So how should the Dáil be reformed?

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:

  1. 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;
  2. They should propose a new electoral system such as a list system;
  3. Reduce the number of TDs to about 120;
  4. The Dáil should sit for more days and thereby reduce the need for guillotines;
  5. TDs’ allowances should be simplified and made less open to abuse;
  6. Pay should be related to Dáil attendance;
  7. The budget should be published in advance;
  8. Participation in Dáil committees should be made mandatory;
  9. All meetings of cabinet committees/sub-committees should be electronically recorded;
  10. 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…

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7 thoughts on “So how should the Dáil be reformed?

  1. “..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”

    The Constitutional Convention did not vote heavily against replacing PR-STV, they voted heavily against replacing it with MMP. The vote in favour of changing from PR-STV was 54% to 45%. So the convention was inclined towards changing the electoral system just not towards the specific single option of MMP offered to them. Why many people present at the convention and most of those reporting on its activities after the fact are so keen to get the message out that change was rejected is a curious matter.

    • Daniel the 54 per cent voted to change it I.e. modify it. They absolutely ruled out replacing it, 79 per cent voted against replacing it with MMP having previously ruled out the other alternatives, FPP, Alternative Vote and list systems.

  2. Should the Dáil be reformed – or Does Reform need to Start Elsewhere?

    At the heart of the question of political reform is the issue of executive power (perhaps competence?) in Ireland. David Farrell puts it succinctly characterizing the problem as “the serious power imbalance between legislature and government”.

    He rightly notes that the Conor Brady 10 point plan won’t change much and he suggests his own “wish list” of reforms as a place to start. But does his list get reformers where they want to be?

    If there is a serious power imbalance between legislature and government it is not due to the structure of the formal institutions – it is about how they are operated. And the central operating principle that sustains current practice is surely party discipline – the power imbalance was created and is maintained by use of the whip.

    As long as the parliamentary parties are run from the top by a firm hand on the whip not much is likely to change. Have committees, give them lots to do, provide TDs with expert support, but unless one loosens the grip of the whip not much will really change.

    There are some institutional changes that will help. Farrell’s suggestion of electing the Ceann Comhairle by secret ballot is a good place to start. Recent Canadian experience where a secretly elected Speaker ruled that the government was in contempt of parliament demonstrates what freeing the chair can do.

    However if one wants the Dáil to be the centre of democratic politics then the parties that dominate and run it need to democratic organizations. At present few would count them so. Labour drove its chairman, democratically elected by the party membership, out of its caucus for defying the whip – that surely will get it a footnote in the history of party democracy!

    Democratizing a party organization is no easy matter and political scientists are hardly agreed on whether it is even possible (see http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/academic/politics/9780199661879.do#.Uc8iaZW1nAM). But the Irish parties could start with a reassessment of how their parliamentary parties operate and to whom they answer. At present it seems to be the leader rather than the TDs, with the caucus quite independent of the wider membership.

    Parties in government are unlikely to change so it is to the opposition benches one might look for signs of spring. Fianna Fáil’s 2012 Ard Fheis promised a new beginning with the creation of a national membership list, opening the selection of candidates and leaders to a democratic choice of the members, and some accountability of the caucus to the wider party. It is too soon to tell if Fianna Fáil can transform itself into an internally democratic organization, or whether they can then make a difference. Freeing the TDs to vote as they choose on the abortion bill (for whatever reason the party did it) is a small start. But ultimately it is party democracy that holds the best hope for altering Farrell’s “serious power imbalance.”

    • Ken, Labour members vote for the leader and at selection conventions, since Dick Spring put the Rock Street amendment to a motion calling for conference to elect our leader at either the 1988 or 1989 Party Conference. We were a few decades ahead of Fianna Fáil in that respect although there has been some diluting of that thanks to a document passed at Labour Conference a couple of years ago which provided for candidates that go to selection conventions to be filtered by selection boards and retrospectively that diluting of the one member one vote was a mistake from the point of view of the members.

    • “If there is a serious power imbalance between legislature and government it is not due to the structure of the formal institutions – it is about how they are operated. And the central operating principle that sustains current practice is surely party discipline – the power imbalance was created and is maintained by use of the whip.

      As long as the parliamentary parties are run from the top by a firm hand on the whip not much is likely to change. Have committees, give them lots to do, provide TDs with expert support, but unless one loosens the grip of the whip not much will really change.”

      It seems to me that the power imbalance between the Dáil as legislature and the government is due entirely to the structure of the formal institutions.

      Consider how the “organs of state” are actually specified in our Constitution.

      Our Constitution specifies that
      • the Taoiseach is nominated by the Dáil (Art 13.1)
      • The Taoiseach, Tánaiste and the Minister for Finance must be TDs (Art 28.7.1)
      • There may be between 7 and 15 members of the government (Art 28.1), who must be TDs or Senators of whom no more than 2 may ministers (Art. 28.7.2)
      • The Government is responsible to Dáil Éireann (Art. 28.4.1)
      • The Taoiseach must resign if (s)he ceases to hold a majority in the Dáil (Art. 28.10), in which case the Government is deemed to have resigned.

      In short, the Government seems to be a sub-committee of the Dáil – in the way it is chosen and given legitimacy.
      Yet, unless the Government controls the Dáil – it ceases to be the Government.

      This being so, the party whip is necessary.

      I suggest that we need a complete separation between the Dáil as the directly elected legislative assembly of representatives and the Government/Rialtas, as executive.

      The Westminster model is no longer fit for purpose.

  3. I rang twenty two politicians on Wednesday and asked for help to get 10,000 signatures to hold a referendum to take the pensions off all politicians of the last dail that committed this criminal treason, and just like the usual saga even the opposition ones would do nothing. it is time we locked them all in the dail and let them eat beans and chips for a month. I sincerely hope they stop taking a pension levy out of my pocket because that was to create jobs, still high unemployment. I hope the austerity is not going to call to my door after the next budget after those bank bail out and bond holder payers tapes because I will get a base ball bat and thump their heads into reasonable intellect mode, which is absent and has been absent from the dail now since 1986. My enduring conversations with the twenty two members of dail eireann I rang the other day were as interested in the price of heads of cabbage. The Fine Gael, Finna Fail, Sine Finers, Labour party X 4 members were not interested and said that would be unlikely. We do not need politics or politicians, regulators or bankers because they have all put us where we are in bankruptcy. I would like a referendum in removing the pensions from Mr Cowen no comment on the criminal treason and the dail still write him his check at the end of the month. I believe these politicians are informed by the top civil servants on matters of importance and look at those tapes a child in a pram holding its rattler would have acted the same way as our politicians did by holding on to what they got a cosy expenses lining pocket facility paid for by us tax payers. We need a third element called sense department and all departments apply for the rights to impose or dispose of taxes, for the removal of politicians , judges, regulators there should be a panel of twelve people from all walks of life to vote on the decision. That is democracy at work but just like my referendum proposal this bunch of cowards and idiots won’t allow it. Strongly considering the base ball bat after the next budget I had enough. Any protest before the next budget I will be there.

  4. In considering Oireachtas reform, David F. states that the the “key issue is the serious power imbalance between legislature and government”. I agree but the consequence is surely that we must look at the government or executive as a fully separate entity with a specified relationship to the Dáıl. Most proposed reforms suggest changes to the Dáıl alone. Such changes do not (and cannot) overcome the lock-step between the executive and the majority in the Dáıl which effectively reduces the classical 3 branches of government to 2. The deputies of the majority normally feel a loyalty to the executive which prevents them providing any real public criticism of it. The challenge is to devise a way to break this smothering loyalty. We need to consider more radical ideas to separate the powers. The constitutional convention has voted to allow non-parliamentary ministers (and making ministers resign on appointment) which is a positive, if weak, start.

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