Professional politicians and political reform. (Matt Wall)

A couple of interesting stories in the Irish media today caused me to re-consider the notion that political reform should be the exclusive domain of elected politicians. With their electoral mandates, experience of the day-to-day functioning of political institutions and (in Ireland, at least) their exclusive right to initiate constitutional change, our professional politicians certainly have more claim than most other social groups or organisations to take the lead on this issue.

On the surface, two rather hopeful stories point to the benefits of politician-led political reform: 1) the development of a Seanad Reform Bill and 2) the publication of a set of proposals for Dáil reform by Eoghan Murphy TD as a discussion document for a Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting. Both point to the wherewithal of politicians in terms of arriving at concrete proposals for change based on practical experience.

I imagine (or, at least, I hope) that this was the reasoning behind the government’s decision to break with international precedent when establishing the Constitutional Convention by making a third of its (voting) membership professional politicians.

However, to those more familiar with the sclerotic Irish political system, these stories are rather less hopeful . The measures proposed in both the Seanad Reform Bill and Deputy Murphy’s document are by no means new ideas – rather they have been outlined in various (official) reports, submissions and discussions going back decades. While such changes would probably have strengthened our parliamentary institutions, they would also have upset the status quo.

Given that those charged with implementing institutional reform were the very people who most benefited from that status quo (i.e., the elected, professional politicians holding power) – it is not surprising that these good ideas were stymied. Indeed, the sole reason why we are seeing any action on Seanad reform at the moment is the impending referendum on its abolition – a change to the status quo that would negatively impact on both incumbent Senators and those TDs in marginal seats who view the Seanad as a fallback option.

This feedback loop between the rules of the political game and the fortunes of those who are winning that game at any time helps to explain why even patently dysfunctional institutions are so resistant to reform. The whole idea of a Citizens’ Assembly is to circumvent this loop, and to provide a mechanism for reform ideas to emerge without fears that they will be manipulated by a self-interested political class. However, with the Irish Convention on the Constitution mainly confined to the outer layers of what Kristof Jacobs describes as the institutional ‘onion’, it looks likely that, absent an explosion in votes for radical reform parties such as Direct Democracy Ireland, Ireland’s political class will continue to control the architecture of the political system for some time to come. Overall, this would not lead us to anticipate anything too different from what’s come before.

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5 thoughts on “Professional politicians and political reform. (Matt Wall)

  1. The most basic reform which is needed in the Irish governmental system is not contained in the Eoghan Murphy document. Indeed most politicians and most political correspondents refuse to give it any hearing or any coverage. The reform in question is a legal requirement that politicians carry out their main function which is to LEGISLATE.
    After a politician is elected to the Dail and registers with the Ceann Comhairle s/he is put on the pay-roll. The politician continues to receive the monthly cheque EVEN IF S/HE NEVER ATTENDS THE DÁIL AGAIN until dissolution. If s/he does attend the Dáil, there is no requirement that s/he vote on Bills!! TDs are only required to register their presence by “fobbing in” in order to be paid EXPENSES!!!!
    Politicians often fend off this issue by denying an allegation that is not made. Typically, they say: “Just because we are not visible in the chamber, does not mean that we are absent from Leinster House. We are usually in our office listening to the debate and doing other necessary work” In most cases this statement is,indeed, true. But it is no answer to the absence of a requirement to be in attendance at Leinster House in order to be eligible for payment of salary.
    Because of the absence of an attendance requirement, Deputies can go on lucrative speaking tours or may decide to have no involvement in legislation and to confine themselves to constituency work. These things happen regularly.
    Because a politician is not required to register a YES, NO OR ABSTENTION on Bills, s/he can avoid accountability to the electorate. Indeed the Deputy may “fob in” for expenses but can be absent for the vote! The fact that the whip can require attendance and voting on pain of losing the whip is a purely party matter. The whip may allow the person to be absent if his/her vote is not needed. In any event there is no salary loss for non-attendance. No “sick cert” is required if the Deputy claims to be ill.
    Deputies should have the same attendance and sick leave arrangements as the senior civil servants with whom they have pay parity.
    I will give credence to proposals for Dail reform when this outrageous state of affairs is ended.

    • True, but they can lose their job every 4-5 years or so and we know they work much longer hours and for less pay than other civil servants so in reality you need to address the whole picture. I think comments like these assume there is some form of superhuman out there that enjoys working a million hours for no pay no power and public humiliation. Never mind the fact that they need roughly 20-30k every 4-5 years just to give themselves a chance to keep their job. Of course if you reduce their pay and benefits then the only people who can afford to become a politician are the extremely well off. Same goes for reducing the number of TDs, there is a direct relationship between the size of the constituency and the cost of the campaign.

      • Everyone can lose their job – TDs are no more special than anyone else. If a TD loses their job then give them the same redundancy package anyone else gets. Nor do other people have access to the expenses TDs have – can you imagine any other large organisation giving staff a fixed amount of money and asking them to use it to buy the equipment they need for the job, no receipts needed and if they don’t spend it all they can pocket the rest. It’s not like years ago where TDs funded their own campaigns out of their own pockets when there was zero separation between personal and political money. An election campaign can be paid for with €500x12x5 which is easily paid for by party members or by diverting expenses.

        There isn’t a single elected rep at any level in Ireland who would pass an audit of their political finances using the same standards us mere ‘ordinary’ people have to follow.

        Also they do not work any more than anyone else and anyone who knows Leinster House will know that the amount of time wasted during the day is mind boggling and the only reason they sit late in the evening is because in the 19th century MPs in Westminster used to have dinner at their club and go to Westminister before or after.

        There is absolutely no reason why the Oireachtas can’t be run the same way as most large organisations are run and do its business by 6pm and everyone can go home or spend their evenings reading up instead of drinking in the pubs within Leinster House.

  2. I think there elephant in the room is why a certain type of person gets onto the ballot paper and others do not.

    The issue is the motivation of those who stand for election and the fact that in other countries people stand for election and sacrifice the financial awards their talents would provide them with in the private sector. But in a country like Ireland, the opposite is the case.

    Our President, Taoiseach, Tanaiste and Leader of the Opposition for example, have between never had a job in the real world and all of them are now far richer from a political career than they would ever have been in the private sector.

    Compare the wealth they have built up with the fact Garret FitzGerald left an estate of about €90k, and his predecessors all left modest estates. Then compare them to more recent Taoisigh and their wealth.

    The poor example shown from the top down must infect the rest of the system and sort of people it attracts?

  3. My point is not that Tds do not work hard. Indeed, many work extremely hard. My point is that the system does not require that they prioritise or even perform their duties as legislators at all! Because they are not required to vote on Bills, electors are unable to judge their positions on public issues..Hence they can avoid accountability. Indeed this state of affairs discriminates against the conscientious deputies. While one attends to legislative duties,a rival can be “working the constituency”

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