TDs argue for more accountability

Joanna Tuffy TD argues that cutting the number of TDs and indeed abolishing the Seanad are not political reform. I think that many here would be inclined to agree with her. If these “reforms” are to go ahead they should be accompanied with a decentralisation of the power of the executive. But surely Deputy Tuffy should go further and demand some real power for committees for example. That would also serve to undermine accusations that TDs arguing against a cut in their numbers are merely trying to ring fence their own positions. I am still unsure why Irish TDs are happy that they only get sight of Bills once they have been passed by the House. Why not push for relevant Bills to go to committees at the earliest stage? It would make for a more interesting job and would mean devolving some of the power that has been increasingly centralised in the executive over the short history of our state.

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16 thoughts on “TDs argue for more accountability

  1. If we reduce the number of TDs and abolish the Senate then we have to ensure that the Dail contains members who actually understand how to legislate. The current system of multi-seat PR-STV constituencies would seem to exclude that possibility (based on current membership).

  2. Ms Tuffy says, there will be “less TD’s to hold the executive accountable”. I don’t see anybody holding the executive accountable and why exactly has the executive so much power in the first place? The government after a few short days in office declared that they could do nothing about nepotism in the Dail. What a dereliction of duty, 450,000 people unemployed from all walks of live but these posts it was argued were in the ‘private’ gift of TD’s and ministers to hand out to family, aunts, uncles, nephews and nieces. How exactly does Ms, Tuffy think that the same people are going “to hold the executive accountable”? They cannot even hold themselves accountable.

    Most TD’s are glorified social workers who solve problems for constituents. There. I got that lane sorted, that derelict house boarded up, that pot hole filled etc, etc, all problems that (a) should have been done by the relevant authorities in the first place or (b) could easily be organised at local level/ neighbourhood level.

    One of my friends, an “expert in banking” was elected as a FG TD on 25th of February. Six weeks before the election he was an independent analyst on the crisis, he has been reduced to the status of a lowly back bencher who reads out quite a number of meaningless questions on behalf of constituents. I know how silly these are because I am sent a copy each time they are read out.

    Does Ms. Tuffy or anybody else on this site seriously suggest we need more of this nonsense? There is nothing to stop the constitution being changed in fact we need a whole new constitution. The people are sovereign and can deciding that 100 TD’s will do, thank you very much!.

    Johanna does not want this reform, has a long history of resisting change yet puts only fig leaf suggestions on the table as alternatives. She knows or at least ought to know the country is insolvent, is borrowing 40% each month to make up the salaries of the 166 TD’s. We are heading towards an unstructured default and further on the ground occupation by foreign countries who are eying our our prime assets such as forestry, ports etc. Maybe we should have 40% less TD’s, 166/100= 1.66 X 40 = 100 it is called balancing the books. Please lead by example.

  3. There should be reform AND a very large cut in the number of TDs and Councillors – not one or the other and that’s before you being addressing how to do a 180 on the mentality of those who enter into what was called public service but since 1977 seems mostly to be self service and how best to enrich themselves fro mthe public purse – a quick comparison of the estates left by older politicians against those more recently shows the difference in the scale of wealth politicians now award themselves compared to their predecessors.

    If Ms Tuffy really does want reform she could put it up to her colleageues and start by publishing audited accounts for how she funded her election campaign plus publish receipts for the expenses she claims and the details on who she rents a constituency office from and who owns the building – just as a first step like.

    I agree with the above comment about the link between TDs and the Constitution – I don’t see why the referendum in Novenber can’t have as many questions as it needs to get all these issues done and dusted – most of the questions are yes/no – ‘remove the protectio nfor judges pay – yes/no’ – ‘remove the link with the number of TDs – yes/no’ etc.

    Then the other part of the reform agenda is getting the Irish people to cop themselves on and hold their government to account – we see the outrageous me feinism of the medical services in Roscommon – by all means argue about the state of Galways Hospital but enough of the ‘our hospital’ and we have to have a hospital in every townland nonsense and it’s about time a politician had the guts to start telling people a few home truths too.

    But they can’t do that until they lead from the front and provide an example – to date politicians have failed to do so, so no wonder no one takes talk of reform seriously.

  4. @Jane Suitor,

    It is, perhaps, not surprising that you are perplexed that TDs seem happy to deal with Bills drafted by Government in almost final form for enactment. But it may be that citizens, in so far as they are aware of it, are also happy with this. You also quite rightly note the increasing centralisation of executive power during the history of the state, but, even though Ireland adopted the “Westminister model”, executive power has been highly centralised from the beginning. My sense is that the extent of centralisation has not changed; it has simply become more apparent as the state – similar to all modern developed states – has taken on more and more responsibility in economic and social areas.

    I suspect that a majority of citizens when the state was founded – irrespective of whether they were pro- or anti-treaty – wanted strong governance to maintain security and law and order. That, eventually, was delivered. The focus then switched to building the contesting political factions and alignments to secure and retain political power. These, inevitably, emerged from the Civil War divisions.

    So TDs – and aspiring TDs – became foot soldiers in the battle to secure sufficient popular support to secure and hold the seats that determined which bloc formed the government. And perhaps most voters were happy with this once they retained the ultimate power to decide which bloc formed the government. They, perhaps, were also assured by having TDs to represent their interests with ‘them with the power up in Dublin’. The main difference from the previous dispensation was that they now had the opportunity, every few years, to decide who held the power in Dublin.

    As a result, I’m gradually coming to the conclusion that most voters have little understanding of the need for TDs to actually ‘make laws’ and, almost certainly, see no need for TDs to have powers to scrutinise legislative proposals and executive actions in the public interest, to exercise restraint on government and to hold it to account. There may also be a sense that, if the powers of TDs were increased in this respect, they might get ‘ideas above thier station’. The idea seems to be ‘let government govern, we’ll decide who governs and seeking to maintain our support will keep them in line’. The fact that this approach did not prevent the last two (at least) governments from going off the rails, does not seem to have shaken this ‘compact’. Again the view seems to be ‘OK, so we got in wrong (perhaps more than once), but we sorted that on 25 Feb.’)

    I accept that all this may be immensely dispiriting for what seems a small minority actively intent on pursuing genuine political reform, but it might be useful to reflect on the essential continuities in politics and governance since the rise of Parnell, rather than the upheavals from 1916 to 1923 – and possibly up to 1932. These events wrested powers from Britain that it would not have conceded in any other way and allowed the people to decide who governed from two competing blocs.

    In essence that is all that has changed in the last 150 years. And there appears to be little popular desire for any significant change now in how governance is exercised.

  5. Undoubtedly it would be a useful reform for committees to be involved in the pre-publication phase of legislation, as happens in other jurisdictions, so that Bills would reflect cross-party input before they were presented for second stage reading in the Dail and we might not end up with so much defective legislation. Consultation happens informally in the sense that Ministers may check out the position of opposition party spokespersons – as they most definitely do, either formally or informally, with vested interests – on key proposals. However, we can’t know or measure the extent to which the government/opposition nexus occurs or how effective it may be in practice. It’s not transparent in the way that a revised committee system considering legislation before it is introduced to a plenary Dail session would be.
    In our system the opposition are effectively excluded from any role in policy making. There’s a democratic logic to this – they lost and other crowd won, so the winners get to call the shots. What we do know is that government backbenchers may block legislation that they don’t like, and there are many examples in recent years of this happening. We can’t know how extensive it may be, however, since parliamentary party meetings take place behind closed doors. When it comes to the Seanad,it’s little appreciated by the public, it seems to me, that the role of Senators is really limited to an advisory one. Even where they may amend legislation, the final word on such amendments comes back to the Dail. When it comes to Money Bills they have no power at all, as I understand it.
    Thing is, all these deficiencies in our decision making processes could be remedied by changing parliamentary procedures with no requirement for constitutional changes along the lines this government is proposing. Reducing the number of TDs (at a time when the population is actually rising) and abolishing the Seanad amounts to populist tinkering with the institutional structures whilst leaving the processes by which decisions are made, or the political culture that underlies them, unchanged. Of course, there is no incentive for any government to tackle that culture or improve decision making processes since that would lessen the power of the executive and of individual ministers. In Bertie Ahern parlance, there’s a lot of people throwing red herrings and white elephants at one another over institutional reform as opposed to the more difficult reality of our political class generally, and our elected government in particular, conceding that it’s processes that require urgent reform and that this could be achieved quickly and relatively simply though it would involve them in giving up some of their own power and increasing their accountability to the public. Until they’re prepared to do that, the number of defective decisions will continue to mount up and the erosion of public trust in politics can only diminish further.

    • @Veronica,

      Well argued – as usual! But I fear you end with what is becoming a quite common and dispiriting conclusion. In my previous comment I tried to show that it appears that most people are not energised by these issues – once they retain an inalienable right to decide who governs.

      The problem is that this was fine when governance was limited. But not now when government – and the plethora of agencies and bodies it has established – reaches into every nook and cranny of daily life. At a general election that generates a change of government all that changes immediately is the identity of the Taoiseach, 14 ministers and their special advisers. The entire apparatus of the permanent government – and the quangocracy – remains unchanged – though the identity of some ‘placepersons’ will change over time.

      Successive governments have oursourced huge areas of policy and regulation to the quangocracy. As the burdens of governance expanded this was a very convenient way of diverting direct politicial responsibility – and any heat that necessary, but unpopular, decisions might generate. This would be a good place to start by compelling these quangocrats to change their ‘public consultation’ and decision-making procedures to highlight the genuine conflict between the interests of the bodies and businesses they are supposed to be regulating and the interests of consumers and citizens collectively. They would then have to show how they achieved a reasoned and sensible balance between these conflicting interests and would be held accountable.

      While this ‘corporate sole’ nonsense covering the relationship between ministers and their officials continues, TDs have no ability, if they wished, to have a go at the decision-makers behind the scenes. But they are perfectly entitled, and should have an incentive, to push for increased accountability of the quangocrats. We only need to loosen a few bricks in the wall and the whole crumbling edifice will collapse.

      I’m not sure that TDs are aware who is making most of the small but very important governing decisions. Most people certainly aren’t. But if they were to become aware…..

      • Paul,

        Once upon a time, not too long ago either, members of political organisations had an input into policy formation through local activism. THese days, they’re jsut leaflet distributors or sycophantic groupies, in ever diminishing groups, who ‘follow’ a particular politician. At parliamentary party level, TDs in all parties, especially those with particular expertise or an interest in a particular area, once had a much greater involvement in devising policy stances than they do these days. Ireland is not unique in what has become widespread throughout western democracy whereby apparatchiks decide what the policy line is going to be based on the latest opinion poll or focus group research and everyone else is expected to fall into line. Small wonder then, that most citizens perceive politics and its practitioners as having a severe credibility deficit. We have a government that we must all earnestly hope will succeed, but already its credibility is increasingly threadbare due to the stupid positions which some of its leaders adopted on a range of issues while in opposition, or during the election campaign, positions that were all about ‘spin’ and maximising their personal and party votes and nothing to do with any substantive consideration of any the critical issues facing our society. It’s a pity, because a lot of very talented people in politics aren’t ever going to get the opportunity to use their talents to best effect. I agree with you totally about the quangocracy, by the way.

      • Good discussion! On quangos, some of the posters on the website http://www.politicalworld.org have an excellent long-running and very interesting (if depressing) “Quango hammer” thread http://www.politicalworld.org/showthread.php?t=6584 going for the past six months delving into our Irish Quangocracy. No one really seems to know for sure how many quangos there actually are. One estimate put the number at well over 800 (nearly 500 at national level with close to 6000 associated appointee positions, with another 350 quangos at local or regional level with a whole bucket load more of attached sinecures), most doled out purely at the discretion of one or other of our ministers. The majority seem to come with annual stipends of at least 10-15k. The Dáil doesn’t really get a look in (either in terms of making or vetting the appointments themselves or even supervising these bodies). Great way for the executive to subcontract out power and simultaneously keep the Dáil in the dark. Fantastic source of patronage also to reward friends or party hacks, or to offer to a TD’s relative to keep them the TD in line. Most seem to have appointment periods of 5 years or less. So, even taking into account the final flurry of appointments at the end of the last Dáil, the vast majority of these thousands of positions will become vacant sometime over the course of the current Dáil, and presumably can gradually filled up with those of the “correct” political hue. I somehow doubt there will be a rush to genuinely reform the system of making quango/state-board appointments (and, even if there is, probably not for a couple of years, until most such positions have already been safely reallocated).

      • just to give you a quick update on quangos it looks as if we may be getting a little movement: Bruton has axed the board of teh National Consumer Agency. See here for press release

  6. I spoke at a Labour Youth conference on Saturday on the same panel as Minister Howlin. His speech his .here
    In the questions afterwards and in departures from his script he made a number of points. The first was that he admitted that Bills already introduced to the Dail this year should have gone to the relevant committee first and he said that that would be happening in the near future.

    He also said that while it is normal for politicians to argue about excessive executive power when in Opposition they usually change their tune when in power. He insisted that this would not be the case this time, that it was still very early days and that he was committed to serious political reform, including allowing more power to backbenchers.

    He did not answer on the criticism of fewer TDs but insisted that he was behind abolishing the Senate as he had examined it in detail last year and it simply serves no useful purpose.

    He also said he had a new section within his Department working on political reform. My understanding is that these are legislative people working on the detail of the three referendums for the autumn and are not policy people.

  7. Jane,

    “The near future…” Well, knock me down with a feather! How ‘near’? Which ‘future’? The one in that parallel universe far, far away?

    For a man who spent the early years of his own career in the Seanad, what was he doing in an institution that serves no useful purpose? Or perhaps, it only became useless after he graduated to that ‘other House’?

    I think I’d be more impressed if the Minister explained why his detailed examination last year had forced the conclusion that the Seanad is ‘useless’. That may well be true but is not the same thing as how one might go about making it useful, as opposed to simply abandoning it and thereby removing a potential ‘checks and balances’ mechanism on the power of the executive.

    Like a lot of other things in our public service, once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. Glib dismissals by Ministers of our political institutions that might be reformed to hold them properly to account are really not acceptable.

    I think your final paragraph gives the game away, though.

  8. I continue to be bemused that so much attention is paid to those who exercise so much power in the vague hope that they will devolve, distribute or assign any of it in a meaningful way. Power has to be wrested from the hands of those who exercise it. It will require struggle. I’m not talking violent insurrection; just a sufficient number of people coming, collectively, to the conclusion that enough is enough. And exerting the pressure of numbers on thier public representatives.

  9. Paul,

    Short of violent insurrection, the political alternative is a really sharp and vigorous campaign when the referendum proposal to abolish the Seanad is brought forward. Once people have it laid out for them in clear and unequivocal terms that proposals like reducing TD numbers or abolishing the Seanad are the political equivalent of corporate ‘greenwashing’, they may not be so inclined to vote in favour of them. A focus on what needs to be done to reform the system and make it more accountable and transparent would be no harm. A referendum defeat, indeed, might be no end of a good thing.

    • Veronica,

      I wouldn’t be surprised if the Seanad referendum got kicked to touch. But, even if it were to go ahead, there seems to be a settled view that the Seanad is a waste of space. It would be difficult to get some traction for the idea that, while one might accept that the Seanad deserves to expire, any diminution in the exercise of restraint on the executive – how ever feeble – should be accompanied by new procedures to replace and enhance this restraint.

      It’s not the kind of thing that’s likely to get the general populace hot under the collar. It would be far more fun building a list of decisions that impact on people’s daily lives and asking “Who decides, how do they decide and is there anyone looking after the interests of citizens and consumers?” For example, who decides how much you have to pay for this or that, who decides what hoops you have to jump through, forms you have to fill, officials you have to staisfy to get this or that, who decides why you are prevented from doing this or that? Consumers and citizens are atomised, isolated, disenfranchised and ground down by this myriad of decisions. Each one might seem perfectly reasonable on its own, but the cumulative effect is life-sapping and attempting to secure redress when a wrong decision is made is even more life-sapping. This is the real ‘road to serfdom’.

  10. The proposed cut in Dáil numbers is gradually getting smaller and smaller! It was 20, then became 14, now the terms of reference for the electoral commission is 6 to 13, which on past form probably means a number smack bang in the middle of this range (probably 10). Not enough to make much of a difference for either good or ill!

    Am not convinced by arguments for a severe cut in numbers. Our Dáil does seem fairly dysfunction and doesn’t seem much able to hold the government of the day to account. Its main role seems to be merely as a pool of bodies from which to populate the cabinet (aside from extremely rare appointments from the Seanad). Seems difficult enough to scrape together a decent cabinet of 15. Would really wonder what the effect of cutting the Dáil to 100 TDs would have (unless some alternative means of filling the cabinet was brought in). And such a drastic cut would be perverse if our bloated quangocracy continues to sail merrily along. The Cedar Lounge Revolution blog had a recent post http://cedarlounge.wordpress.com/2011/07/01/that-political-reform-we-heard-so-much-about/ about the appointment of the new Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, which indicates that in reality little has changed so far under the new regime. Until it does, a Dáil of 100 would be every bit as ineffective (perhaps even more so) as a Dáil of 156 or 166.

    • The Seanad, as it’s currently constituted, has IMO only a very marginal impact on political life. A small number of Senators admittedly do make a certain useful contribution (often some of those from the University panel). But it’s a bit of a stretch to say that it functions as one of our “checks and balances” given how overshadowed and dominated it is by the government. My main feeling about the body is that it has been a huge opportunity wasted. TDs complain that is useless even though it was been deliberately structured from its inception in 1937 to be ineffectual.

      Even if the abolition referendum actually fails, what are the chances it would even then be properly reformed? What is certain is that if it is abolished it’ll never again be resurrected in any form. I guess I hold out a forlorn hope that someday somehow it might be usefully reformed.

      Possible reforms have been trashed out several times in earlier reports. It would only be worth keeping if drastically reformed.

      The single most useful reform would be to do away with the 11 Taoiseach’s nominees and the consequent almost automatic government majority. At the very minimum we might then get a couple of opposition controlled committees scrutinizing the government. And the body might then occasionally exercise its powers of legislative delay.

      These are derisory, though, at 3 months for non-money bills. The UK seems well able to cope with a House of Lords that can hold up non-money bills for up to a year (let alone a body like the Australian Senate which can block any bill, either money or non-money, permanently). Surely we could cope with a mild dose of such institutional adversarialism?

      It would be easy to schedule Seanad elections to encourage opposition control of this chamber. If we ever went to semi-fixed Dáil terms the easy solution would be to schedule direct Seanad elections mid-term. Otherwise staggered terms, e.g. 6 year terms with half the chamber coming up for election every 3 years might work well. Some have suggested simultaneous Dáil and Seanad elections with candidates only being allowed to stand for one body or the other. I think an explicit membership “decontamination” period between houses would be a better approach, e.g. Dáil membership would disqualify a person from Seanad membership for 5 years, and vice versa.

      The parish-pump and clientilist characteristics of our electoral system are much criticized. The non-geographical nature of the university panel seems to have worked well in producing some decent senators. It would likely be a good idea to have the Seanad elected on a totally different basis to the Dáil. Perhaps direct elections via some kind of panel system would be one way to go. I must admit to finding the whole idea of non-geographical constituencies, as has been discussed on this website previously (e.g. https://politicalreform.ie/2010/09/06/do-we-need-geographical-constituencies/) rather attractive. I do however find vocation panel setups rather artificial in some ways. How does one practically police the panel categories? I think there are also limits to how many such non-geographical constituencies the media could cope with at any one time. Perhaps 5 would be a manageable upper limit. My local radio stations and newspapers are well able to cope with 4 nearby Dáil constituencies come election time. Perhaps the simplest and most administratively manageable way to break up the population into non-geographical constituencies would be by year of birth, e.g. have perhaps 5 non-geographical constituencies with 6 seats each (so say 30 Seanad seats coming up for election at any one time). Anyone with a year of birth ending in the number 0 or 5 would go into the first constituency, those with a birth year ending with the digit 1 or 6 would go in the second, those ending with 2 or 7 into the third etc.. Population figures for these five constituencies would be instantly available via CSO statistics, and it would be extremely easy to determine which constituency one should belong to. Perhaps politicians could also be confined to running only in the constituency they themselves belonged to (ensuring no messing about strategically moving candidates from one constituency to another).

      The Seanad is small enough in size to make a non-geographical constituency approach practical. National elections to powerful political offices are probably more prone to the corrupting influence of political donations. But that would be far less of a temptation in a less powerful less well remunerated second chamber.

      And why not constitutionally insist that a minimum number (perhaps 3 or 4) of the cabinet always come from a directly elected Seanad? It’s fairly obvious at this stage that a Taoiseach is very unlikely to appoint Senators to cabinet. Why not make this a requirement? That would open up a whole new pool of ministerial talent. Perhaps the Dáil itself then could be drastically cut in size with no great detrimental effects on the quality of ministers.

      Various roles for the Seanad have been proposed. Legislative/government scrutiny and as an alternative pool of talent for the cabinet would be sufficient IMO. A greater role in public appointments has been another common suggestion. It’s probably not entirely satisfactory that some of the various constitutional officeholders, e.g. comptroller-general (and perhaps the ombudsman in the near future) are entirely still in the gift of government. It would be no harm if Seanad approval was also needed for these supposedly independent and non-political roles. The Attorney General’s powers of prosecution have already been legally delegated out to the office DPP. It might not be a bad idea if this was formally recognized in the constitution with the creation of a separate public prosecutor office (with similar Seanad approval needed on appointment to help safeguard its independence from government). Judicial appointments are also too closely dominated by government (in a very non-transparent way). A much strengthened body on the lines of the current Judicial Appointments Advisory Board could be given constitutional recognition. Rather than merely supplying the government with a long list of seven potential candidates for a position, which can still be ignored, this body could actually make the judicial appointments. The minister for justice currently appoints three members of this board. Perhaps a less partisan way would be if the Dáil itself would appoint two members to this board with a 2/3 majority (ensuring some opposition support would usually also be needed). And perhaps the Seanad might also appoint two people to this board in a similar manner.

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