Labour’s political reform proposals

Labour has published its 140 proposals for the reform of the political system. I have not yet finished reading it but thought it might be worthwhile to post the link now.

Advertisements

17 thoughts on “Labour’s political reform proposals

  1. Initial comments on a first perusal.

    1.) Electoral reform: Interesting that they propose to be guided by what the Joint Committee proposed. Since the committee proposed the establishment of a citizens’ assembly to look at electoral reform — which as it happens is essentially the Fine Gael proposal — it looks like the two parties may be on the same page on this one.

    2.) The document makes it clear that it favours abolition of the Seanad; yet towards the end there’s a fair deal of discussion about the role of Oireachtas Joint Committees (i.e. committees made up of members of the Dail and Seanad). This suggests that the decision to favour Seanad abolition was a very late addition.

  2. Now that is interesting (point 2) because in my view the proposal for abolition is certainly made out more fully than in the New Politics document. It seems a bit more reflexive than was the case with the FG proposal (or perhaps Labour just decided to give it more room).

  3. It’s an astoundingly sloppy and unprofessional document.

    I can’t see even one mention of Oireachtas or Judges pay, perks and pensions, at least Fine Gael made the effort to produce a proper serious policy, even if it doesn’t go remotely far enough.

    • I’m sad to say that I had the same initial reaction – there was a lot of debate about the quality of the document on Twitter yesterday – I was pretty astonished at the lack of detail, especially on implementation.

      For a plan to be credible, you have to give some indication of how you will actually achieve it.

      That said, the document is a party policy document – which are apparently very difficult to write coherently, David Farrell’s analysis above points to a document that was still being drafted close to its publiction. There is undoubtedly pressure at the moment for parteis to adopt some sort of stance on political reform, and this represents Labour’s attempt to respond to that pressure.

      The big plus, for me, is that there is a document at all, moreover a document containing several sensible proposals for reform – hopefully it is a first step towards a more detailed and credible plan.

      • But why – as I responded previously to Jane Suitor’s comment – do we need a “more dteailed and credible plan’. (These documents are generally drafted by a few ‘teenage scribblers’, overseen by a few senior players and backroom characters, with a tight, punchy, highly distilled version to set the ‘party-line’ – that’s capable of insertion into the crania of the TDs and being fed to the media hacks.)

        Why not set out some broad proposals for reform of the Dail and Cttees and then some principles and objectives for further reforms that will be developed in detail and enacted by the reformed Dail and Cttees? The very worst driver of these reforms is a governing faction – or a faction aspiring to govern. All this needs is a few genuine parliamentarians who have no prospect of, or desire for, ministerial office and are prepared to put the interests of faction aside for a limited period to restore the supremacy of the Dail.

        If there aren’t any of this calibre we might as well close the Dail and hand the keys of Government Building to the Troika.

  4. On an initial reading it is encouraging to see such a long list of potential political reforms.
    The independent electoral commission and fiscal council are both excellent ideas while moving towards 5 seat constituencies and greater proportionately is also welcome.

    However, there are some glaring absences. There is no mention of women or any measures to tackle under representation. There is no coherent plan for local government despite the fact that its reform is vital if cronyism and clientalism are to be less prevalent at the national level. Labour simply has a vague plan to implement a programme to “decentralise some central Government activities, including service delivery, to local authorities”.

    Moves to tackle corporate donations, publish party accounts online, tackle unvouched expenses and so on are also notable for their absence.

    Some of the other proposals are something of a mixed bag and some miss easy opportunities to really reform the system. On open government it is welcome that Labour plans to restore FOI and extend it to public bodies such as Garda, repeal the Official Secrets Act and introduce Whistleblowers legislation as well as a statutory register of lobbyists. However, disappointingly there are few measures to open up government decisions and all spending plans to scrutiny. Best practice would be a default option of openness where taxpayers can see what is being done and spent in their name. There should be no need for FOI for most decisions which should be published on a dedicated website.

    Likewise the measures proposed to hold the executive to account are mixed. It is welcome that the Taoiseach’s question time be extended to three days of the week but disappointing that Labour simply states it will “introduce a role for the Ceann Comhairle in deciding whether a Minister has failed to provide reasonable information in response to a question”. Far better as Eoin O’Malley has suggested and indeed as Fine Gael has proposed that the Ceann Comhairle be elected by secret ballot. Less surprising, there are no measures to attempt some separation between our fused legislature and executive.

    The measures to increase the power of the Dáil are also welcome particularly the decision to tackle the Abbeylara Supreme Court decision and the introduction of the d’Hondt system to distribute chairs of key committees. The specific proposal to involve TDs in the legislative process and wrest some power form the executive is vague merely amending cabinet procedure instructions so as to allow government to publish the general scheme of a Bill so that Oireachtas Committees can debate and hold hearings at an early stage. It will be welcome if it allws TDs to formulate legislation.

    It is also unclear how Labour expects to ensure that all members of the House have an enhanced capacity to play a full part in the legislative role of the House as well as its other constitutional functions, by making full use of the research, drafting and the administrative supports for members that are “now available”.

    On the proposed Constitutional Convention it is welcome that Labour has now brought this back to one year rather than its original 2016 deadline which would have run serous risks of being kicked to touch in another election campaign. However, facing 30 citizens with 30 lawyers and 30 TDs is unlikely to produce anything other than the status quo and is merely a nod in the direction of empowering citizens without any real commitment.

    • @Jane Suitor,

      “..the specific proposal to involve TDs in the legislative process and wrest some power from the executive is vague..”

      Despite welcoming this effort, I think you have put your finger on its major failing – and this, in the absence of anything substantive from the governing factions, is also the problem with FG’s proposals.

      The irony is that, if there were some basic reforms of the Dail and Cttee powers and procedures, the detailed prescriptions for reform set out in these documents (and more) would emerge, be devised in a sensible form, tested against the evidence and enacted. By being so prescriptive they diminish the ability of TDs to apply the scrutiny required, to access the necessary evidence and expertise to test proposals and then to exercise the authority of the people which they have been delegated. But that, of course, is the intention. Power remains in the hands of government (and of the machine of government behind it).

      And, of course, by being so prescriptive and detailed, the process wil become drawn-out and cumbersome so that everyone will welcome the appearance of the long grass for which it was intended intially.

      And to top it all, the abolition of An Seanad, which now seems to be a political racing certainty, was probably kicked off by Colm McCarthy in the Bord Snip Nua report. FG picked it, with little consideration, to demonstrate the political virility and decisiveness of Enda Kenny. FF and the Greens, with a much diminished number of councillors, a desire to shoot Kenny’s fox, a recognition that it would cause much internal grief in FG and Labour and a need to throw some ‘red meat’ to the masses howling for some political blood, saw politcial advantage. And now Labour, belatedly, has sniffed the wind and bought in.

      When one sees this amount of political football with a powerless, but well-embedded, part of the institutional framework, what hope is there of meaningful, well thought through, political reform?

  5. On Public Sector Reform, starting at point 83 and reading on down through the document one word comes to mind…”gobbledygook” why have clearly stated “Labour in power will….” when you can have the usual gobbledygook, public sector, trade union speak, which means that absolutely nothing will be done only to add more layers of bureaucracy,form filling, toing and froing. God help us if this is what Labour intend to do when they get into power.

  6. Pingback: The Labour Party’s Proposals for Political Reform - Human Rights in Ireland

  7. I think that it has to be welcomed that political parties are engaging seriously with the issues of political reform. That we might disagree with elements of the proposals, or believe they lack depth or strength should not detract from the fact that there is an engagement with the issues. None of us can claim to be able to outline a perfect template for our future governance. That will only be done through discourse and engagement.

    A contitutional convention can only be welcomed and hopefully can lead to a serious attempt to redefine ‘the Republic’ and draft a modern constitution.

    Needless to say I disagree with the headline issue of a unicameral legislature. I do believe, however, that regardless of the outcome of any referendum to abolish the Seanad,a means will have to be found to engage with civic society in all its manifestations and encompass the wide range of democratic activity that takes place outside political parties and parliamentary systems.

    In relation to public sector reform whistleblowers legislation would be particularly welcome as well as any moves towards more open government.Jane above has made some very relevant points above in relation to further necessary measures.

    On the nonheadline issues of internal public Sector changes, I believe that the document has merit. It has the potential to drill much deeper into what is needed than the Croke PArk agreement for example.Recognition of the restrictive nature of the grade/management system for example provides a glimmer of hope. I have been flabbergasted by the failure of the public sector unions to engage with their members in devising the change programme that is needed. Those of us in the system are probably most acutely aware of what is wrong and what is needed. I believe that such a consultation process, whether conducted by unions, government or management would yield surprising results. I am pleased therefore that this document shows some deeper knowledge of the real problems than a lot of commentary.

    Just a few initial comments. Basically, there seems to be ample room for engagement, refinement and real discourse?

  8. I don’t really understand the composition of the constitutional review group. Based on the document, 30 members are to be parliamentarians, 30 members are to be lawyers or from the NGO community and 30 members are to be randomly selected from the public.

    While I can understand the prominence given to politicians and members of the public – as they are either elected or randomly selected representatives of the public – I cannot see the case for privileging two particular sectors, the legal sector and the NGO community.

    Yes, any constitutional review group should be advised by constitutional experts – or any other form of experts they so desire.

    But should they really be guaranteed a seat at the table in setting out the principles of that document?

    They should be there to give advice, answer queries and so on. However, I don’t think they should be treated by virtue of their professional qualifications to be on par with the representatives of the public (either elected or randomly selected).

    And NGOs, why their special status? They – like every other citizen or group – should be entitled to make submissions to the review group, but why a privileged status where they get to be within the tent designing the document? Are the parliamentarians and randomly selected members of the public not representative enough of Ireland’s population?

    Ultimately, while the parliamentarians and members of the public selected for membership of this group can be chosen in a transparent and open manner, I cannot see how this second pillar can be. Rather, I would see this as giving massive room for the government of the day to influence the outcome of the review group by stacking it with favoured lawyers and NGO heads and ignoring the more awkward ones.

    If Labour want the constitutional review group to reflect their or an incoming governments preferences, that is entirely fine by me. Our current constitution hasn’t suffered a lack of legitimacy because it was the product of the executive and contested strongly by the opposition in the parliament and at referendum.

    But this review group with its peculiar membership seems a half-way house between a Citizens Assembly type group and a government packed group, and I just cannot see the logic of it.

    Finally, there will be a major issue within such a disparate group of allowing members of the public to find their voice. The first two pillars (politicians and NGO/legal) will by their nature be used to public engagement and by their positions (TD, Senator, Professor, Senior Counsel, etc) by privileged in public debate and be considered ‘experts’. They will be naturally well informed on how the state operates, and will probably have spent some time thinking about how they would like it to operate. They will understand the jargon, and will seamlessly fit into it. They will in short want their voices to be heard in such debates, believe that they are worth listening to and be confident enough to put their views forward.

    The members of the public are unlikely to posses those same set of skills, and are therefore likely to be cowed when a politician used to speaking on TV or a senior counsel rises to speak their mind. Within a Citizens Assembly type body where everyone is by their nature equal, that wouldn’t be the same problem. However, when 2/3 of the body is comprised of those who (for want of a better word) argue by profession, these voices will probably be lost.

  9. Fundamentally the problem with a document like this is that it reads simply like a wish list of reforms, assembled by committee in the confident expectation that no-one outside of the specialist classes will read it, or expect action upon it.

    However the idea of engaging civil society in a new ‘constitutional convention’ is a good one, as are the other consultative mechanisms envisaged. The problem is if Labour were to simply put out a document saying ‘we’ll put together a number of different committees to see about chaning the constitution and get back to ye’ they’d be accused of kicking the can down the road, hence all the ‘Labour in power will…’ gobbledygook.

    Frankly if Labour is serious about engaging and mobilising the electorate on this issue, a much slimmer ‘statemenet of principles’ style document on what, broadly speaking, Labour would push for in a debate on a ‘second Republic’ would be more useful. As it is this reeks a little bit of political box ticking.

  10. @Paul I can definitely see your point, simple reforms would build in flexibility later on to adopt good ideas. I guess the problem comes from a mistrust of the capacity of the political class to oversee a set of reforms that would diminish the power of the ministerial offices that they spend their careers seeking.

    You mentioned that governing factions are the ones with the most to lose from reform – but the problem is that our entire political structure is, basically, a race to become the governing faction.

    It’s a bit of a vicious circle really – to implement change you need to enjoy power, but those who enjoy power don’t like to give it up. A beefed up committee system could probably come up with positive proposals – but will they be implemented?

    For these reasons, many feel that some sort of extraordinary, once-off political mechanism is needed – hence the popularity of ‘constitutional conventions’.

    However, if the parties decide to go that route, they will have to give real powers to these conventions. They will also have to come up with a way to select convention memberships that gives the convention popular legitimacy. For me, simply suggesting that we have a constitutional convention (which will have a year to draw up a totally new constitution!) is not enough.

    For the suggestion to be credible and actionable, surely we should have more details on its 30:30:30 (public:legal: political) membership. The document says nothing on how the specific groups of 30 will be selected. We also have no clear idea of what real powers it will have (e.g., will its proposed constitution be put directly up for adoption in a referedum, or will it be referred back to the Dail for further consideration?)

    • @Matthew,

      I don’t think we disagreeing about the broad shape of the reforms we’d like to see, but we’re back to the mechanics. I’m not proposing we go down the US route – the idea of government in parliament is a given – but we need to replicate the separation of powers and the curtailment of the ‘tyranny of faction’ that characterises the US system. For me, if chairs of Dail Cttees had, in the public eye, similar power, status and prestige as ministers, it would force a major change in the dynamics. Dail candidates would have two possible career paths – and I suspect this would improve the calibre of candidates.

      Yes, I know, it all sounds wonderfully democratic and participative looking to citizens and assemblies and initiatives, but the vast majority of people don’t give a monkey’s about what goes on in the Dail – apart from what entertainment the sketch writers might dredge up. They delegate their authority to these folks to sort things out. From time to time certain issues will energise them, but they have no interest or incentive to sustain the level of interest. Why have a dog and bark yourself?

      So I’m back looking for a handful of genuine parliamentarians who will provide a focus to drive through a few simple, but far-reaching, reforms in the powers and procedures of the Dail. The best example I have is Dessie O’Malley back in the middle of 1986 convincing the Dail by force of argument to overturn long-standing government policy and to allow competition in air travel.

      The challenge is to find the right brick in the wall, knock it out and the whole anti-democratic rampart will crumble.

  11. The idea of involving Oireachtas (or should that be Dáil) committees in the formulation of legislation, as opposed to simply having to work through bills that have already been passed in second stage by the Dáil as a whole, is a good one and would bring the Dáil into line with those parliaments that have an effective input into policy-making. Likewise the idea of increasing the scope for private member’s legislation. Proposals such as these are, in my opinion, a lot more realistic than those calls for the abandonment of the party whip system or the separation of executive and legislature, calls that really under-estimate the importance (and benefits, despite the downside) of cohesive parliamentary parties that act en bloc.

    The questions raised in other posts about the composition of the ‘constitutional convention’ are understandable, though I assume these are details that can be rethought if such a convention is actually established. The tone of para 1 on p. 6 seems to imply that the convention would have the task of drawing up a new constitution, as if the 1937 constitution has already been judged to be inadequate, but maybe I have misunderstood what it says.

    Introducing Friday sittings of the Dáil sounds good but this has been tried in the past and, not just here but pretty much everywhere, it hasn’t worked too well. Those TDs who live within commuting distance of Leinster House would be happy enough with it, but those who do not will hold out for fewer and longer Oireachtas working days rather than a 4-day week in Dublin. Attendance on Friday afternoons is likely to be sparse.

    • Having the Dail sit from Mon to Thur and for at least 10 months of the year (with August off and two weeks at Xmas and Easter) would by itself be a pretty radical reform, regardless of the other reforms needed to the Dáil itself.

  12. I don’t really understand the composition of the constitutional review group. Based on the document, 30 members are to be parliamentarians, 30 members are to be lawyers or from the NGO community and 30 members are to be randomly selected from the public. While I can understand the prominence given to politicians and members of the public – as they are either elected or randomly selected representatives of the public – I cannot see the case for privileging two particular sectors, the legal sector and the NGO community. Yes, any constitutional review group should be advised by constitutional experts – or any other form of experts they so desire. But should they really be guaranteed a seat at the table in setting out the principles of that document? They should be there to give advice, answer queries and so on. However, I don’t think they should be treated by virtue of their professional qualifications to be on par with the representatives of the public (either elected or randomly selected). And NGOs, why their special status? They – like every other citizen or group – should be entitled to make submissions to the review group, but why a privileged status where they get to be within the tent designing the document? Are the parliamentarians and randomly selected members of the public not representative enough of Ireland’s population? Ultimately, while the parliamentarians and members of the public selected for membership of this group can be chosen in a transparent and open manner, I cannot see how this second pillar can be. Rather, I would see this as giving massive room for the government of the day to influence the outcome of the review group by stacking it with favoured lawyers and NGO heads and ignoring the more awkward ones. If Labour want the constitutional review group to reflect their or an incoming governments preferences, that is entirely fine by me. Our current constitution hasn’t suffered a lack of legitimacy because it was the product of the executive and contested strongly by the opposition in the parliament and at referendum. But this review group with its peculiar membership seems a half-way house between a Citizens Assembly type group and a government packed group, and I just cannot see the logic of it. Finally, there will be a major issue within such a disparate group of allowing members of the public to find their voice. The first two pillars (politicians and NGO/legal) will by their nature be used to public engagement and by their positions (TD, Senator, Professor, Senior Counsel, etc) by privileged in public debate and be considered ‘experts’. They will be naturally well informed on how the state operates, and will probably have spent some time thinking about how they would like it to operate. They will understand the jargon, and will seamlessly fit into it. They will in short want their voices to be heard in such debates, believe that they are worth listening to and be confident enough to put their views forward. The members of the public are unlikely to posses those same set of skills, and are therefore likely to be cowed when a politician used to speaking on TV or a senior counsel rises to speak their mind. Within a Citizens Assembly type body where everyone is by their nature equal, that wouldn’t be the same problem. However, when 2/3 of the body is comprised of those who (for want of a better word) argue by profession, these voices will probably be lost.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s