It’s time for a political reform roadmap, a plan, an info-graphic, anything!

dohertyPosted by Theresa Reidy (UCC)

Fine Gael launched its campaign to abolish the Seanad last week and this week, we finally got the date for the referendum. Political reform is back in the headlines and set to take up a reasonable chunk of the airtime during silly season. Seanad abolition is one of the central planks of the Government’s reform agenda. Whatever your views on the Seanad itself, this campaign reminds us that we are engaged in the most significant transformation of our political system since 1937. It raises an important question, when the great crusade for political reform is over, what exactly will we be looking at? It’s time for a political reform roadmap, a plan, an info-graphic, really anything that might give us an idea of what the political system will look like when all of this reform has been completed.

The government came to power with a strong mandate for reform. In 2011, the diagnoses of our political malaise were extensive and varied. Parliament had failed; we had too many politicians, we had the wrong kinds of politicians; there was group think at the heart of Irish elites; dissenting voices were greeted with hostility; we suffered from a deep seated anti-intellectualism; there was a moral vacuum in Irish political life. The list of problems was endless and the list of proposed solutions equally infinite. The Programme for Government declared ‘Our aim, when our legislative and constitutional changes are implemented, is that Ireland will be a transformed country’. The document has frequent references to reform of the political system and an entire chapter sets out the plans for constitutional and political reform, quite a number of which are in train already. However, the programme reads like a ‘to do’ list of political reforms and for those who perused the political reform sections of the party manifestos before the last election, they will find more than a hint of amalgamation of the sections of the respective documents of Fine Gael and Labour.

Quite a few of the Government’s proposed reforms are underway already, while some have been abandoned or rejected. The Oireachtas Inquiries referendum was defeated but reducing judges pay was passed. Some Dáil reform has begun and we await the actual date for the referendum to abolish the Seanad. Referendums to establish new courts have been announced and the single greatest transformation of local government has begun (whatever your view of its merits). Steps to bring more women into politics are in train and reducing the voting age will be considered in 2015. In and of themselves there is nothing wrong with many of the reforms but many of the proposals are interlinked, co-dependent even, which is why an overall design is so critical. Abolition of the Seanad is predicated on reform of the Dáil. So far we have had very little comprehensive discussion of the entire reform agenda. Individual elements are dealt with in isolation. That may well be possible when only minor amendments are planned but when a significant redesign of the entire political system is planned, a comprehensive plan is essential so that voters can know what they are being asked to consider.

The Government needs to present an integrated political reform plan which is clear and easy to understand. Indeed, it might even consider sending the plan to every household in the country. We’ve been sent all kinds of other stuff over the years, iodine tablets, the wording of the fiscal stability treaty, what to do in an emergency. It is not unreasonable that the most significant redesign of the political system in decades merits a leaflet. A second point which they might give consideration to is outlining how the specific reforms will address the problems which beset the political system. Indeed, they might keep this question in mind when writing the plan, over the next two and a half years, what will voters be casting their ballots on and why? If the Government is to have any chance of restoring the reputation of the Irish political system, it must engage in an extensive and comprehensive communication campaign. If not, it is likely that much of the change they are implementing or planning will go unnoticed and will have a limited impact on public perceptions of the political system.

The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform holds the title of responsibility for reform but already we have seen that reform initiatives are spread across several government departments. The Constitutional Convention is the main vehicle for the Government’s reform agenda and this is managed by the Taoiseach’s Department. Referendums are allocated on a policy basis rather than being the preserve of one department with oversight and responsibility for the Government’s political reform agenda. Decentralised responsibility for the political reform has fragmented the essential message. Someone needs to be put in charge and they need to start talking in much broader and more rigorous terms than we are going to scrap this and scrap that and everything will be grand.

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5 thoughts on “It’s time for a political reform roadmap, a plan, an info-graphic, anything!

  1. Excellent comment. Perhaps it is time for the Taioseach to provide some leadership by laying out his vision of what a reformed political system will look like and how it would operate. So far our best indication of his views has to be inferred from the way he runs FG – and to many that isn’t as encouraging as they might wish. Can there be a reformed Irish politics without reformed Irish political parties?

  2. Political reform of the Irish political scene the kind needed is very difficult to envisage without something akin to a revolution. There does not seem to be any public enthusiasm for radical action whether that be “on the streets” or of a more thoughtful kind. Yes, there are people like yourselves and those who get up at the summer schools and mouth nice words about the need for reform but the fact is that the Irish electorate has been conditioned over generations to like the type of clientist politics we have. Action has to be from the ground up and not imposed from the top down no matter how well intentioned the protagonists are.

  3. Spot on Theresa.

    It might be a worthwhile initiative if the political science community engaged on this as a collective again along the lines of an updated version of the “reform scorecard” which was conducted in prior to the 2011 general election.

    Perhaps Johnny Ryan and Joseph Curtin could consider once more assisting with the structure, formulation and presentation of the scorecard. If this were to come to pass, I would urge three amendments to the process conducted in 2011.

    1. Each “section” of reform should primarily be adjudicated on by those with expertise in that particular area.

    2. It would strengthen the process if the panel of “experts” was broadened to include not only Irish academics, but international scholars and practitioners. For instance, with regard to my own area on corruption, ethics, lobbying, FOI and so forth, I couldn’t imagine such a process being conducted in the absence of Transparency International who has done absolutely sterling work.

    3. If I might be so bold as to suggest that there is an onus on those who contribute to such a process to propose suggestions for reform where weaknesses are identified. Simply saying that the Irish lobbying legislation (or whatever), for example, falls below the “standard” is not good enough. It must be accompanied by suggestions on what the proposed “standard” should be, with reference to legislation or practice in other jurisdictions.

  4. Today’s FTimes carries a review of a business book “Fish can’t see water – How National Culture make or break your corporate strategy”. The reviewer (Adam Palin) commented
    “In a second example, the British ‘bias for action’ is identified as both an enabler for the post-war success of Austin Motors and later on as a factor that contributed to its demise. Though successful in its innovations, which includedthe popular Mini, financial losses followed poor management and lack of planning. “The English pragmatic, short term muddling-through traits that fuelled the bias for action cultural dynamic also fuelled the wing-it dynamic”…This “wing-it approach to life”….also contributed to the success and recent failures of the country’s financial services industry”

    “Winging-it” describes this Government’s approach to the referendum on the Senate – judging by what we have heard so far.
    It reminds me of the first referendum on divorce during the 1980s. When it was not successful, Mervyn Taylor (a Labour Minister for Justice) put through a number family law reform measures to deal with issues raised during the divorce referendum. That coupled with the passage of time may have contributed to the passing of the second divorce referendum.

    “Winging-it” could also describe the referendum on Oireachtas enquiries. There may be some good and valid reason why the then new government did not adopt the recommendations of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution for holding Dail inquiries. This was published in January 2011, weeks before the General Election. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin was a member of that Committee. There was no minority report.

    The Committee’s report is here
    http://www.oireachtas.ie/documents/committees30thdail/j-constitution/reports-2011/Fifth_Report.pdf
    The conclusions and recommendation is here
    “The Committee is of the opinion that committes of the Oireachtas are not best equipped to deal with complex and lengthy investigative work. It considers that third party specialist investigators should undertake the investigative part of the process. Committees of the Oireachtas would then undertake an in-depth analysis and public examination of the report of these investigations. This was the successful model of inquiry used in the PAC DIRT inquiry. In that case the Comptroller and Auditor General initially undertook an extensive investigation of the administration of DIRT. Based upon the information in the Comptroller’s Report, the PAC’s Sub-Committee on Certain Revenue Matters held public hearings and published a report on its findings.

    Committee’s Recommendations
    8. The Committee considers that its proposals for reform will require three measures and recommends:
    a) A constitutional amendment expressly providing for an inherent power of investigation. The amendment will also contain ordinances allowing for non-criminal findings of wrongdoing against individuals and for the balancing of the public interest in effective parliamentary investigation with the right of persons to their good name;
    b) Enabling legislation establishing the relationship between any appointed investigative body and the relevant Oireachtas committee, granting powers to compel testimony and disclosure and providing the necessary definitions and balance;
    c) A protocol, based on the above enabling legislation, to be incorporated into the Standing Orders of the Houses of the Oireachtas. This will include a comprehensive list of rights enjoyed by witnesses and others that may be affected by a parliamentary inquiry and guidelines for the conduct of members appointed to serve on a committee of inquiry.

    The Committee recommends that Article 15 of the Constitution be amended as follows.
    Proposed Amendment of Article 15 of the Constitution
    The Houses of the Oireachtas shall have the power to inquire into any matter of general public importance.
    In the course of such inquiry the Houses may investigate any individual and make findings in relation to their conduct.
    The conduct of such inquiries shall be regulated by law. Such law shall balance the rights of the individual with the public interest in the effective investigation of matters of general public importance.”

    Eoin O’Malley commented on the Government plans for a new enquiry on the banking collapse here
    https://politicalreform.ie/2013/07/03/lets-think-about-the-type-of-inquiry-that-will-work-before-we-set-one-up/

    and the 2011 referendum here
    https://politicalreform.ie/2011/10/24/inquiries-referendum-is-lazy-measure-that-wont-empower-the-oireachtas/

  5. Re the Seanad elections: in the discussion on this issue, anywhere, I have never heard a credible attempt to specify HOW the reform alternative should go.

    I have been aware of this problem since the 1950s, when my father Joe Johnston lost his TCD Seanad seat. He explored the other channels back into the Seanad, as when in, he had been primarily interested in agricultural economic issues; however he ran up against the electoral system, which depends on the councillors in local government, and is dominated by the political party mafia. So he opted out.

    May I suggest a possible model for Seanad electoral reform. The key idea is to have senators representing sectors of activity who have *in-depth knowledge of the sector*, and can advise the Government about draft legislation *independently*, rather than simply as a government-nominated expert, who tends to be a Party hack.

    The Univeristy senators are currently elected by the graduates, and this is a sort of step in that direction, resulting in the fact that the University Senators are usually good critical commentators. However it is not obvious how to organise elections relating to specialist sectors, involving all citizens.

    One model which suggests itself is to give all citizens one Seanad vote, but allow them to vote in a sector of their choice, selected from a list of sectors, which could be something like education, agriculture, industry, commerce, finance, healthcare, civil administration, foreign affairs… etc; the list will need to be well defined as regards nominating agency support.

    The numbers of citizens who select candidates in these ‘sectors of priority concern’ should determine the relative numbers of senators in each sector. The sectoral candidates should all be on sectoral lists, and each voter would define a preference set on his or her selected list. The nominees for the lists should be the responsibility of the principal specialist organisations associated with each sector.

    In such a system, citizens would be free to vote in any sector, and the sector they select will turn out to have numbers of senators proportional to the current amount of concern for issues in the sector. If some system along these lines were to be defined and explored, it would perhaps give more weight to the ‘reform’ concept.

    Any suggestions who might take up something along these lines? Should I perhaps publish something along these lines, and if so, where?
    1

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