinster House participating in a series of empty rituals, which have little impact on the direction of public policy, but they seem to be unwilling or unable to act to change this situation. Senator Dan Boyle noted a common and cross-party awareness of these problems, as well as a degree of consensus as to some procedural and administrative solutions – but stated that there is simply a lack of political will to implement reform.

Niamh Hardiman, in her excellent analysis of the political system’s shortcomings in dealing with the crisis, makes a similar argument: ‘Changes in the rules of parliamentary behaviour would require governing parties, whoever was in power, to weaken their own near-stranglehold over debate and scrutiny, and to permit both the opposition and their own non-ministerial parliamentarians a more active role in policy deliberation and indeed in getting amendments adopted. Although this has repeatedly been proposed, no government really wants to follow through on it once they gain power. But it could be done if we thought it was important enough’(p. 9).

Will any party find the will to make these changes? What chance that the public will make political reform an election issue? The title of Primo Levi’s tale of struggle and dignity in the face of hatred and prejudice on all sides provides us with the apposite question: ‘If Not Now, When?’

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7 thoughts on “If Not Now, When? Why we need parliamentary reform.

  1. I think in the context of an expected FG/Labour coalition with, on the basis of recent polls, the support of upwards of a 100 TDs, there will have to be parliamentary reform. If for no other reason, that there will be too many TDs – in both parties – with no realistic possibility of promotion to the executive, so to keep them occupied the executive will need to introduce some level of parliamentary reform. Most likely through significantly strengthening the committee system and the resources available to it. It is no co-incidence that the last major dalliance with parliamentary reform was by the FF/Labour coalition which at that stage had an unprecedented government majority.

    That is just from a purely rational viewpoint ignoring recent policy proposals. Within Fine Gael certainly, and to an extent within Labour, there has been clear proposals over a long number of years about parliamentary reform. The last time there would appear to have been such a sustained argument for parliamentary reform was in the 1970s, early 80s from the likes of John Bruton and Barry Desmond, the subsequent coalition government was innovative in introducing the first significant experimentation with a committee system.

  2. As citizens we are oppressed by a combination of extreme executive dominance and the ‘tyranny of faction’. Those who are in a position to change it, i.e., the elected representatives, are neither willing nor have any interest. The current governing factions are intent on employing every available tactic to retain power for as long as possible and the two main opposition factions are locked in deadly combat to be the larger – and more dominant – in the next, most likely, combination of governing factions.

    The interests of citizens, the state and the economy are very much secondary to the parallel conduct of these struggles. What remains of national sovereignty is now at stake. There is no guarantee that the best efforts of the Government and the EC/ECB will allow the NTMA to re-enter the sovereign bond market. If these fail, Ireland will be under administration by the EC/ECB/IMF.

    By deploying public resources in a court action to postpone the full and proper representation of voters in three constituencies, the Government is stretching its constitutional legitimacy to govern to the limit. In addition, it clearly has no popular mandate for the actions it is taking – or proposes to take. A Government that is weakened in these respects is in no position to enforce and implement the policies that are required to maintain what remains of national sovereignty.

    There is a time for a general election before the end of Novemeber – and time to elect a government to ensure enactment of the required budget before year end. It’s time to let the people decide and to have a government with a popular mandate to get us through these challenges.

    There will be time then to refrom political governance.

    • Yes, I couldn’t agree more. It’s an incredible display of partisan over national interest to squander this opportunity to hold an election and to actively avoid holding by-elections expressly because their faction risks ‘defeat’. I’m just picking up on social media that they’re committing Ireland to a 15billion euro adjustment over 4 years, when they have less than 2 years to run at the absolute maximum and when they were elected in a context where we were predicting ongoing 5% growth rates. Crazy stuff.

  3. I wouldn’t wait on it to happen, Paul. You’re talking about a group who are refusing to hold 3 by-elections with the excuse, basically, that they’re too busy. Not too busy to take a lazy Tuesday off work though.

    • re. by-elections
      Am I correct in my understanding that the outgoing TD’s party (if a party member), has the initiative in calling for a by-election?
      If so, why has FG not tabled a motion for a by-election in Dublin South?

      If I have misunderstood some custom and practice on these matters (particularly where there is more than one vacancy), I would like to learn about it.

      In general, I favour getting rid of by elections as I have indicated in an earlier posting
      https://politicalreform.ie/2010/04/26/should-by-elections-be-abolished/comment-page-1/#comment-167

      • As far as I understand it, while it is tradition that a member of the outgoing TD’s party takes the initiative to call for a by-election, this is not enshrined in law. In any event, the motion for a by-election has to be passed by the Dail, regardless of who proposes it. For instance, an SF proposal for the writ to be moved in Donegal SW was defeated in May (with the help of the casting vote of the partisan chair, Seamus Kirk).

        I think that the High Court case is going to revolve around the tension between two aspects of the constitution: Art 16.2.2 fixes the maximum and minimum ratio of TDs to population and Art. 16.2.3 prescribes that this ration shall ‘as far as it is practicable,be the same throughout the country’. SF’s arguments is that the government policy of indefinite delay on by-elections violates these aspects of the constitution.

        However, the part that relates specifically to filling casual vacancies, Art 16.7, requires only that it be ‘regulated in accordance with law’ i.e., no explicit minimum time threshold is set. The government’s argument here is that they are acting lawfully, in the minimalist sense that there is no law against what they are doing. Their moral argument, as I say above, is that they are too busy with other important stuff to get distracted with by-elections. Both arguments smack of moral bankruptcy to me.

        The Constitution Committee report suggested either a 6 month maximum time between the vacancy arising and the by-election being held or the use of a replacement list system. To avoid this impasse happening again.

        I would favour the latter option, but either would be a huge improvement on the current embarassing and democratically damaging sitatuion.

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