#GE11: Political Reform must be near top of new Governments

(Brian picks up some of the points I make further down with richer context here). On our polling day road trip for RTE, Peter Geoghegan and I came to the singular conclusion, that whilst no one in Cavan, Roscommon, or Kilkenny was clamouring for political reform, nonetheless the pressure being applied to TDs as the only means of expressing influence on the national fundholders is getting: one, unbearable; and two, unsustainable. As we note at the RTE Elections blog:

The primacy of the county boundary in Ireland’s electoral system was a recurring theme. TDs are expected to fight their county’s corner in Dublin, to bring benefits back home for local voters even at the expense of the wider national interest. Leitrim, for example, was sliced in two after 1997 and now has no TDs in the 31st Dail – a fact predicted, and greatly resented, by the populous of that county. Even in prosperous Kilkenny there were complaints about public jobs going to Carlow, and dismay that the new road was simply enabling communities further to the south.

Not since 1977 has there been a significant domestic rate by which local people pay for local services, and hold local politicians to account for spending that money. The full burden is now carried only by businesses (which as well as being unfair, is helping to fuel great resentment about government getting the in way of job creation).

In today’s Irish Times, a number of academics make the case for the new government, but worry that an excuse will be quickly found to prioritise more pressing issues:

If previous governments are anything to go by, the gap between campaign promises and policy implementation may mean that few meaningful reforms are implemented. New governments often baulk at reforms that appeared to be good ideas when in opposition, farming them off to a committee whose report is then ignored.

Many will argue that the scale of Ireland’s economic crisis means that the government cannot afford to devote too much time or resources to an area as ephemeral as political reform.

And there is a general scepticism, well founded if one looks at a history the Irish legislature’s unwillingness to act, even after getting permission from the people by referendum, on substantial constitutional reform.

So, perhaps in recognition of that pervasive historic trend, the five recommendations from the academics are relatively modest parliamentary nudges rather than wholesale reform:

– Let the Dáil, not the government choose the ceann comhairle*

– Use the Seanad route to appoint ministers

– Allocate committee chairs proportionately, and establish a system whereby legislation is placed before committees before going to the floor of the House

– Impose a system where publishing departmental documents and reports is standard practice

– Change the Dáil’s standing orders so that they favour TDs, not the government

Interesting. In Britain, where parliament was established as a counterweight the crown, these tensions are historic and implicit. Or in Whiggish America, where the revolution gave rise to a fierce set of arguments between federalists and statists. But in the Republic where parliament and government are conjoined expressions of the peoples’ will, those tensions are not given clear expression either in the Constitution or the debates surrounding the implementation of that Constitution.

But, they are argue, these reforms should only be a useful start:

Reforming politics is key not just to addressing the needs of the country at present but also to giving us the best possible chance of avoiding similar crises in the future. Even if the reforms that we recommend are implemented, much will remain to be done.

Political reform needs to encompass many strands in Irish life – the Civil Service, local government, the Oireachtas and the cabinet. This will take time. However, if there is to be a “new politics”, as both Fine Gael and Labour have promised during the campaign, both parties must demonstrate that they are serious from the start.

*Note to self: Article 15.7.9.1 already says “Each House of the Oireachtas shall election from its members its own Chairman and Deputy, and shall prescribe their powers and duties.”

  • The Leitrim problem is a symptom of a much more general problem in RoI elections – rural constituencies are geographically too large. In Galway West, for example, there is a Connemara electorate, a City electorate and an Oranmore electorate. A successful party must run separate candidates in all three areas, in the hope that voters will transfer along party lines in order to bring one or two candidates over the line (the sweeper strategy).

    This has several undesirable effects. It causes friction between candidates of the same party as they jostle for physical territory – who gets elected depends as much on who is allowed to campaign where by the party strategists as it does on the qualities of the candidates themselves. Secondly, constituencies covering more than one council area present a difficult campaigning ground for ambitious local councillors, especially if they hail from the smaller council (Leitrim being the classic example). But finally, the sweeper strategy doesn’t really work. Many people transfer between locally-based candidates (or along gender lines, particularly with female candidates) rather than voting the party ticket. This presents a golden opportunity for both independents and clientelist party members to campaign on narrow local issues, particularly if they live in a geographical area that approximates one quota. This is particularly successful in Ireland due to the neutered county council system which is often incapable of performing basic functions (such as filling potholes) without a kick up the backside from the local TD.

  • gendjinn

    Rates were replaced with a tax hike. If you want a regressive rates structure back where grannies are taxed on property not income then you should, at the very least, also be requiring the tax that replaced them be repealed.

    Committees controlling legislation are an absolutely fantastic way of making it easier for lobbyists to write and block legislation. One just has to look at the USA to see how the committee system frustrates the will of the people to the benefit of the plutocracy.

    These suggestions are tinkering to the benefit of the establishment not democracy. True reform would be a path to direct democracy without the filter of corruptible representatives.

  • aquifer

    More transparency, more power and funding to parties so we stop pretending that ‘our man’ makes a difference.

    It turns out that successive governments were well warned by their civil servants about the economic risks they were taking, but barrelled on regardless.

    Lets shoot two birds with one bullet. The politicians try to keep one step ahead of the news cycle before being found out, and our newspapers are struggling to provide value when ‘comment is free’ and their carefully sourced content is largely unindexed and difficult to track over time.

    Would finding better ways of raking through the coals stop people lighting fabulous bonfires?

    Named and shamed in a small country.

    Not a good end to have in prospect.