#SeanadRef: Unicameral reforms little more than a ‘fag packet visualisation’?

SeanadEireann-800So, back to the real world, sortta. Yesterday the Government launched its package of reforms to try to make a future unicameral Dail fit for purpose:

Extending Dáil sitting week and providing additional time for legislative debate
The Dáil will start earlier each day meeting at 12.30pm on Tuesday and 9.30am on Wednesday and Thursday.

Friday sittings will take place every second week and be extended to include a 2 hour debate on a Private Member’s Bill and a 2 hour discussion of a Committee Report.

More structured system for the drafting and enactment of legislation and reduced use of guillotine.

Meaningful role in law making for citizens and civic society groups.

Oireachtas Committees will be able to consult with civil society groups, advocacy groups and individuals with expertise in a specific area at Pre-Legislative Stage to develop legislation before bills are drafted.

Pre-Legislative Stage will be a requirement for all Bills. Where a Minister does not bring a Bill to Committee for Pre-Legislative Stage, they will be required to outline to both the Cabinet and the Dáil the reasons for this decision.

Extended involvement of Oireachtas Committees in the Budget process.

Slugger understands that the introduction of a d’Hondt system for picking committee chairs was under consideration, but that does appear to have made the cut. The best comment I’ve seen on it so far comes from Eoin O’Malley, who is actually in favour of getting rid of the Seanad:

Well, quite.

None of these fag packet reforms begin to touch the complaints from the No side that in ditching the little amount of independent scrutiny in the upper house, there is no plan to replace it in the Dail.

That may be because no one in power ever wants to willingly give it away.  Or it’s a simple demonstration of how little priority the government can give to an issue that is also low on the Irish voter’s list of important priorities.

They certain do not measure to the scale of the proposal to cut one whole house of the Oireachtas out of the Constitution, as elite and out of touch as it may be.

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  • Brian Walker

    Not quite fag packet reforms but not much better either. They follow reforms introduced in the Commons some years ago, which made little difference. Pre legislative scrutiny is only effective if there is time to do it. The Dail appears to use the guillotine more than the Commons where it use has been expanding too but not I think so extensively. Reforms last year introduced a backbench business committee. The topics are supposed to be based on e-petitions sent in by the public. Again they have had a disappointing impact. Government need not pay any attention to them.
    Back bench Friday debates for about half the session are long established,

    The most significant growth of Commons power has been in rather more effective select committees. Committee chairs are now elected by the House and not nominated by the government. This has increased their independence and the willingness of their committees to speak out.

    None of this has detracted from the increased effectiveness of the Lords as a revising chamber now that no party has a majority there and cross benchers ( non party members) hold the balance. I haven’t really followed the Irish reform debate but from the little I know I’m surprised that there had not been more cross referencing to Westminster experience from which of course the Dail is largely derived.
    The idea of abolishing the Seanad is appalling. It could easily be made a more effective non elected revising chamber without threatening Dail prerogatives. As far as I can see, the Dail reforms themselves will do little to make it more powerful or effective. Any brief examinations of Commons changes would have told them that in advance. The Hansard Society gives good objective critiques. It recently published At Home in the new House? A study of new members in Ireland by Dr Mary C Murphy of UCC. There are says the report, striking similarities with the experience of new MPs


    I don’t myself think its realistic for any parliamentary system to cede the initiative to the legislature but Ireland could do better than this to reduce the clientelism and corruption that has so bedevilled in in recent decades and over which the judiciary has also been alarmingly ineffective.

  • Mick Fealty

    The problem originates in opposition, rather than in this government (which in aggregate is quite a decent one). The Taoiseach dumped this on his party who were prepping fragmentary critiques and attack lines on the then Coalition.

    As result, they have the cart before the horse.

    Unicameral systems do work. But they work in places where there is already a strong plurality at play between central and local government. Ireland has never ceded the central power that Dublin (Castle) once held over the rest of the country. There was no golden age when local power was substantially distributed to the County Councils.

    What it did in 1977 (after a similar race to the bottom between FF, FG and Labour) was chop its poorly fiscal limbs off by abolishing the domestic rate. The current government can rightly say they are restoring that in the teeth of unpopularity and some populism between FF and SF. But the councils will still not be fit to take on the bigger stuff that the local TDs get pranged for.

    There is a case for some reform. Michael Gallagher says (http://goo.gl/NpCy5q) caution should be employed, since the little good the Seanad currently does could be endangered by actually giving it significantly more powers.

    It seems to me the greatest single case for reform is the area of franchise. Not just to make it more representative of wider society, but to find some way to prevent it just a mirroring the foibles and shortcomings of the Dail, ie those who find it most easy to get elected under the STV PR system.

    The Lords is a mishmash, which has no real democratic legitimacy, and yet it does work surprisingly well as a checking mechanism on the legislative process. It’s committee reporting produces some very high level stuff (though I cannot speak to how broadly they are read, or what practical effects they have).

    I also think there’s a bigger question hanging over all of this. What (if anything) can be done to help prevent the kind of inwardly bound groupthink that led both government and opposition down the same low rate, narrow based tax regime at a time when the government was borrowing way beyond its means to keep with the long Tiger boom.

  • Charles_Gould

    Is the STV multi-member seat nature of things responsible for the pork barrel politics in the south?

  • Charles_Gould

    There is a strong case to be made that the economic failure of the south was a consequence of political failure – a lack of accountability of all the powerful forces not just the executive but the whole regulatory and banking system.

    An electoral system that gives TDs who are more interested in potholes in their constituency than loopholes in the regulatory architecture.

  • Brian Walker

    I’m not sure extending the franchise would have much impact if voters feel there’s not much to vote for. Admittedly it might be chicken and egg if franchise reform had new politics behind it. I suspect though that practical incremental parliamentary reform that governments can finally accept would mean more over time, It also should be borne in mind the reforms promoted mainly by government will not go far enough. Reform needs real backbench drive and initiative which government feels unable to reject because of its quality and the support it wins.

    More now on how Westminster exerts influence over government.

    My colleague Meg Russell a leading analyst of Westminster has written following the government’s defeat on the Syrian votes.

    “The real power of parliament is primarily exercised behind-the-scenes, through ministers considering what MPs are prepared to accept, and only putting proposals that they know will achieve support. When it comes to legislation, which is the topic of one of our current projects, a huge amount of effort in Whitehall goes into developing parliamentary ‘handling strategies’ to think through what will prove controversial in both the Commons and the Lords. This is very explicit in the Cabinet Office’s own guide to making legislation which also states that if ‘the Government expects to be defeated on a non-government amendment, it may wish to pre-empt a defeat by tabling a concessionary amendment’ – in other words to avoid a defeat by changing its policy before the vote. It is through these subtle and private mechanisms of communication that parliament’s primary power is felt.”

    An elected Lords is a principled position which is unlikely to happen because the Commons will not tolerate a rival . But this has not topped the Lords, half reformed by the removal of most hereditaries form becoming much more effective , due to the absence of a government majority and the quality of active peers.. This could easily read across apply to a revamped Seanad.

    The strength of the Lords lies in persuading government to think again more and more frequently partly as a result of poor drafting and poor scrutiny but also because less whipped opinion there is going with the zeigeist. The Lords in other words is often a better bellwether of opinion than the more tightly whipped Commons

    On this Meg writes.

    “Because the government has no majority in the Lords, and peers now feel more confident and legitimate, they are both more willing and able to challenge government policy. The Blair and Brown governments suffered more than 450 defeats in the Lords 1999-2010, and David Cameron’s coalition has already suffered 75. Although most Lords defeats can in principle be overturned when bills return to the Commons, in practice they often are not….
    Overseas experience likewise teaches us that second chambers are very difficult to reform. But those who want to see a better – and maybe stronger – parliament should not despair. Seemingly small and incomplete steps can make a big difference.”

    For more see the Constitution Unit blog


    And Meg Russell’s new book The Contemporary House of Lords


    There are lessons here that can apply both Houses of the Oireachtas

  • David Crookes

    Many thanks, Mick and Brian. Truly informative journalism.

    I groan when I read that a Dail which has no room for the Seanad will make more room for civic society groups and advocacy groups. You know what that means. The usual suspects. Well-organized one-interest lobbies with strong supporters in the media.

    While the proposal to abolish the Seanad is altogether appalling in its own right, it may be seen by historians as palpably partitionist.

  • Brian Walker

    Next morning.. Actually before I started chattering I should have thought through the main points of comparison and contrast between Westminster and Leinster House and how they might be applied . Apologies. Reading is not compulsory. So belatedly ….

    Coalitions are now a fixture of Irish governments rather than alternating FF majority governments with occasional coalitions.

    Coalitions by their nature require a strong centre to hold together. More control by the executive tends to mean that the coalition leaderships become distanced from their back benches.

    Under pressure, interparty tensions develop and legislators rebel, giving parliament a chance to increase its power. This is happening at Westminster to an extent – Conservatives over a pledge to hold Europe in or out referendum if re-elected, the Syrian votes – but over lesser issues and regularly too. Select Committees are becoming sharper scrutineers of the complexity of government, particularly as mistakes proliferate under the strains of austerity.

    The UK has devolved to S,W and NI and is struggling with “localism” in England – i.e. more power to councils but this will be limited for as long as only a small proportion of revenue is raise locally, Greater taxation powers to Scotland within the UK are on the way.

    Translating all this to Dublin? My knowledge is very limited but let’s try reading across. Europe is a big difference.

    Will the property tax devolve real power to councils and reduce Dail-centred clientelism ? Will there be a party realignment with SF/FF in there somewhere? What is the legacy of the Crash? The Fintan O’Tooles of this world are magnificent critics but had the bailout basically not happened as it did, the entire economy could have collapsed more dramatically than the Greeks’.
    How far does Ireland wish to go towards European political and economic integration? How big a say has she got while remaining in the euro? Would Ireland benefit from the repatriation of some powers from Brussels?

    Ireland was fortunate to make cuts from a much higher base than in pre-Tiger days although the shock to its new self confidence was massive after years of such unprecedented growth. Experience elsewhere suggests that no political system however responsive would have anticipated the crash. The financial system far outgrew the capacity of the European much less the Irish national system even to monitor it. Ireland is hardly an exception there.

    Despite the decimation of Fianna Fail, society and the political system has withstood austerity without further crisis or threat of disintegration, after making all the qualifications necessary about unemployment and emigration etc. Indeed the danger now is that the elites will become complacent. Even party realignment looks unlikely although multiparty coalitions are possible.

    The reform debate strikes me as halfhearted and tokenist without clear objectives. What are the problems it is trying to solve? Remember that political reform is a minority preoccupation unless you’re facing a Weimar-type crisis. Clear objectives for a more responsive Oireachtas should be set before dashing into a supposed solution such as scrapping the Seanad and shoving them before the people in a referendum. This knee jerk move is exactly what is wrong with the process.