Phil Hogan is wrong. Ireland needs more elected reps, not less.

Great rant from Noel Whelan on the Late Debate last night, regarding Fine Gael Environment Minster Phil Hogan’s claim that because of the latest census figures, he could not cut the current total of TDs by the twenty promised in his party’s manifesto:

If Fine Gael wanted to reduced the number of TDs by twenty they could prepare a very short referendum bill that could be voted on on the same day as the Presidential election. They don’t need a referendum on judges pay because the pay has been cut anyway. They’re going ahead with it any way because its populist.

In advance of the election they tried to dress up the absence of any real political reform proposals in their manifesto with this populist suggestion that you reduce the number of TDs by twenty. I don’t think we should be reducing the number of our TDs, our talent pool is limited enough.

We have in fact reduced the number of our TDs over the last 15 or twenty years because our population has gone up, and gone up dramatically so that the ratio is touching the top end of the scale as it currently stands.

What Phil Hogan had to say today was utter, absolute and complete rubbish. If he wanted a referendum today he could have it. It was never contingent on the census figures. And it doesn’t amount to political reform in any case.

Whilst I don’t want to get into slagging a new government that has been left a great deal of mess on its plate this early into its new term, Whelan makes a crucial point here. The matter of political reform may not be as urgent as negotiations with Europe and the IMF, but it is critical.

Reducing democratic oversight by 30% (if the Seanad is abolished) is absolutely nuts in a country where a whole class of civil servants (the county manager) already treat locally elected councillors as though they were the management committee of a Youth Club or community centre (see Peter Geoghegan and I’s analysis on the RTE Elections blog here).

It’s further complicated by what’s about to come down the line from Europe (if the Eurozone is to be saved) which is likely to even further erode the country’s hard won sovereignty. Leaving aside the small scale of the country’s political gene pool, European legislation does not get the scrutiny it needs now, never mind when the next been ructions take place.

Even Labour’s TDs are up in arms. At risk of sounding a tad hippyish, Ireland’s political reform needs a serious and holistic approach. This kind of piecemeal populism only further undermines the opportunity for real and functional reform.

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  • John Ó Néill

    Word has it that it is actually the FG and Labour backbenchers who are up in arms over any change in Dail numbers since they’ve copped on that they will be the ones who will lose their seats. And since the coalition are intent on abolishing the Seanad, those backbenchers know that they won’t be going down the traditional route of being shoe-horned into a senate seat if they lose their Dail seat.

  • Mick Fealty

    Not surprised John. And I don’t doubt it for a moment. But it’s the dysfunctional approach to reform that worries me.

  • Henry94

    The problem with this post is that it equates democratic oversight with the quantity rather than the quality of representatives.

    Clearly the Dail as constituted fails to hold either the government or anyone else to account and the main reason for that is that TDs see their role as representing the interests of their constituents rather than producing or scrutinising legislation. The bubble came and went without any backbencer asking a question that suggested they had the slightest clue what was going on. Put it this way, would doubling the number of TDs have given us better oversight? Obviously not and reducing the numbers will not dilute it. It’s ability that counts and that is where we have a shortfall.

    The argument for cutting the numbers is that by making it harder to get in on mere constituency grunt work you get better people who have a handle on national as well as local issues.

    A small reduction will only make a small difference but the abolition of the Seanad is a progressive move. It will force defeated TDs to live in the real world rather than a political half-way house at the taxpayers expense. If they ever do return to the Dail they may have gained some worthwhile experience doing something else.

  • Henry94

    Discussions on reform can’t simply be about coming up with an ideal system which won’t happen because it is politically impossible. It is really about pressure. The governments efforts are a start and only that but they are the kind of start to expect.

    With the Seanad gone all the pressure for reform can be directed towards the Dail rather than trying to come up with ideas for a second chamber which would never have real power anyway.

  • Brian

    There are way too many TDs. If the US (for example) had the same number of representatives per their population they would have over 11,000 members in the House instead of 435.

  • SethS

    @Brian

    True, but you do need a certain number to provide you with enough to choose a government and have scope for not just giving every one a job.

  • DeclanFlynn

    Its stupidly dangerous to cut democratic institutions in order to cut costs. Why not cut salaries, expenses and perks instead?

  • pippakin

    It is the quality of debate and investigation that matters not the quantity of TDs.. I’m in favour of a two tier system, if done properly it increases scrutiny and accountability, but that can hardly be said to apply to our system. It also seems that the old maverick TD has gone. Oh one or two of them give the appearance of such but when push comes to shove the last thing they want to do is risk the status quo.

    I suppose I aught to mention the nasty habit so many of us have of treating our TDs like the local councillor. The two are not the same and it maybe that change should start at the root, more power to councils could be a better place to start.

  • DeclanFlynn

    @brian perhaps we could cut the numbers of oireachtas members but scrapping the Seanad completely instead of reforming is akin to scrapping your car because the tires are bald.

  • Mick Fealty

    Henry,

    In my defence (rather than Noel’s), there is a quantity problem. And I point to local government as a reason why it is right we should be very concerned.

    At which point, I’d like to say I agree there is also a quality problem. More than happy to hear what can be done to address that too.

  • Mick Fealty

    Like that Declan. You may find that line getting used again at some point!!

  • Henry94

    Mick

    My theory is that addressing the quantity problem does address the quality problem. If there were just 100 TDs then it would be much harder to get elected on local issues. You would have to have some kind of policy profile that had an appeal.

    A second point is that someone with a strong mandate based around policy is less likely to be happy with the whip system because they would want to make a contribution.

    Declan

    Its stupidly dangerous to cut democratic institutions in order to cut costs.

    They should have been cut anyway but no politician was interested when times were good. The recession is the opportunity.

    Why not cut salaries, expenses and perks instead?

    No reason you can’t do both. But I’d be happier to pay for 100 people who are capable than 166 Jackie Healy Rae types who can’t see the national picture.

  • John Ó Néill

    The irony is that FF, FG and to a lesser extent Labour, always treated the Seanad as a political sandpit and disregarded report after report into reform. The political failings were at Dail level and, in system terms, at local government level where national spatial strategies etc were continually frustrated by local decision-making that contradicted regional or national strategies.
    The solution, abolish the Seanad, is not the logical response to the problems, nor is reducing the number of TDs, if there is no real re-focussing of the work of local government, which would, in effect, break the power structures which the same parties enjoy at local level (in terms of influencing planning and other processes).

  • As I mentioned before, they should copy Chile and have a virtual senate.

  • The FG manifesto (page 62) states that Dáil committees will be strengthened. This may go some way to addressing the powerlessness of TDs. How we get rid of the idea of TDs as glorified councillors is a harder problem though.

    Constituencies being larger than counties in rural parts is part of the problem, as rising politicians are identified with their home county rather than the constituency as a whole – Carlow and Leitrim are particularly good examples of this phenomenon. It could also be argued that multi-member constituencies encourage TDs to carve out local strongholds within the larger constituency rather than going for broad appeal. The same could be said for MLAs, although their strongholds are more of a sectarian rather than a geographical nature.

    But I think the main problem is that Ireland doesn’t have a strong tradition of political oversight. In England, the need to check the power of the monarchy was the defining political issue for hundreds of years, and this memory has left its mark on the political culture (although it is better remembered in the US than in the UK). In Ireland the main political issue has long been religion. With partition and the dominance of FF (and for a long time also of Catholicism), Dublin seems to have forgotten the need for checks and balances.

  • Brian,

    It’s not reasonable to compare Ireland’s governance with the USA. For starters the USA Senate has real power and the individual States have their own State governments which are very powerful. I would recommend DeToqueville’s Democracy in America to understand their system. Although written over a hundred and fifty years ago it’s still relevant.