Eoin O’Malley (7 February, 2011)
Usually the preserve of academics and the dull newspaper articles of retired politicians, the reform of the political system is now being raised by ordinary people in vox pops and radio phone-ins. That means that many people are peddling their ideas about the reform of the political system that on the face of it seem valid, but if you scratch a bit below the surface are revealed to be irrelevant or wrong.
Change the electoral system
Former TDs rail against the PR-STV electoral system because it forces party colleagues to compete against each other. This, they say, means that TDs crawl over each other to please constituents with the delivery of local services – some thing that should be done by local councillors. Some former politicians also don’t like it because it gives voters more choice and makes it more difficult for parties to impose candidates.
Except that TDs from the same parties could compete with each other in different ways. Why for instance don’t they try to be the better legislator? Because the Dáil doesn’t allow TDs change policy, why would anyone other that opposition spokesmen bother engaging in policy debates. And voters know that one thing TDs can do is cut through the bureaucratic mess that serves as a public service, so why not use them?
Fixing the bureaucratic system so that citizens are well served would presumably reduce the demands voters make on TDs.
Fewer TDs, sitting longer
Another criticism of politicians is that there are too many of them. It’s a popular measure – we’re not too pleased with them at the moment. And we’re told that India has far fewer politicians per head. They neglect to mention that India has a huge number of politicians at the regional level.
But anyway a country needs a critical number of TDs to serve in government, to act as an opposition and to make the committee system to function. By reducing the number of TDs we could make the Dáil less not more effective.
Equally the complaint that TDs don’t work long enough hours is a red herring. While the Dáil sits fewer days than most other parliaments in Europe, it does not take into account that the time the committees meet or the long hours most TDs do in constituencies. If the Dáil doesn’t sit many days it’s mainly because it doesn’t need to. The Dáil has little power over policy and few mechanisms to scrutinise government effectively, so there’s understandably little demand for more time to do nothing.
We need to give TDs a real say in policy and an effective means to hold government to account. Then they might want to send more time in the Dáil.
Fixed term Dála
The confusion about the election date might seem to give some credence to those who want a fixed term for the Dáil. Why should the Taoiseach be allowed to keep the country guessing and choose an election date for party political gain? But surely the events of the last year or so shows exactly why that would be a bad idea.
If no one is allowed call an election, moving to a fixed-term parliament could lead to legislative gridlock and an inability to deal with new crises. What if this government splits on a new issue that we cannot now foresee? The government loses the confidence of parliament. In the absence of the Dáil’s ability to form a new government without recourse to an election, a minority government could be forced to limp on until the fixed-term ends. An election on an issue like the economic crisis is the most democratic and effective way to face up to the problem. That could be impossible under a fixed-term parliament.
Instead we could take the sole power of the Taoiseach to call elections from him, and make it that a majority of Dáil must pass a resolution to dissolve itself.
A bonfire of the quangos is another popular suggestion for reform of the political system. The large number of them and the unclear lines of accountability leads to a farce where no one is accountable for much of the health service.
But abolishing a large number of quangos won’t save money and we forget that they were set up for some good reasons. If we abolish large numbers of them they don’t just disappear. The job they do will still need to be done and the public servants who work in them can’t just be fired. It may cost more to get rid of them, and may cause more confusion.
The reason we have them is because we wanted specialists to work on specific areas unconstrained by civil service appointments procedures and practices. They can specialise in providing a facility that the civil service was ineffective at doing.
Rather than abolish them wholesale, though some probably have limited usefulness, it might be better to ensure that they are directly accountable to TDs through Dáil committees.
If we are to reform the political system we better get it right and not just go with popular and superficial reforms. If we don’t we risk thinking we have fixed the system only to find that politics is easily broken the next time strains are put on it.