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.