Getting beyond the likely ‘gridlock’ of future reforms…

There’s a canny piece from John Rogers, Labour’s former Attorney General from 1984-87 in the Irish Times today on the subject of political reform in the Republic. He starts by usefully restating the bleedin’ obvious on why the much researched and much debated Seanad reforms never happened:

The truth probably is that none of the political parties wanted real reform of the Seanad because real reform inevitably would mean Seanad electoral reform.

Of course there could not be such reform without the agreement of the Seanad. Senators elected from five panels had and continue to have a captive small electorate who vote on lines of party loyalty and personal interest. What Senator would agree to his party disturbing such a cosy arrangement?

Indeed. Turkeys and Christmas. But then he gets to the crux of his argument:

Labour and Fine Gael have told us that the Seanad would be reformed by its abolition if the people agree to that in a referendum. There is nothing so clearcut on offer in terms of Dáil reform. There has been some talk of Dáil electoral reform but nothing in the way of a concrete proposal from either of the parties likely to form the next government.

The reason for this is obvious. Party leaders are naturally slow to signal the extinction of some of their potential allies in the new Dáil. Any proposal for Dáil electoral reform will be a matter to be considered and decided by the next Dáil and Seanad (if the latter has not been abolished). So Dáil electoral reform will become the subject of personal and party political positioning by TDs and Senators. The likely outcome of this is political gridlock and no Dáil electoral reform. [Emphasis added]

He then makes a pitch for his own reform package, which kind of co-opts the Dail and the Seanad into a single parliamentary body with two electorates. 100 from 20 five seat constituencies and fifty deputies voted nationally from seven different panels (to give policy focus to future Dail debates)…

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  • Here goes for a second draft to organise an inchoate, and incomplete, group of trivial thoughts.

    The arbitrary 20 five-seaters may work: the current average four-seater goes against the rub of a true STV system (which, of course, was the barely-hidden intention). They’ll also involve some dubious geographical carving-up

    Beyond that, I far from convinced by Rogers attempts to create a unicameral system by a sequence of defaults.

    What Rogers proposes is a third of the Dáil is pre-selected by … whom? By whichever of the Great and the Good determine the nominees of those seven panels. Or is any Tom, Dick or Harriet allowed to propose themselves for the ballot? Surely there must be some limitation: a requisite number of nominating signatures and/or a substantial deposit, else it’s more seven toilet rolls than ballot papers. We’ve now arrived at some sort of primary election or beauty-contest.

    Then the said T, D & H (all X number of them) have to campaign on a national basis. Heaven knows, campaigning a five-seater constituency is expensive enough.

    Furthermore an Taoiseach, the minister for finance “and at least three other” members of a fixed 15-member cabinet have to come from this pool of “national talent”. I think that means that, in what could well be a four-party system, over a third of these super-TDs have to be party big-wigs.

    If that wasn’t enough, we’re stuck with this two-tier TD and super-TD distinction. And it’s all because Rogers imposes this redundant “seven panel” notion on himself.

    The “panels” are, under the present dispensation, more honoured in breach than observance (have you considered the rules?). The original intent for the panels, however laudable, and influenced by Rerum Novarum and its update Quadragesimo Anno, is well past any sell-by date.

    So, any sane person might suggest that the super-TDs could more easily and cheaply be delivered by a simple list system, based on the national share of the vote.

    Either this way, or by Rogers’ ponderous lists, we’ve also arrived at a situation which would certainly hobble any coup attempt during the period of a Dáil.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Maybe they should just bring back the Irish House of Lords? Would be more independant that the current system at least!

  • aquifer

    ‘TDs could more easily and cheaply be delivered by a simple list system, based on the national share of the vote’

    Yes it it good to have a more fully proportional system, but there is no reason not to be able to have multiple overlapping constituencies to retain some measure of local contact alongside more focus on national issues.

  • aquifer @ 10:06 pm:

    Hmm. Obviously I didn’t make myself clear: what I posted was: the super-TDs could more easily and cheaply be delivered …, specifically referring to a better way than the addition list-members.

    There is little amiss, to my mind, with twenty five-member constituencies providing 100 TDs.

    If we need this hybrid system, if there is need for the extra “national” fifty, rather than the cumbersome (and, quite frankly, near-corrupt) panel-lists, those should be from the national aggregation.

    I’d argue against myself that there are four strong further arguments against this hybrid. We would have “gentlemen and players” sharing the Dáil benches. The list system is open to grotesque patronage and nepotism, both of which we need rid of. A simple “2% of the aggregated national vote gets you a TD” could easily do for the colourful independents the present system regularly delivers, for better or worse. We’d still have one of the largest (proportional to population) legislatures around.

    Of course, one thing that would have to go is the Taoiseach’s eleven.

  • Mick Fealty

    Going back to what John Rogers actually wrote, it seems to me he offers a strong insight as to why the promised attempt at reforming the state won’t work and then goes on to offer his own branch of thought in an increasingly complex map of possibilities.

    But a country needs to have this kind of debate either as the US did in a protracted period of contention after independence, or as the French do intermittently by ripping down the Republic every few generations and re-sowing together.

    Ireland missed the opportunity of the first because of the Civil War, and does not seem temperamentally disposed to the national revolutionary (not to mention Cartesian habits of thought) spirit of the French.

    Somehow, it seems to me, the country needs to find a way to aligning and intensifying political and intellectual energies over a relatively short period of time such that they will lead to actions if it is to avoid the very gridlock Rogers describes.

  • Brian Walker

    It would be good to debate first principles first, and decide exactly what the problem is you are seeking to fix.Then move on to instruments such as alternative electoral systems, the powers of both chambers, greater transparency, ethics and independent watchdogs, and a stronger all party committee system.

    Other Westminster systems should be compared, such as Scotland, NZ, Australia and its states, Canada and its provinces. And dare I suggest it, the Westminster reforms themselves now under discussion or implementation.

    Some of the comparative work has been done already by the think tanks the Institute for Government and the Constitution Unit in London . This could be a starting point.

    The issues need careful unpicking, rather than a great rush of emotion and half-understood nostrums in the depth of crisis. Probably the best way would be to set up an all- party political reform committee with added members from outside politics under an eminent lay chair. The process would take about four years to report and would involve published contributions and open hearings. . In the mean time the depth of the crisis itself should be a check against further abuse.

    Among the questions

    Do you want a stronger Dail as a more effective check on government?

    Should there be a place for a revising chamber to check the Dail and ask it to think again, popularly elected on a different cycle from the Dail but only with powers of scrutiny and delay? Perhaps with a proportion of members appointed by an independent appointments commission on nomination from the parties in proportion to the membership of the Dail?

    Might AV plus top up open party lists reduce the number of parties and the risk of clientelism?

    Would the successful candidates drawn from Rogers’ seven specialist lists be unable to change the policies on which they were elected during the course of a Dail regardless of a change in circumstances? If not, who wins in the event of a clash? Might not the different list members themselves clash as they are elected on different priorities without a requirement to reconcile them? If there is a requirement to reconcile, the original mandate is compromised. Drawing up these manifestos would be nighmare, as a lawyer like Mr Rogers must know.

    The Rogers plan doesn’t have the feel of a runner to me.

  • Brian Walker @ 10:22 AM, to my mind, quite properly and admirably urges a cooler, more forensic approach. His objections to the Rogers plan are well pressed. I wish I could achieve his sweet reasonableness.

    However, I equally suggest we are all well aware of the root problems. Two in particular, intimately interconnected, leap off the page:

    ¶ Too close “clientism” (good term, Mr Walker: a one-word definition of the whole problem) between an inner-core of politicos and some dubious business manipulators. Let us remind ourselves it was a two-way mutual back-scratching.

    I lack Mr Walker’s moderate tongue: I call that “Cute-hooring”.

    Roy Foster [Luck and the Irish] takes it back a fair while:

    … the most gilded life was led by the financial entrepreneurs who were most closely involved in the Golden Circle of Fianna Fáil supporters. It was almost as if political connections helped the rich to qualify for the indulgence of the Revenue Appeals Commisssioners, a body that looked with exceptional kindness on the Dunne family trust among other cases. … Tax breaks were offered to builders of multistorey car parks, or city hotels, or seaside apartment blocks. … Greenfield sites were, strangely, targeted for so-called ‘urban renewal. From 1981 investigative journalists were pointing out the disproportionate number of Fianna Fáil TDs who had interests in property development, or who were actually auctioneers themselves. Those involved in county council politics rapidly realized how their influence could be exploited, and on this fertile ground countless corrupt relationships began to flourish.

    ¶ Inadequate constraints by the legislature over the executive.

    I’d venture to suggest that Fianna Fáil were different not by being corrupt (it’s all relative), but by the nature of the corrupt relationship with the construction industry (and one particular combine in particular) and the opportunities for corruption thereby.

    The banking mess (another failure of accountability), too, stems directly from that same power nexus.

    So Fine Gael, the main opposition party, are also in the frame. That is where the denunciation, the exposures, should have been coming from. Successive leaders of FG have singularly failed as leaders of any real opposition. We should be asking why; and how putting Kenny into the job of Taoiseach would change that record.

    Is there a third group that needs to be arraigned? None other than us, “the plain people of Ireland”? We have gone along with this charade for decades, well aware all was not well. We have regularly returned governments whose blatant defects were more than peccadillos, whose sins were worse than venal. All because of what? A false sense of well-being? Crumbs from the rich men’s table? A lack of ideology and principle? The lack of moral certainty as a consequence of the parallel failure of the once-authoritative and now-discredited catholic church?

  • Munsterview

    A few brief comments on this matter.

    First off the current debate started with yet another ‘Kenny Moment’ when Dame Enda had a rush of blood to the head and announced that to advance democracy Fine Gael would scrap the Senate.

    Enda is not alone father of the Dail, he is around long enough to be grandfather of it! He knows what the procedures are yet he did not consult with his own TD on the matter, his own Senators who would be most effected and in now appears most of his shadow Cabinet either.

    In short it was another ‘what can we do to grab the headlines this week’ usual Enda nonsense rather than any joined up thinking. Par for the course for Enda and so much for advancing democracy by taking away 40% of the democratic process.

    It was Populist politics at it’s worst, yes the much of the public was in favor of abolishing the Senate but most of these would be in favor of abolishing the Dail also and Grand-daddy Kenny have been around long enough to know that he was diminishing representative democracy as a whole, but what the hell, he got his headlines.

    Labor then had to join in, somebody in the Fianna Failed back-room got out a calculator and determined for every FF Senator lost if the Senate was scrapped, FG and Lab would loose five, so Fianna Failed became converts to the idea as a way of demolishing the opposition. More short terminates and expediency.

    The Senate abolition bandwagon is now rolling because of Kenny’s headlining grabbing stunt and all the main parties that scrambled on are now afraid to jump off.

    Kenny also know that where there is reference or a few references to something in the constitution, that it would take years of behind the scenes work and a referendum to dis entangle the reference interface. There are something like sixty-eight references in the Constitution to the Senate, every single interface needing specific legalization to remove.

    It is not a matter of ‘whatever was he thinking of’ as the matter that neither Kenny or those who thought up this wheeze were thinking anything past grabbing a few headlines for a few days or weeks. So much for new thinking or solutions for anything emanating from the father of the Dail and the Grandfather of blunder politics.

    I have yet to see a detailed sympathetic case made for the Senate working as it was envisioned by the framers of the Constitution. Instead it has been stuffed with chancres on the way up and wasters on the way down. That is not the fault of the institution per say, rather the blame can be laid with the Party Leaders of the Dail who have used and abused the Senate chamber as a parking space for their electoral rejects who regard themselves as ‘passing through’ until the next Dail Election without any real interests in the Chamber or it’s functions.

    It is the Dail that messed up the Senate, the Senate has not got a chance to work as the framers of the constitution intended for most of it’s life…… and we are then surprised that it is ineffective. Shane Ross, Norris and more recently Doherty have shown what the Chamber could be. It would be far easier and cheaper to return to first principles and give the institution a chance to operate as intended before pulling the plug.

    If it do get that opportunity it may provide a few pleasant surprises to the general public, and a few nasty ones to the other house politicians.