Smaointe: Assessing the parties’ reform proposals

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David Farrell (UCD), Eoin O’Malley (DCU), Theresa Reidy (UCC) and Jane Suiter (DCU)

Smaointe (meaning ‘Ideas’) has been founded by a group of political scientists to promote an agenda of political reform in Ireland. As part of our strategy to promote political reform, we have undertaken an assessment of the political reform proposals included in the election manifestos of all the main parties. Smaointe’s political reform agenda includes three areas of focus; openness, accountability and decentralisation of decision making in Ireland. In this analysis, proposals from the manifestos are broken into ten discrete categories which align with the three areas of focus for Smaointe. Dáil reform is at the centre of our 100 days campaign and the proposals from each of the parties are evaluated separately and discussed in our Irish Times article.

Political reform was an important part of the 2011 election. All of the parties had extensive proposals and democratic revolution was the mantra of the government in its early days in office. Roll forward five years, the political architecture remains largely intact and dissatisfaction and disillusion with political parties, politicians and the political system is very pronounced. On balance, the 2016 manifestos are light on political reform. There are few attempts to substantively evaluate the essential weaknesses of the system. Long lists of individual reforms do not obscure the lack of serious analysis and it is not always clear how parties plan to coordinate and implement their reforms plans.

Starting with building a more open political system, all the parties except Fianna Fáil have proposals. Labour and the Social Democrats provide some of the most extensive plans in relation to making all government data accessible. The Fine Gael plan to establish a Digital Democracy Commission to explore how technology could be used to open up politics looks tame by comparison. Sinn Féin, Renua, the Social Democrats and People Before Profit include long overdue proposals on probity and ethical standards (and importantly consequences for breaching these) for public representatives and senior public officials.

In the area of public sector reform both Renua and the Social Democrats argue for full separation in law of the role of the minister from that of the secretary general, making the civil service more accountable and “system failure” less of an excuse. The Social Democrats would also abolish the Economic Management Council and the Official Secrets Act. Fianna Fáil has extensive plans for the redesign of government departments and propose creating new departments in areas such as housing and climate change.

Electoral reforms are an important part of delivering a more open and accountable politics. Establishing an electoral commission is a vital step to improve the management of our democratic process and Fine Gael, Labour, the Social Democrats and the Greens all include commitments to establish an independent agency. In relation to wider electoral reforms, Labour has detailed plans for voting rights reforms including reducing the voting age to 16 for local and European elections (also included by the Greens for all elections), giving voting rights to EU nationals living in Ireland for 5 years and allowing Irish emigrants to retain their voting rights for five years (versions of which are also included by Sinn Féin and Fine Gael). Larger constituencies sizes are included by Labour, Sinn Fein and the Greens, a move which would undoubtedly favour the electoral prospects of these parties as smaller parties perform better when the district magnitude is increased. Automatic voter registration is included by both Fine Gael and the Greens while Fianna Fáil would like a referendum to change the electoral system to a mixed list/ PR-STV.

As ever, referendums are popular and on trend! Nearly everyone plans to have at least a few but Labour and the Greens have the most extensive lists. Some of the highlights include a referendum to abolish the clause on women in the home, allow citizens a role in nominating presidential candidates (Labour and the Greens); repeal the 8thamendment on the equal right to life of the unborn (Labour and the Social Democrats), insert a clause on neutrality into the constitution (Sinn Féin)  citizen initiated referendums (PBP and the Greens), remove blasphemy clause (Greens) and allowing experts to be appointed as ministers and ministers to be replaced by alternates in the Dáil (Fianna Fáil).

Plans to encourage greater citizen participation in politics are a positive and quite probably a reflection of the success of the Constitutional Convention. Fine Gael, Sinn Féin, People Before Profit and Labour all have suggestions on setting up citizen assemblies and list issues which they could consider.

Decentralised government is the third area highlighted by Smaointe and the policy proposals in relation to local and regional government are considered to assess how this might be delivered. Interestingly, most of the parties are keen to re-establish town councils or a version there-of as a first step to delivering more effective local government. Labour, Renua, Fianna Fáil and the Greens all have plans in this regard. Again, all parties commit to either establishing directly elected mayors or holding local plebiscites to decide on the matter. In the area of local government, Fine Gael has a long list of proposals which are short on action and include a lot of reviewing, looking and setting up expert groups.

The Greens, Social Democrats and Labour have some of the most detailed and integrated political reform proposals which are clearly designed to deliver a more open, effective and accountable political system. Fine Gael having made much of its political reform plans in 2011 has a disappointing list which has far too many plans to consider the changes that it might make. Political reform is lower down the agenda for some of the smaller parties but both Sinn Féin and Renua have some sensible ideas and there is a lot of common ground across parties on using referendums and citizens assemblies to promote greater direct citizen participation.

The original version of this post appeared on the Smaointe Blog

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