Red herrings for a new republic

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.

Cutting quangos

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.

11 thoughts on “Red herrings for a new republic

  1. The issue of a “bonfire of quangos” is a question of bureaucratic reform,not political reform although of course the two are closely linked. Why not reform civil service procedures and practices the nature of which is the stated reason for setting up quangos? Incidentally, the watchword of the past twenty years of so called liberalisation of world trade was “de-regulation” yet the proliferation of regulatory quangos continued apace – go figure!

  2. I think all this just goes to show that a general election campaign is the very worst occasion to consider political reform that is designed to rein in the ‘tyranny of factions’. The factions are in full cry – and anything they come up with will be purely in the factional interest.

    It grieves me to say it, but it is likely that, because our sovereignty and our international reputation are so diminished, the next Taoiseach will be the EU’s pro-consul in Dublin. And, in response, what seems to be energising many voters in this campaign is that Ireland, like a ‘mini-me’ Samson chained to the pillars in the temple of the Phillistines, has the ability to bring the whole Euro project crashing to the ground if we don’t get a major reduction in bank debt.

  3. Maybe an academic should write a “dummy’s guide” to political reform! People sense the system is rotten and dysfunctional. Of course many of their ideas are half-baked. But one can’t blame their frustration. Perhaps an expert should simply pin his/her colours to the mast and put together a single well balanced and cohesive plan for political reform? Otherwise at best we may get some half-informed party insider putting together half-baked policy proposals, with an eye to electoral advantage. And to be honest some of the party proposal so far look either very tepid or otherwise a bit seat of pants and put together at the last moment.

    Fully in agreement that populist notions of reducing Dáil size could be a disaster. This has the potential to make things even worse. Can’t see how it could help.

    On electoral reform, this is overrated and there’s no perfect system (Arrow’s impossibility theorem and all that 🙂 ). And stronger local government and behind the scenes bureaucracy could help a lot. And I’ve read some papers (some by contributors here) arguing this wouldn’t make much difference. Not entirely convinced to be honest. As electoral systems go ours is at one extreme, and rather unusual with small constituencies and PR-STV. The Israeli nationwide closed list system would be at the other. Malta is the only other PR-STV (with 5 seaters) for national eletions. And each Maltese TD serves only 6000 people as opposed to circa 25,000 here. Most systems are somewhere in the middle, balancing constituency demands against party electorates. E.g. Sweden and some other countries would have a semi-open list, a party ordering but with limted ability for voters to override this. German mixed member PR has both, single seaters and a closed list at the same time. Best of both worlds, or maybe worst of both? 🙂 A very simple suggestion for the Dáil would be to have some extra (maybe 60) closed list seats on top of the existing PR-STV setup. Wouldn’t do much damage. Have Might actually help things (only in the context of proper Dáil reform of course). Downsides: cutting local connection of some TDs with voters, danger of creating party elites, increase in party cohesion (really a good thing?), having two types of TDs is messy. Upsides: limited number of TDs (particularly if near top of list) who don’t have to worry about constituency work. Upsides would outweight downsides IMO. Of course it’s a judgment call.

    Agree that fixed terms are too inflexible. Overly weaken government disciple. A lame duck government could be forced to limp to the end of a term. You propose requiring a majority of TDs to vote for dissolution. Sounds like a good idea. But there are also semi-fixed term setups. As I’ve mentioned here before the Swedish Riksdag has ordinary fixed elections every four years, but the government can call extraordinary elections midcycle, but any such parliament can only last until the usual ordinary predetermined election date. Incentivises fixed terms but is not too rigid. A close look at dissolution really needs to be part of any serious package rebalancing executive and legislature.

    On quangoes, of course we know no one will be fired. So a bonfire of the quangoes will probably just involve some relocations of staff and little real savings. But I think people are still sickened at the whole quango setup. They suspect they have largely been a source of patronage and jobs for the boys over the past few years.

  4. The late Dail sittings are also brought up by those who suggest it is a problem for getting better gender representation when shorter days but more of them would mean TDs being away from home for longer meaning TDs families would have to move to Dublin entirely leaving them vulnerable to a challenge from a locally based colleague who then get elected and so the cycle would beginning again.

  5. Eoin, brilliant and timely piece. There is a very real danger in throwing out the baby with the bathwater. In times of crisis its easy to assume that everything is broken and must be changed utterly. Many of the ‘populist’ ideas being put forward assume that all current structures were designed to benefit the outgoing government. In fact change without proper debate and consideration of the positives that exist can and will lead to an even worse republic.
    I think your piece here highlights some of the easy misconceptions that exist and we really need to be careful of the ‘sure anything at all would be better’ approach.

  6. The key problem is the power of political parties, such that the government needs to only maintain the support of half of its parliamentary party (typically 30-40 TDs to stay in office. This is fundamentally undemocratic.

    We need to empower all Deputies regardless of their political stripe, so that all of the people of the country are represented effectively, instead of a small mionority.

    I would suggest that the Taoiseach be stripped of his power to appoint the government and the government be elected by the Dail in a PR vote. That way all TDs and the shades of opinion they represent would be represented at cabinet and the government would have to govern in the interests of all.

  7. Whoever would have thought that political and institutional would creep up to almost equal the economy/jobs as issues in a general election?

    But as Veronica put it last September
    “In times of crisis, people look to our political institutions for very different things, like qualities of leadership, guidance or solutions to the problems that afflict our lives. In a crisis, politics suddenly becomes important again.”

    Rather that go through Eoin’s points, I prefer to start with what I regard as the common currency of politics ie. power. This only gets two mentions Eoin’s posting.

    The challenge we now face in this Republic is to design, implement and use a series of checks and balances to limit the scope for excess by the powerful, whether they be public or private, elected or appointed in order to ;
    •ensure competence and moderation in government
    •overcome inertia at government level, both national and local;
    so that our constitution is a framework for a free government that limits, restrains and allows for the exercise of political power, which we as citizens of a Republic own. (IMO, Article 6.1 of our constitution is clear on that
    “All powers of government, legislative, executive and judicial, derive, under God, from the people, whose right it is to designate the rulers of the State and, in final appeal, to decide all questions of national policy, according to the requirements of the common good.”)

    We need to ensure that our way of governing ourselves has both
    •the means to be successful for the common good with increased democratic accountability
    •the capacity and of adapting to the changes that constantly descend upon it.

    IMO, we need some straight-forward changes that would quickly convince us, citizens, that the governing classes are serious about political and institutional reform.

    To get us on our way, in a recent paper (, I proposed the following five changes to our way of governing ourselves which could be implemented immediately without any changes to the constitution:
    1. Improve the skills of the Cabinet [New Blood for Cabinet – 2 non-TD Ministers p.68]
    The Constitution allows two members of the Senate to be appointed as “outsider” ministers. Since
    the Taoiseach can appoint anyone to the Senate he could use this route to make up for the obvious
    skill deficiencies of the Cabinet. Most Irish people seem to regard this as quite abnormal. In fact,
    many European countries appoint Ministers from outside Parliament/the national assembly.

    2. Improve the effectiveness of the Cabinet [Better with less – cutting the number of Cabinet
    Ministers p.73]
    The Cabinet could be reduced to just 7 members which would improve effectiveness and reduce
    costs. Fewer Ministers would ensure also that the influence of the “outsiders” is not overwhelmed
    by “traditional” politicians. Ministers of State are not required to be TDs and the skills available to departments of state could be improved by appointing outsiders with experience to complement that of the ordinary politician. This would be a clear sign that Ministerial rank is not seen as a reward but rather as a public service which requires the best talents available to the country.

    3. Reduce the Size of the Dáil [Less TDs – A Commitment to Political Reform? p.77]
    The number of TDs could be cut by up to 25 (i.e. by 15 per cent) without Constitutional change. This would have two useful effects. It would lead to a reduction in costs and it could marginally reduce clientalism by increasing the size of constituencies.

    4. Establish a Public Utilities Commission [Improve the public service – a Public Utilities
    Commission as an example p.84]
    The functions of a number of regulatory bodies could be combined into a single Public Utilities
    Commission which would report directly to the Dáil. Such a body would reduce the number of state bodies. A direct relationship to the Dáil would give it a role not unlike that of that of the Ombudsman or the Comptroller and Auditor General.

    5. Restore full Freedom of Information [Freedom of Information (FoI) p. 88]
    The 2003 Freedom of Information Act should be repealed to restore the full power of the original
    1997 act. This change would restore a crucial element in the spectrum of checks and balances which are so necessary to assure the delivery of accountable and transparent government.

    If we see changes like this being implemented, we will have the confidence to effectively face the enormous difficulties of the recovery plan.

    Transforming our government and public service cannot succeed without starting at the top. We
    must look at the size and composition of the Cabinet and Dáil. Neither the National Recovery Plan nor the EU-ECB/IMF agreement addresses this key area of decision making.

    As we set about reengineering our institutions, we need to separate those things that we can do immediately and those that need constitutional change.

  8. awful stench of condescension off these kinds of posts

    and also reading this blog often enough there seems to be this trend to say we can’t do A because B is more important, not treating A on its own merits.

    And seeing as it is a blog links to sources should be easy to do if you are going to say there others aren’t backing up their arguments

    dismissing ideas because because you claim they are popular or throwing out some people say… this blog post is as lazy as the things your trying to dismiss.

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