Answering questions, or questioning answers – where does the debate go from here?

 by: Matt Wall.

This post is in response to Elaine’s ‘10 proposals for political reform’.

It seems that there is now an incontestable case for far-reaching political reform in the light of all that has happened in Ireland since late 2008; and this case has been crystallised particularly vividly over the last week. However, while most people can agree that we need political reform, there appears to be little or no consensus around precisely what reforms should be put in place.

Those proposals that everyone can agree on are often somewhat vague. As Eoin O’Malley commented on some of Fintan O’Toole’s efforts– ‘He may as well have said “reduce crime and increase happiness”. The question is how do you achieve these?’

When one seeks to put forward more specific suggestions, especially in the form of a comprehensive package, one is faced with the paralysis of infinite choice: with so many branches and aspects of governance to tackle, and so many ways to reform them, where do you start? Or where do you stop?

However, Irish political debate rarely confronts such issues because detailed proposals appear to be incredibly difficult to communicate at all, and near impossible to debate. Our media environment is simply not conducive to pouring over fine details, considering the possible implications of each choice, and finding workable solutions. Topics flicker in and out of prominence with bewildering rapidity, and public discussions are relentlessly unedifying spectacles, with zombie-like party representatives clinging fiercely to whatever official line they have to parrot, breaking off only to attack one another with ever-increasing levels of personalized bitterness.

While not perfect by any means, Fine Gael’s ‘New Politics’ document contains a wide range of ideas for specific political reforms, detailing the rationale for their adoption and the methodology by which they would be implemented. And yet when Fine Gael representatives appear on television or radio, they may only briefly allude to the existence of this document before they are asked either: a) Why do you think so few people want Enda Kenny to be Taoiseach?  b) How are you going to co-exist with Labour , when their views are so different for yours? or c) both. (It generally seems strange to me that Fine Gael people, who have a lot to say about policy, are quizzed endlessly about their leader, while Labour people, who have a popular leader, face a constant barrage of demands for policy specifics). Even Labour’s condensed three page Private Members’ Motion gained little or no traction in any media that I came across. Basically, detailed reform proposals appear to be too boring to compete with an endless slanging match in the eyes of the media.

Hence, the ‘list of 10’ approach becomes attractive. The idea is of this, it seems to me, is to shove several reform proposals into such a condensed package that they can be meaningfully recounted and defended in a 15 minute radio segment, or via a 1,000 word opinion piece – these being the absolute outer limits of allowable attention span for public debate on any ‘big’ issue in Irish political life. Having to thus condense one’s ideas reduces the exercise of considering political reform to a sort of a rhetorical Ready, Steady, Cook – where you have to make a meal to be evaluated, but with limited ingredients and in a short space of time, preferably while making engaging small talk along the way (though I applaud Elaine’s efforts here, especially in her linking of each of the proposals to a more detailed justification and elaboration, and I agree strongly with many of her suggestions).

Finally, specific proposals are difficult both to defend and to garner support for because of an absurd inability to acknowledge that there is no such thing as a perfect system, and that improvement in one area usually comes at the expense of a cutback in another. To debate these changes systematically, constructively, and intelligently we would need to step away from the endlessly partisan, antagonistic, and simplistic political rhetoric that so many of us have come to loathe.

Could a Citizens’ Assembly  be an environment  where constructive debate and problem solving could occur? Could it be a non-elitist institution that does these things in a reasonably democratic way, undertaken by a group of citizens who are relatively representative of the population? Perhaps, if our Citizens’ Assembly was very carefully designed and well-resourced. Will a Citizens’ Assembly happen? Both of the main opposition parties have endorsed Citizens’ Assemblies as key reform mechanisms in recent times, albeit with each party’s proposal providing for different remits and compositions. Holding these parties to their commitments in this regard may prove difficult in the light of the clear and present problems that they will face when in office. 

I would argue that a Citizens’ Assembly with a broad remit, and the power to put its proposals directly to the people via a referendum or series of referendums, has to be worth a shot: the current political and media systems appear to offer little hope of providing a meaningful debate on these issues, and our political system is in dire need of an upgrade.

23 thoughts on “Answering questions, or questioning answers – where does the debate go from here?

  1. Good post Matt.

    The political science community should collectively decide/deliberate what they envisage the ten, twelve or twenty-two proposals for reform should be. They can use this website to detail each reform proposal with evidence based research and link them here for further comment and analysis.

    There will never be an opportunity like this again when the public mind is so focused on reform.

    It is time now for political scientists to outline exactly which political reforms they believe should be introduced. The logic of “well I wouldn’t start from there” only has merit when you put your head above the parapet and start from somewhere.

    • Yes – I could not agree more. There seem to be so many areas of overlap, too: meausres for greater transparency in government and more complete reporting of political funding, for instance.

      Maybe a good place to start would be identifiying points on which we can all agree, and those which are more contested in our community?

      • Well I’ve put up my ten. Which ones do you agree with and why and if not why not? Could you put any comments you may have in my previous post so that we can coordinate all the comments together. Maybe you could link in your phd research and your excellent Oireachtas report.

    • This post is proposing a National Convention to try to push the reform agenda ahead.
      There is a meeting to be held in Dublin on December 4th. It would be very usefull if some members of the “political science community” attended this meeting to try to establish links with the members of the wider community who are also willing to work for reform.

    • A usefull approach to the use of lists might be to have a “Top Ten” in order of importance, but also to have several additional lists that would group proposals according to the degree of effort required for implementation. So one list could contain proposals which require constitutional change, a second for proposals which require legislation, and a third for proposals which only require political decisions. Seperate strategies for implementation could then be devised and promoted for each group of proposals.

      • @Tom, yes the idea of seperating out reforms according to order of magnitude seems to me like a good one. I think a big problem has been that any and all reforms could be blocked by stating that some would require a constitutional ammendment. A structured approach cuold see proceudral and legislative changes made rapidly, and bigger constitutional questions addressed in the medium term via Citizen’s Assemblies and referednums.

  2. I very much welcome the effort that’s being put in on this board in terms of presenting proposals for political reform – and the positive suggestions on collaboration and more focused debate. It seems this board has ‘come of age’.

    However, a further dimension – that has always lurked beneath the surface – has now come to the forefront. And that is the EU. Recently, Herman van Rumpuy, President of the Council, was criticised – and had to row back a little – for saying the EU was going thorugh a ‘crisis of survival’. But he was merely stating the obvious as the markets threaten to over-run the peripheral countries to compel the major core EZ economies to reveal the actual solvency of the EU banking system.

    The EU is a top-down polity with limited democratic legitimacy that lacks the institutions, instruments and procedures to match its ambitions – and to defend its ambitions when its attempt to suspend disbelief fails.

    Genuine English democrats -whose views I share – base their opposition to the EU on three fundamental democratic and legal pricniples:
    1. people are in principle completely free to do as they wish unless they consent to have their freedom curtailed;
    2. people have an inalienable right to elect democratically those who govern – and to eject them from office if they so choose;
    3. The imposition of judicial penalty or the deprival of liberty is decided by a jury of one’s peers.

    Heads of state and government in the European Council are elected in a staggered manner in line with national electoral cycles and are rarely ejected from office on the basis of decisions made in the Council. The European Commission is entirely unelected. The Parliament, unlike any other parliament, does not have the power to elect the government or to remove it. The legal system is derived from the Napoleonic Code which is the complete reverse of the English common law where citizens extract and enforce their rights and liberty from an all-powerful state rather than consenting to have their liberties curtailed in the common good by those whom they have elected to govern.

    The simplest and most effective reform is to dissolve the European Parliement and have the members elected from national parliements and give it the power to electe and remove the Commission. National parliaments would elect (1) national governments (with the head of govt. and ministers replaced in parliament by alternates), (2) chairs of empowered and resourced parliamentary cttess and (3) national members of the European Parliament (who would also be replaced by alternates).

    This is the minimum separation of powers required at the national and EU level.

    • @Paul: As I said, ‘where do you stop?’ The problem with debating EU-level reform on an Irish politics website is in the nature of that particular beast; constitutional reforms need to be agreed upon by all members.

      The last attempt to consult the member state populations on a revised EU Constitution ended in a dismal flop. It was shown up for what it was: a plebiscite. The EU Constitutional referendum process was cancelled before it really got started when it gave the ‘wrong’ response – and the proposals then had to be repackaged in such a way that the political class could shunt them through their legislatures, and where the only country to vote on reforms was bullied into holding two referendums (one wonders what a second ‘no’ vote from Ireland would have meant).

      In any case, any sort of reform is difficult to push through at the EU-level, however desirable it may be. This is especially the case for reforms based on Irish opinions and concerns. I would argue that this site, and the national debate on reform, should focus on issues that we can hope to address at the national and sub-national levels, but, of course, that is just my opinion.

  3. @Matthew,

    I take your point, but we should not ignore the popular unease in other member-states about the top-down nature of the EU, its lack of democratic legitimacy and the extent of executive dominance which bears down on EU citizens – and supports the functioning of the EU. The Dutch and French ‘no’ votes in 2005 to the EU Constitution were influenced by national political issues, but they also reflected unease about the functioning of the EU – and this unease is not confined to these member-states.

    My principal objective is to ensure the ultimate authority of the people is brought to bear at all times in the process of policy-making and implementation. We must trust the people. Voters have an inalienable right to make stupid decisions; but they have an equally inalienable right to reverse these decisions. Let’s focus on the structure and process. Much of the debate gets muddled by the inclusion of proposals to implement ‘good’ policies. These need to be winnowed out. Get the structure and process right (or, at least, better than it is) and let voters and their representatives decide what ever policies they want – good, bad or indifferent.

  4. An important point in this post is the creation of a link between political reform and the quality of public discourse. There IS a problem with journalism generally and a practical solution is not obvious.

    • This is absolutely correct.The quality of political commentary from an objectivity, independence and knowledge point of view leaves a lot to be desired. Even worse is the state of public broadcasting. Perhaps the ten point plan should incorporate the need for independent and genuine public service broadcasting, capable of penetrating analysis and holding public policy decisions to account.A public service broadcaster committed to public service, on reasonable public wages and not the creation of ‘celebrities’ and millionaires. If those working in such a scenario ‘outgrow’ public service they should be allowed go into the market place.

      • Vincent, It would be wrong to divert this thread into a discussion of PSB but I feel compelled to say that I disagree with you. To be as brief as I possibly can, PSB – whether state-owned or not – operates in a market trying to attract audience share. The day it becomes a supplier to an elite , failing to attract at least the lion’s share of the audience, is the day it ceases to be PSB. (There is nothing democratic about a small audience!)

        My point was that effective public discourse is wholly dependent on a supply of top quality political information (including arguments)and journalism generally is not delivering.

        I can argue this at a little greater length and suggest some modest reforms but this is not the place for it.

  5. @ COLUM
    “My point was that effective public discourse is wholly dependent on a supply of top quality political information (including arguments)and journalism generally is not delivering.”

    And my point was that our public broadcaster is not delivering.

  6. I agree with Elaine and others : the primary focus should be on reform of our own political system. We can get to the EU later. Journalism, which is market driven anyway, will take care of itself.

    I think the most important thing is to set out clearly what kind of political system we want to have at the end of the reform process and then simplify the message to gain public support for it.

    The various reforms then become a means to an end and can be prioritised accordingly. This means that the less costly reforms and those which involve the least time delay to implement would have to come first. Unless there’s a revolution – not beyond the bounds of possiblity given the way things are going and the whole structure has to be reassembled from scratch – a five year reform plan, which relies upon incremental measures which can be revewed for their effectiveness along the way, might be the best way forward?

    I don’t have a top ten, or an any ‘ten’, but my number 1 would be parliamentary reform; since it’s within easy reach and costs nothing, except for increased productivity from public representatives. Its self-evident that the grip of the Executive on parliaments need to be loosened – so that public policy debates mean something and public representation of itself means more than just becoming lobby fodder for the party leadership.
    No.2 would be reform of the parliamentary institutions, in particular the Seanad. I would favour reform over abolition, which could also be achieved without resort to a constitutional referendum e.g changes to the panel system, electoral base and reduction in number of Taoiseach’s nominees etc. Within this also comes a reduction in the number of TDs (which can be done without requiring a referendum) and the incorporation of new ‘checks and balances’ within the system such as the oft-mentioned establishment of a fiscal council etc.

    No.3 is immediate review of the political funding system, including supports available to individual members as well as parties and the rules of transparency and accountability for any expenditure. Ending the dual mandate turned out to be a failure in practice as have SIPO and other transparency and so-called anti-corruption measures in the funding area. Until we are quite clear of what the job description of a politician should entail and what we want political parties to do on our behalf, and how we wish to see democracy function within our broader society, I don’t believe we can have sensible discussions on the best means of funding politics.

    Hope this is helpful.

  7. @Paul – ‘an inalienable right to make stupid decisions’ that’s a nice turn of phrase 🙂 yes, I’m in total agreement, we must trust ourseleves, and eachother, to make decisions, and put in place structures to do that.

    @Colum & Vincent – it’s a really interesting issue. I think that we could do with a less adverserial style of public discourse generally – as it is now everything is set up as a zero sum game – ‘you lose, I win’ which really gets us nowhere. I saw a couple of people trying to make this point on the Frontline the other night, but they were soon drowned out by the usual personalised and futile scrapping. there is also an onus on our leaders to at least try to be honest with us – part of this is in transparent governance, but a large part comes from the communication styles of our public figures.

    @Veronica – yes, your idea of a ‘5 year plan’ sounds very sensible to me. I think that it is a good idea to seperate out ideas both in order of how difficult they would be to conceive, agree on, and implement. As such, parliamentary reform, being both widely supported by political parties and legislatively straightforward (with some exceptions, such as Abbeylara) should come within the first year.

  8. One of the recurrent memes of the recent debates on political reform has been the lack of engagement and/or connection between ordinary citizens and the political system. The public ranges between rage and apathy when it comes to the question of how to influence politics. Calls for electoral reform are criticised because the voters will always get the government they deserve regardless of how you count up the preferences. Calls for institutional reform falter because the same party minions toiling under the same party whips will find themselves in these new institutions, you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.
    Political parties remain the gate keepers of political power and no institutional or other reform is likely to change this fact, nor should it necessarily seek to as parties play a vital role in shaping an otherwise inchoate set of preferences into more coherent sets. However, clearly some step needs to be taken to address the representativeness of political parties and the links between them and citizens. One suggestion is as follows. Base party funding on a system comparable to the German Tithe system for collecting revenue for Churches.
    Let me explain, citizens would be required to register as a member of a specific registered political party or as an independent. Each citizen would also pay a discreet levy specifically for the purpose of funding political parties. If the citizen is a member of a party this levy would go directly to the party and would serve as a membership due i.e. the party couldn’t charge any further fee for full membership rights, if they have registered as an independent this levy would go in to a central pool which would be disbursed based on party support.
    Outside of this system, only party members will be allowed to contribute to a party and all such donations must be declared on a state database (to be made available online) and possibly capped to a fixed amount to include the amount contributed via the levy. Furthermore, contributions can be made to only one party per year to avoid abuse of the system via switching.
    This reform would, I suggest, have a number of effects.
    First of all it would encourage citizens to engage with the party system. If people are aware of the direct financial contribution they make to parties, even if they are independents, they are likely to take more interest in what the parties do with this money.
    Secondly, most people are not indifferent to the various party organisations and would be likely to opt to have their levy contribute to one specific party. As this would effectively constitute membership they would be included in party mailing lists, activities, be aware of elections for party officers etc. and therefore more likely to become involved.
    Thirdly, it would encourage parties to seek members as they have a direct bearing on the ability of the party to fund itself. Legally they will not be allowed to discriminate among different kinds of members, so the way to attract participation would be to give members something to participate in, increasing internal party democracy and participation. This incentive to attract members increases as parties realise they can out do their polling based allocation by attracting a disproportionately large number of members.
    Finally as party membership becomes a normal part of everyday life some of the current social and cultural barriers to participation should diminish. Particularly the limiting of ordinary members participation to electioneering activities which in turn should help attract more able people into party politics.
    ***The above comes with caveat that it is way outside my area of expertise but I do think the discussion to date has avoided grappling with the role of parties in any new system so hopefully it’ll provoke discussion even if only to critique it.

  9. This is a really stimulating debate which I hope to come back to. But one thought stood out above all others, Matt’s idea that the Senate could be a made of randomly selected people. This could be an ongoing citizens assembly made up of a representative sample of the population randomly selected. Could it possibly work?

  10. At some stage discussion of reform will involve voters and will need to migrate to mass media. Look at the complexity of the arguments here. Leaving journalism “to take care of itself” is not an attractive option. Weaknesses in journalism played a part in getting us into this mess.

    I won’t post any further on this matter on this thread as I don’t want to divert it.

    • Colum,

      Agreed. There is a debate to be held on the media/political nexus but this thread isn’t the place for it. If my original remark on the media being market led appeared flippant, please accept my apologies as that was not my intention. However, there has been an extraordinary change in the media over the past ten years whilst the political system has remained largely unchanged to the point of becoming moribund.

      There’s never been an opportunity like the present to shake up the political system and demand its reform. Perhaps people interested in this need to come together and work out a strategy to put political reform on the agenda for the next general election? I reckon there will be further superficial changes to things like ministerial salaries, politicians’ services entitlements etc. in the forthcoming budget, but genuine reform to restore the public’s confidence in our political system will fall by the wayside, both during the campaign and after formation of the next government, if there is not a concerted effort to make it an issue that the political class can’t dodge.

  11. I think the two easist things which can be done at the stroke of a pen to reform politics in Ireland are 1 to extend FOI to every single aspect of government, with no exclusions and 2 to deal with political pay,pensions, expenses and funding as I think point 2 more than anything is what poisons public attitudes as they see the utterly unbelieveable amounts paid to them and then complete and utter silence from all parties on that subject – can anyone explain why FG and L have refused to make their reps provide recipts or why neither have indicated the President, Judges, Taoiseach, Ministers and all elected reps will face massive pay cuts and an end to expenses from day one of a new government?

    Why don’t FG or L reps provide receipts?

  12. To paraphrase James Lovelock, Ireland is in a period exactly like 1938/39, “we all know something terrible is going to happen, but don’t know what to do about it”. But once the Second World War was under way, everyone realized the things they could do, so when I think of the impending crisis now, I think in those terms. A sense of purpose – that’s what people want.

    Through the policies of self interest we have managed to mortgage our future generations with the excesses of the Celtic Tiger. A sense of purpose is what we need to ensure future generations are left with a country that they can be proud of, a country that they are proud to take on our burden of debt for. The idealism that shaped the drafting of the proclamation has been abused by this self interest that pervaded through the governing classes. This self interest found its way into the minds of the electorate of this country over the Celtic tiger period. I believe this is because the idealism of who we are was lost in the muddied water that is our Constitution. It is clear to see with the arrival of outside assistance that the first Irish Republic is dead, and to this end, we as Irish Citizens need to work with a sense of purpose to create a society that benefits the nation and rejects self interest.

    In order to sow the seeds of a new Republic we need a symbol to show that responsibility and accountability have been apportioned. I believe this symbol must be the Fianna Fail party. At the moment, it cannot see the mistakes it has made, it needs time to reflect outside of the pressure cooker it has created to fully appreciate that its policies of self interest have lead us to this situation. It needs time looking outside of public representation to properly evaluate its role and how it can best contribute in the future to become protector of the people and custodian of this nation for future generations. To this end, I believe Fianna Fail and its members should abstain from public representation for the period of the new Dail. This will provide Fianna Fail members with a period of penance to accept the enormity of their fatal policies, give them a period of reflection to renew their relationship with the electorate and demonstrate their humility in front of Irish Citizens.

    It may be difficult but if we are to move forward we must ultimately forgive the institutions that have burnt this country to the ground.

    This is our time to shape what kind of society we as Irish Citizens want; this is our time to pull what is left of this country out of the ashes that remain, this is our time to start working for a better society, a culture that reflects a modern Ireland and one that regards itself as a custodian for future generations and rejects the mantra of self interest in favour of mutual interest in the nation. To this end, we must remove the blockades of the past to allow us to renew our faith in this wonderful country of ours. We can learn from the past but we must not be servants of it, for far too long we have been servants of the past to the detriment of our real responsibility; that of custodian of this country for future generations. Learning from our mistakes a new Republic should be built on a simple statement of intent built on pillars that help shape the Irish nation with a sense of purpose. Pillars that the Citizens of Ireland can live by:
    • Sustainability – activities on this island must be conducted in a sustainable way without detriment to future generations;
    • Equality – we should strive to create a fair and equal society;
    • Strong Governance – both public and corporate bodies should be responsible and accountable for their actions; this starts with the Irish Citizen taking responsibility for our own actions;
    • Secular – For an equal and integrated society not one religion should be given special treatment; one religion should not have undue influence over the national interest. We should recognise that religion is a personal chose;
    • Community – we must strive to live in a way that improves the conditions of everyone on this island and not act in a way that will be to the detriment of other citizens of Ireland and to future generations; and
    • Liberty – For the good of the nation we must view ourselves as a liberal free society.

    All regulations should be built around these pillars in the interest of the nation. The constitution must be built around the model of working towards the national good and our representatives should consider themselves protectors of the people, it should be considered a service to the nation and not a privilege or right. Local politics should stay local; the national interest should be served by a legislature, with government selected by the Dail based on their expertise and willingness to serve.

    My proposal to help build pride in the nation once again is for each Citizen to give a period of time each year in the interests of their community; this could include giving up your time to work with a local sports team, work for a charitable organisation or working together to improve your local community.

    We must all work together to make this happen, there is no simple solution, to make this nation great once more and hand it over to the next generation we must act as one and define who we are as a people. We as Irish Citizens must demand this of our elected public representatives.

    Are we ready? Ireland is calling.

  13. Very interesting debate and encouraging to see the raw desire for change. The question is how to make the change actually happen and how do we ensure the ‘moment’ doesnt pass us by. There is a real danger we do not fully grasp the opportunity that the current environment presents us with. The raw desire I refer to must be concretised into something, there must be an avenue to channel it and ensure it materialises into something real. The next election is around the corner. FF will suffer devastating losses but the gains will be made by the ‘political establishment’ and the same ‘politcal system’ will in all likelihood remain in place. Yes Fine Gael and Labour have certain laudable proposals for political reform but lets be honest deep rooted and fundamental reform will not take place ‘naturally’ by these parties. Once elected they will be guaranteed a full five year term because of the massive majority the Fine Gael/Labour coalition will have so the window of opportunity for something dramatic and ‘life changing’ to take place is in my view between now and the general election. There is a real danger that the desire for change will simply have no genuine voice in the new parliament and very quickly we will revert to type politics. As such I personally believe a new politial party with a very clear mandate to seek fundamental political and constitutional reform is required. This I feel is the only true way the voice for reform will survive the current surge in public interest. A new and permanent presence in the next Dail is going to be absolutely essential to drive this agenda forward and to make sure it doesnt fade away after the short term excitement of a general election and the changing political landscape.

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