As set out in a previous post on this Forum (see here), Dáil reform is long overdue: this government’s efforts (to date and promised) are piecemeal, insufficient and in some instances completely – and arguably deliberately – miss the point (the most prominent example being Seanad abolition).
So what reforms should they implement? This post sets out some preliminary ideas in the hope of stimulating others. It’s prompted by an op ed in today’s Irish Times in which Conor Brady proposes ‘Ten Reforms’ that should be introduced ‘to make the Oireachtas more effective, more accountable and better respected by the people it serves’.
We should first take a look at Brady’s wish list. Here’s a brief (and hopefully fair) summary:
- The government should ‘put up a proposal to modify Article 16.5 of the Constitution’, which prescribes the use of PR-STV for Dáil elections;
- They should propose a new electoral system such as a list system;
- Reduce the number of TDs to about 120;
- The Dáil should sit for more days and thereby reduce the need for guillotines;
- TDs’ allowances should be simplified and made less open to abuse;
- Pay should be related to Dáil attendance;
- The budget should be published in advance;
- Participation in Dáil committees should be made mandatory;
- All meetings of cabinet committees/sub-committees should be electronically recorded;
- End the right of TDs to have immunity from arrest.
Let’s start with the pedantic points.
- The relevant article relating to the electoral system is not a.16.5, but a.16.2.5;
- Brady actually lists ‘Nine’ reforms given that the first two points both relate to the electoral system;
- And arguably the reforms relating to a more transparent budgetary process (another promise made in the Programme for Government that was never implemented) and the recording of cabinet committees/sub-committees refer more to changes in the process of governance than to how the Dáil should operate.
Of the seven proposals that remain it is debatable whether they would really address the key issue, which is the serious power imbalance between legislature and government in Ireland. For instance, how much would electoral reform change things? The Constitutional Convention discussed this at length over two weekends in May and June and voted comprehensively against the adoption of a new electoral system (by a vote of 79%). Convention members were of the view that a move to a new electoral system was not the panacea that many commentators (like Brady in this instance) suggest.
At the same meeting the Convention also voted against further reductions in the size of the Dáil (see here). Reducing the numbers of politicians would be more a populist than a reforming move. Comparative analysis indicates that as it stands the Dáil is just about the right size for our population. According to the influential ‘cube root rule’ set out by political scientists Rein Taagepera and Matt Shugart (see here), with a population of 4.59m, our Dáil should have 166 TDs, not the 158 proposed for the next election and certainly not the 120 proposed by Brady.
Reforming the expenses and remuneration regimes and abolishing the members’ immunity from arrest are certainly desirable changes in themselves. Similarly, giving the Dáil more time to debate issues and requiring TDs to be more involved in committee work would seem to have their merits. But what does all this do to change the power balance between Dáil and government? Arguably little if anything.
So, what reforms would help to effect real change? Here’s my evolving wish list (for starters), some of which has already appeared in earlier posts. (Doubtless others much more expert in this area than me will suggest improvements):
- A secret ballot to elect the Ceann Comhairle;
- The Dáil authorities to have far greater say over such matters as deciding the order of business and reform of the standing orders;
- Guillotines to be allowed only in exceptional circumstances and with the agreement of the Ceann Comhairle;
- Whatever steps necessary to make it possible for TDs to have a real potential to initiate legislative bills that have a chance of making it to the statute books;
- Committee chairs to be allocated to parties proportionate to their representation in the Dáil (the government now promises this; an alternative that some have argued for is that the chairs should be elected by secret ballot);
- Whatever steps necessary to increase the role and status of committees within the legislative and scrutiny functions of the Dáil
- Re-designation of a portion of TDs’ constituency allowances to Dáil library and research support.
As I said, this is an evolving list, and in some instances admittedly pretty vague (‘whatever steps necessary’), but perhaps it might spark some debate…