Eoin O’Malley (10 March, 2011)
For much of the election campaign parties promised that there would be a change to the way politics was done. This continued to the first day of the 31st Dáil. But will it? One way to judge the government is by the programme for government, and another by its actions.Its actions so far are not encouraging. Though Labour had called for the election of the Ceann Comhairle by secret ballot, there was no move toward this (it could not have happened on the first day, but it could have been arranged). Instead it was used to reward a ministerial hopeful who had delivered two seats in his constituency. The fact that no minister was appointed to drive the reform agenda might indicate a lack of commitment.
What about the programme for government?
The programme for government contains many rhetorical flourishes in favour of reforming the government and the Dáil and how the two relate. It is encouraging that the new programme recognises that there is ‘an over-powerful executive [that] has turned the Dáil into an observer of the political process rather than a central player’.
However it is more important that credible institutional changes are put in place which ensure that these happen. We should not expect that the Dáil should become a legislative chamber – in that it proposes and passes its own legislation. It would be one of the only parliaments in the world were it to do that.
The programme for government is high on aspiration but less clear on how the executive’s dominance is going to come about. For instance the commitment to introduce a role ‘for the Ceann Comhairle in deciding whether a minister has failed to provide reasonable information in response to a question’ has two faults. First, how will a Ceann Comhairle know whether a minister has been economical with the truth? Ministers have a great deal of power because they have a monopoly over information – the commitment to revert to the pre-2003 Freedom of Information Act is welcome, but ministers will still be able to keep information from TDs, and the Ceann Comhairle won’t be able to tell whether the minister is answering as fully as she could. Second, the Ceann Comhairle is appointed by the Taoiseach, and is could still be responsive to the Taoiseach’s wishes than that of the members.
Much of the focus is non reducing the cost of politics. By reducing the number of TDs, abolishing the Seanad and shortening the holidays it is hoped money will be saved and politics will be more effective. However, as has been argued here many times, these ‘reforms’ are for optics and will have little real impact.
The programme does have many sensible proposals on Dáil reform, which should be introduced and will enable TDs make more relevant contributions to debates, thus incentivising them to focus on national issues. Setting out committee days, more time for private member’s bills, and allowing more topical debates will help the Dáil appear relevant. But while these may increase the opportunity, they do nothing to affect the incentives of TDs. Cinn Comhairle have been protective of ministers not just because they couldn’t challenge ministers, but because they had no incentive to.
The decision to allow Dáil committees full powers of parliamentary investigation is welcome (though it’s not clear that it needs a constitutional amendment). But one might question whether a Dáil committee is the appropriate vehicle for investigation is we want to find out what really happened – it might generate more heat than light. More crucially however is that the government will still have a majority in the committees and is unlikely to want to allow a committee investigate its own government’s handling of an issue. Even had there been no legal question over the right of a committee to investigate, say, the decision on the Bank Guarantee Scheme, do we really think that the committee would have done so?
Government backbenchers in Ireland are rarely openly critical of their government. The primary reason for this is probably that the party leader in government, parliament and the organisation controls the careers of TDs. We need only look to the appointments to cabinet and junior ministers where loyalty to the leader is one important factor in selection. Without reducing the patronage powers of the government, and dismantling the system whereby all TDs see cabinet as their ultimate goal, party leaders will still control their backbenches quite effectively.
The proposals in the Labour-Fine Gael programme for government will affect the opportunity to scrutinise government, but without more radical changes in the separation of powers, the incentive for the government backbenchers to do anything is limited.