Radical poltical reform needed

In his weekly column in The Irish Times yesterday Stephen Collins argued cogently that radical political reform will be an urgent task of the new government

Collins argues that it is now blindingly obvious that our multi-seat system of proportional representation played a big role in bringing us to where we are. “The system throws up elected representatives who are good at constituency work but who have little interest in, or capacity for, policy debate or innovative thinking.” His prescription is the introduction of single-seat constituencies with a top-up by a list system to retain proportionality.

The problem is that if the electoral system is to be changed it will not work on its own. Collins and many of us would like to see the emergence of quality legislators who have the interest and ability to understand the national interest and to prioritise it. The electoral system may or may not be central to that but what is crucial is changing the system in which our elected representatives operate. The Dáil at the moment is simply a talking shop, a “joke” as Richard Bruton put it at a recent PSAI meeting. Legislators largely read prepared scripts to a largely empty house. The whip system ensures that they have little or no influence on policy. Simply electing them by another means will not change that.

There are a large number of measures which can be taken to increase the  ability of legislators to do their job properly. For example, if legislation went to committees before plenary session, as it does in Germany, all legislators including the opposition could do what one of their jobs is meant to be, legislate. If there was separation between the executive and the legislature then the some of the incentives towards localism and clientalism would be reduced. This could be done with the appointment of cabinet ministers from outside the ranks of TDs, or even forcing ministers to resign their seats as do many of our fellow European countries.  If the default position of the government was towards openness both with data and cabinet discussion all decisions would be open for proper scrutiny.

Arguably one root cause of our present travails is the extreme executive dominance enjoyed by the Cabinet in Ireland. Measures to address that are among the most crucial areas of reform.

9 thoughts on “Radical poltical reform needed

  1. Legislators largely read prepared scripts to a largely empty house.

    I can’t claim to have observed any great number of parliaments, but in those where the executive comes from the legislature, is this unusual?

    Any time I watch the House of Commons, there seem to be proportionally the same numbers in attendance to that in the Dáil. The only real difference is that speaking time in the HoC isn’t in the gift of the whips office, so you have to be in attendance for a while before the Speaker calls you.

  2. I’m a long time reader of your blog but I’ve not really commented before. I do have some thoughts on this however:

    Firstly, I understand and agree that switching the electoral system itself from STV to MMP or AMS (single member districts with top up party list) probably won’t do too much for backbench independence by itself.

    The trouble is the academic evidence suggests the presence of whips itself is not the main attribute towards party cohesion, though Ireland is a special case because TDs can be thrown out of the party for rebelling. A study on the House of Lords (Norton, 2003), where the whips have pretty much no sticks or carrots, show that the parties there are still cohesive and people still rarely rebel – though still they more common than other Commonwealth countries.

    There’s also at least one study done contrasting party cohesion in Canada and the UK (Garner and Letki, 2005) which concludes that willingness to rebel against the party leadership (where rebelling does not incur expulsion) is heavily tied to how involved the backbenchers feel they are with party policy, as is ideological position.

    So, the challenge is to break the power of the party, presumably by having large enough rebellions so that the parties can’t throw the TDs out, hopefully making it politically unacceptable to throw TDs out of the party, but even then the culture of loyalty and the effectiveness of the party management to consult TDs could keep them relatively compliant.

    Strengthening the committee system is always good – I’m not sure whether it would have an effect, but electing select committees in the UK seems to have had an effect in how assertive they and their members are, but what with the Dail’s culture of loyalty I’m not sure that would help. It would be a start, however, because an alternate career system from government should create more of an incentive to rebel because it will have more consequences.

    Of course, the Dail can’t be more independent and aggressive against the government until its members are. For that, you need a new culture in the Dail. If many TDs are new next election, then that could be the start of a cultural shift if they are suitably willing to rebel.

    Once the TDs themselves are willing to act to get more powers to the Dail, the days of party dominance and Dail weakness should be numbered. I would hope.

    I’m not sure if the links will work – if they don’t, I’ll post them again.

  3. I suggest that we need a three-level system:

    – elect the government (ie 15 people) in a single national constituency. Alternatively, elect an executive president who will appoint the government, as they do in Foreign Parts

    – elect the members of a deliberative assembly in a single national constituency

    – elect the gobshites (ie those who will get granny a pension and fix your street light and so on) from the existing constituencies.

    The third lot should be given a chamber in which to speak and contol over public expenditure up to, say, four pounds seventeen shillings and sixpence a year, to be divided amongst all their pet projects.

    The other two lots should be required to conduct all their business electronically.


  4. Pingback: Jason O Mahony » Blog Archive » What kind of political change?

  5. @Jane Suiter,

    At the risk of repeating myself I can only applaud your focus on key issues – in particular, the baleful impact of executive dominance and the requirement for reform of the process of political and economic decision-making. Laundry lists encourage stasis; let’s focus on a few key reforms and a lot of other things will fall into place.

    The voting system is fine; we don’t need philosopher-kings. We need the widest possible representation of Irish society assessing evidence for and against policy proposals and making decisions in an open and transparent manner. Every Dail candidate should nominate an alternate. This would eliminate the need for by-elections and if a TD is appointed as a minister, he or should would vacate the Dail and the seat would be taken by the alternate. And we need properly-funded local authorities with finance-raising powers responsible for local services.

    It won’t eliminate stupid decisions – people (and their representatives) have an inalienable right to make them – but it would minimise their incidence and severity.

  6. The key issue is that we need a way of governing ourselves with checks and balances which limit the scope for excess by the powerful (public and private, elected and appointed) so that we have competent and moderate government focused on the common good, instead of being focused on grand gestures.

    In this context, Stephen Collins left a lot to be desired. Although he argued for political reform, the only specific measure he mentioned is to change the electoral system to “single seat constituencies with a top-up by a list system”. This is a limited view of the reforms needed and how they might work.

    It is far from radical – in the sense of a root-and-branch reform.

    In the context of reform, starting with the electoral system is a red herring. Many contributors to this forum have pointed out that changing the electoral system is no silver bullet. For an approach to electoral systems and a way of working out how Stephen Collins preferred option would work, I refer to a consideration of the the conclusions of the Royal Commission on the Electoral System in New Zealand4 which reported in December 1986. See here

    IMO, our electoral system does have a lot of scope to put brakes on the powerful, provided it is part of a wider set of measures – some of which I set out below.

    @Paul Hunt
    “Every Dail candidate should nominate an alternate.”
    I agree that we should not have by-elections.
    Michael Gallagher raised this here https://politicalreform.ie/2010/04/26/should-by-elections-be-abolished/#comments

    In a comment in that thread, I put forward an alternative view ie. that the last candidate to be eliminated in the previous general election should automatically become the TD.

    Back to radical political reform
    As I pointed out during the 1980s crisis “There are very few useful changes that can be made without constitutional amendment to those articles which specify the form of government. It would be a pity to waste energy by attempting to fine-tune the 1920’s-bascd system by. for example. changing the electoral system or restructuring the Senate. Without much more effort, we could have a completely new model that will bring us to the year 2000 and beyond, by giving our government system the means to be successful while increasing democratic accountability.”

    Click to access Need%20Government%20Fail%20Business&Finance%2021May1987.pdf

    IMO, political reform should be focused on the mechanisms of government and should include the following, for starters

    1) Full separation between the Dáil (legislature) and the Government (Rialtas, executive) with separate elections for each branch, so that each branch can be improved separately. This is the only way that will really make the TDs independent of the government of the day. With proper design, measures can be built in to lessen gridlock, which is often cited as basis for continuing in the British governmental tradition.

    2) a Swedish style Freedom of Information written into the constitution, as I argued here last June https://politicalreform.ie/2010/06/21/freedom-of-information-and-corruption/, based on a BBC R4 talk by a London-based Swedish journalist who pointed out

    “….Sweden’s Freedom of Information laws are a beacon to the world….In 1766, when a new young radical government came to power convinced that only transparency could deal with the corruption that was looting the Swedish state and society Freedom of Information Act was passed…All documents within the public sector are in the public domain so people can actually check and hold the people in power accountable for their actions…. Freedom of Information… is still a bedrock for transparency and accountability in Swedish democracy…You don’t have to tell why they want to see a document or you don’t even have to give a name…You can even read official letters before they arrive in politicians’ intrays………Yea, Freedom of Information does mean you sacrifice some personal privacy…Of course, Freedom of Information isn’t universal in Sweden. If you really want to hide information you can. But you have to work quite hard to keep things secret. The exemptions are limited and very specific.”

    3) A Swiss-style citizens’ initiative covering all legislation, including the Constitution, so that we do not have to wait for change while the governing classes react, as one historian put it “ like an ancien regime on the eve of a revolution, wasting time on palace intrigues, institute meaningless reforms and complacently ignore the exhaustion of traditional metaphors and ideas”. Lest anyone think that this is a uniquely Irish issue, I refer to an article by Simon Johnson, a former IMF Chief Economist about the US (brought by my attention in a link by TCD’s Philip Lane on irisheconomy.ie about 18 months ago) http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/05/the-quiet-coup/7364/

    Even without constitutional change, there is a lot we can do to get us on our way to a radical recasting of our way of governing ourselves eg
    a) Reduce to Cabinet to 7 members, of whom two should be outsiders brought through the Senate, in order to bring experience and insight to Government not normally available among politicians. With the appointment of Patrick Honohan as Central Bank Governor and Matthew Elderfield as Financial Regulator, this government has already shown the efficacy of bringing in outsiders, at the top level;

    b) Reduce the size of the Dáil by using the 1:30,000 ratio of people to TDs thereby bringing the number of TDs to 141 instead of 166 at present, a reduction 15 per cent;
    c) Stop by-elections;
    d) Repeal the 2003 Freedom of Information Act;
    e) Bring state budgeting and financial procedures up to best contemporary practice to overcome the defects pointed out by Dan O’Brien, Irish Times Economics Correspondent last June Dan O’Brien “Looking back on a unique absence of foresight” Irish Times 28 June 2010

    We have a lot more work to do than merely focusing on changing the electoral system.

  7. I originally sent blogpost to Elaine discussing this topic but I now see that it was more appropriate to comment here.

    I have seen a lot of commentators suggest that a move to the party list system prevalent in Europe would break the clientelism link between voter and member of parliament and therefore at a stroke remove a major distraction from dealing with pressing national issues.

    I wrote a post about this topic where my main concern about this system is that, as shown in Holland, a party can achieve a very high degree of political power with enough candidates for seats and a major media personality at the helm of the party list.

    Given the raw emotions being caused by the bailout and the perception that the government isn’t listening (actually, that’s probably more than a perception), the way would be clear for a popular, and populist party leader to gain a significant number of seats by creating a reductive positive message that showed up the political establishment as being only concerned with themselves.

    You might say that such a thing could never happen in Ireland but imagine if George Lee had started his own party instead of being parachuted into Dublin South? The problem is that every time an election is held, this party will increase its votes until it’s “found out” in government. By then, however, the country has wasted valuable time on an ill thought-out manifesto and the other political parties start spending their time playing catch up on a simplistic agenda rather than developing a real alternative.

    My own view is that if reform of the political system is meant to break clientelism, then taxes need to be re-aligned so that taxes are charged at a local level. By giving councillors responsibility for public money, they become much more relevant in the eyes of local voters.

  8. @Colin McGovern
    Agree entirely with you about “taxes need to be re-aligned so that taxes are charged at a local level. By giving councillors responsibility for public money, they become much more relevant in the eyes of local voters.”

    I gather that Denmark did something like this in response to the first oil crisis during the 1970s.

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