Guest post by Johnny Fallon (loaded by David Farrell, February 8 2011)
With the reform debate now all thrashed out by the parties I don’t think any of them has hit the spot for me. But rather than sit on the fence I will, as usual, pop my head up for some abuse. If I was asked to reform politics this is where I would have started.
• One of the main problems within the Irish system is that we do not have a properly functioning local government system.
• There is a lack of trust on the part of national government when it comes to delegating responsibility to councils
• There is a lack of responsibility among local councils and a lack of accountability.
• The number of councils for such a small population is far too expensive.
• There is a lack of co-ordinated planning and economies of scale
• Regional Authorities have no function in the public mind
• TD’s are seen as more powerful than a Council and therefore approached.
Addressing this problem is not easy however it can be done in a number of steps.
Step 1 – Councillors elected to Regional Authorities
I propose that local government be organised on a regional basis instead of a County basis. This will mean that each county will have much fewer councillors. However the representatives will continue to meet on a committee basis. So for example if all of County Longford had only 8 Councillors, they would meet as a Longford Committee, however they would be elected members of the Regional assembly. This would encourage councillors to work across party lines at county level to ensure that their area was represented effectively. The Councillors would still have a county profile but would be part of something much bigger.
Regional Assemblies and Authorities could then implement far more effective and standard plans across a region. The elected representatives would in turn meet and elect a Chairperson. Similar to National level politics this Chairperson would need to select a cabinet from the other members ensuring that there is political accountability in each region for policies and decisions are not left in the hands of unelected officials only.
As each region is large to rise to such prominence would demand a strong calibre of candidate and this alone would help to improve the level of local representatives.
The system also lays out a clear career path for councillors that is far more attractive for ambitious and able councillors apart from needing to run for TD.
The Regional Assembly will also automatically include Members of the European Parliament. The focus will be to tie in the work and understanding of the Assembly and the directly elected representatives with that of Europe to address the so called democratic defecit that exists.
Most importantly, TDs now have separate career paths. A TD while obviously more important that a local councillor, has a different role. The TD is no longer a more important figure than the council itself. This removes the image in the public eye of the TD being able to influence council. Rather, it ensures that TD’s and the public alsike will be more inclined to refer local issues to a councillor who has the contacts and network at Regional Assembly level to deal with the issue.
Step 2 – Giving regions a national forum
The cabinet, or executive of each of the regional assemblies should form the majority of members of a new Senate. The rest of the Senate should be made up of members elected from experts in specific disciplines, Economics, Education, Agriculture, Private Enterprise etc.
This increases the importance of local elections and ensures that for parties there is a real need to get high quality candidates who can win and progress as otherwise the Senate could prove difficult to navigate for a government and this is the kind of teeth that a new Senate needs. Not unlike what occurs in the United States. One final problem then exists. The Dail selects the Taoiseach and Cabinet, if the Minister for local government is part of this then it may still cause problems to be referred to a TD in the hope that they can influence the Minister with Authority. It could also create conflict between a Minister and the Authorities themselves. Therefore the executives must elect one Member who will in turn have a seat at Cabinet as Minister for Local Government. This is a new departure in politics but could give an interesting injection of debate and views right to the heart of government. It also lays out a specific, real and powerful career path for local government that is separate to that of TDs.
It should be noted however, that the member elected does not have a vote in the Dail and can only be Minister for Local Government and cannot be moved from this post. It may also encourage more consensus should a member be linked to an opposition party yet sit at cabinet.
Reforming the role of TDs
It is widely accepted that despite the reality of the job, TD’s should be focussed on national policy. The introduction of a strong and effective local government structure would assist greatly in removing much of the constituency work from TD’s but that is not enough in itself. Many of TD’s problems stem from the competitive nature of their constituencies.
Some harsh realities need to be faced by TD’s in this regard. It is for them a race to the bottom. In years gone by those candidates with money opened constituency offices, these were then extend to full time offices. The state assists with the cost of these however most TDs can clearly indicate that current funding does not cover the full costs. Equally there is no level that will ever be enough, in time TDs will pen two offices then perhaps three of four and the more money a candidate has the more offices they can run. Similar to election spending the only way to have a level playing field is not to fund such activities but to limit them by law.
We need to understand the basic nature of requests that occur in the constituency these can be broken down as follows
• Local authority requests, pot-holes, planning permission etc
• Requests for items the person is already entitled to but don’t know how to get
• Requests for genuine and acceptable intercessions, medical cards or grants in particular circumstances
• Requests for assistance, providing references, asking parliamentary questions, departmental information, advancing proposals etc
• Requests for items people are not entitled to, for unjustified interventions etc
Dealing with this problem is not easy or popular. However without changing our voting system a simple solution does exist, should politicians be willing to accept it.The current constituency office system should be scrapped and TDs prohibited from having a specific constituency office. A full office and staff will be provided in Leinster House.
However, meeting the public and clinics are a critical and welcome part of Irish politics. The system should be replaced by a complete reform of Citizens Advice Bureaus. These Bureaus should be requested to have offices whereby there is sufficient room to facilitate TD’s holding clinics two days per week. This ensures that all TDs operate from the same level of facility. The provision of the office is no longer a cost to the TD. The TD is entitled to use phones and computers etc of the Bureau and they are in a position to observe the costs. This provides TD’s with an effective office space to meet the public at no cost to themselves and therefore no need for constituency office funding. It ensures same level of service between TDs and removes competition and also makes for easier transfers when a new TD is elected. It brings specific benefits when dealing with queries these are:
• Local authority requests can now be filtered and referred to the relevant councillor by the bureau staff
• The Bureau already has all forms and details of entitlements to hand, there is no need for TDs to request these. They can simply obtain there and then in the office and assist the constituent or have a member of the bureau staff deal with it.
• TD’s can discuss the case of a genuine intercession with the bureau staff and these intercessions can be handled directly by them with relevant officials after this, clearly passing on the recommendation of the TD
• Where a TD receives a proposal or a request for departmental information or a PQ, this can be emailed or passed on to their Leinster house office to handle
• Where a TD receives an attempt at an unjustified intercession they can ask for the staff of the office to advise them and clearly indicate to the individual that such an intervention is simply impossible.
This system would be far more transparent and efficient and end a current anomaly of a resource duplication. It levels the playing field for all TDs and would act as a barrier to those who are well funded or wealthy simply upping the game at each stage to have more presence and gain more votes. In time it may also assist the public to go directly to the bureau with a simple request on the 3 days per week when a TD is not having a clinic. This could greatly reduce the amount of work that currently falls to TDs and their offices.