REAL REFORM MUST REDUCE GOVERNMENT CONTROL

REAL REFORM MUST REDUCE GOVERNMENT CONTROL

Micheál Martin TD, Leader of Fianna Fáil 

 

Since the start of the current crisis the MacGill School has repeatedly addressed the issue of reforming our republic.  Eminent speakers from many sections of society have made contributions.

The outcome each year has been a consensus that the basic structure of Irish politics is broken – that it makes crises more likely and that it requires a deep reform.  I agree with this view.  Both here and elsewhere I have talked at length about past failures.  I have addressed failings of governments I belonged to – as well as the fact that every pressure within the political system was actually to push for policies which would have made matters even worse.

Today, in the fifth year of this crisis, nothing of substance has changed.

If you take the list of claimed achievements on reform which the Taoiseach read out here at the MacGill School you will find not one single significant change to how Ireland is governed.  A different status for ministerial drivers, a tiny reduction in the number of TDs to take effect in 2016, the abolition of a level of local government which has almost no powers and the introduction of a new Dáil sitting day where no votes are allowed and no legislation has emerged certainly amount to change – but to present this as transformative reform is transparently ridiculous.

Reading the Taoiseach’s speech, it is impossible to miss the gap between his claims and the views of the public.  At the heart of government in a democratic republic should be public trust in government.  The Taoiseach’s claim to have restored this trust is simply untrue.

Last week the European Commission published survey results showing that 77% of Irish people do not trust their government.  Three years ago, in the white heat of the crisis, the figure was 75%.  What is important to know is that this low level of trust in this government has nothing to do with taking tough budgetary decisions.  Trust improved significantly immediately after the general election but collapsed quickly and well before the Budget of 2011.  This was a government elected with an unprecedented majority and on the promise of radical action.  It also carried with it the goodwill of the whole country.  I have no doubt those high levels of public dissatisfaction and distrust – which incidentally are rarely mentioned in the media – link directly to the failure to show any interest in real reform.

In October there will be a referendum on making over 40 changes to the political provisions of Bunreacht na hÉireann.  It marks the defining moment of whether or not there will be any political reform in Ireland.  Never before has a government produced an amendment which involves so much change and so little reform.  The government’s proposal ignores every lesson of the recent crisis.   Rather than opening up politics, introducing new checks and balances within the system and delivering a more effective parliament, the government has chosen to double-down on the current failed model of governance.  The amendment will increase the power of government, halve parliamentary review of legislation and make a flawed system much worse.

Earlier today this Summer School gave time to discussing aspects of the governing systems in other countries, particularly in Scandinavia.  This is a very good thing to do, because it reinforces just how much of an outlier the Irish system is.   No other country has one chamber of parliament combined with a non-executive president, weak local government and total control by government of the agenda of parliament.

In unicameral Finland, for example, there are 200 members of parliament and the constitution gives them powers beyond anything held by TDs.   Key parliamentary committees have constitutional status and have built a long record of acting independently.  Their constitution also gives members of parliament specific rights to get information from any government agency and it requires ministers to attend for rigorous questioning when this is demanded by 10% of MPs.  It would not be possible for a Finnish minister to refuse to answer specific questions about the abuse of information given to him by the head of the police.

Many Finnish parliamentary rules cannot be changed without a broad consensus.  In addition they have strong local government which controls major areas of public spending and revenue raising.  The evidence from countries with proven models of good governance is that government should have less control, not more as is now happening here.

In this Dáil we have faced an executive exerting ever tighter control over everything we do.  We have faced ministers who believe they don’t have to answer even basic questions about their conduct.  We have faced a determined policy to shout down opponents and shut down debate.  We have met for longer but have been allowed to decide less.  The Dáil today is more marginalised and has less influence on public affairs than at any time in its 94-year history.   The situation is so bad that even the Government Chief Whip and the Chairperson of the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party have described the record of ministers as “deplorable”.

Here on Sunday, the Taoiseach again claimed that he will reform the Dáil and make his government more accountable if October’s referendum is passed.  The programme of promised reforms is so thin as to be transparent.   In all, the sum total of the ‘reform’ which is to follow concentrating all power in the government-dominated Dáil is that we might have a bit more consultation and we might be allowed to influence the agenda of a few committees. The reality of how little this means was summed up unwittingly by the Taoiseach recently when I sought reform of Taoiseach’s Questions.   He replied, on the record of the Dáil, “We will have a chat about the matter before we make it a fait accompli.”

Fundamentally October’s referendum is less about the Seanad and more about whether or not there will be any genuine reform of Irish political structures.  The people will face a choice; vote Yes and the government will hang up its ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner – or vote No and demand real reform.  I and my party are determined to move the debate on reform on to measures which address the clear failing of the political system in a comprehensive and genuinely radical way.  We accept much of the analysis of the failings of our system of government that have been aired here in the last three days.

That is why this week we are circulating a detailed policy discussion document which contains our analysis of what is wrong with the system and how it can be fixed.   Backing this up are proposals for 70 specific changes to the working of the Oireachtas and the government.  Many of these could be implemented immediately; others would require legislation and a few would involve constitutional change.

This evening doesn’t provide enough time to go into the proposals in detail.   In summary, we believe that Ireland’s current balance of powers within the political system is deeply flawed and is at the root of many of the failures of the system in the last decade.  It needs more expertise and more checks and balances.  We have outlined reforms to address this in four major headings:

First of all, the Oireachtas needs to be freed from the absolute control which government currently has on its work.   Few parts of the Constitution are ignored as much as Article 28.4.1 which states that “The government shall be responsible to Dáil Éireann”.

In practice, the Taoiseach and his ministers exert near total control over the Dáil.   Only part of this is because of the whip system.  Much more important are a series of rules which directly make parliament subservient to the government:

  • There is a constitutional ban preventing any non-member of government even getting a vote on a proposal which involves spending money.
  • The Dáil’s order of business can only be set or altered on the proposal of government.
  • A Deputy may only ask a question about ordering business once business has already been ordered.
  • No private member’s bill can even be brought to a final vote without government approval.
  • Government has the power to disregard standard time and consultation rules for considering legislation.
  • Ministers make up nearly 1/5th of the Dáil membership.

Our proposals would:

  • increase the independent review of policy, reduce government control of the agenda;
  • ensure that all proposals receive proper review before being enacted;
  • create a powerful and independent Ceann Comháirle; and
  • make committees more independent and expert.

One element of this is to end the domination by government of nearly all information relating to public policies, including basic evaluations of proposals.  This can be done through establishing an Oireachtas Office of Policy and Economic Oversight along the lines of the Congressional Budget Office.   Staffed by independent experts, the first stage of considering any proposal before the Oireachtas would be an independent evaluation of its costs, impact and policy justification.

In addition, we are proposing a procedure called ‘regular order’ which would set out minimum time and information requirements which all measures would be subject to before they could be passed by the Oireachtas.  This could only be amended in a genuine emergency or with cross-party agreement.  It is modelled on the practice followed in many European countries.

Next, we believe that the work of ministers and government must be reformed.  We propose changes to how ministers are appointed, how their work programme is set and how cabinet itself operates.

A key part of this is to open up ministerial office beyond professional politicians.  Countries with more successful records than ours have no difficulty making ministers fully accountable when they are not members of parliament and we could too.  While changing rules for cabinet ministers requires changing the constitution, which we support, allowing experts to become ministers of state would only require legislation.

We have a modern economy operating in a complex international system.   Limiting the range of expertise which can be brought to government at ministerial level makes no sense.  We should, for example, have a minister of state solely targeted at building trade with Asia and the best person to do this job may not be a politician.

In reforming the work of ministers and government, we are also proposing to end the practice where ministers are appointed without outlining their priorities or receiving individual scrutiny.  The situation where ministers are announced and voted on within hours is absurd.  Our proposal is that at least two days elapse between the nomination of a minister by the Taoiseach and a Dáil vote, with the nominated person obliged to speak during the debate and to address their intentions in the role.

In addition, every new minister would be obliged to present a work programme to a Committee within four weeks of appointment with the Dáil having the opportunity to vote again on the person’s appointment if it is unsatisfied with the proposed programme. Politics and personality are too central to the business of nominating ministers and it’s about time that policy and expertise were included in the process.

Next, we need to reform the daily work of the Oireachtas to make it more effective.  The issue isn’t how much time we spend in Leinster House but the quality of our work when we’re there.  We have set out a lengthy series of specific changes to deliver a parliament which is expert and independent in its work.

Finally we have set out reforms to electoral procedures.  Amongst other things, these would make the administration of elections more independent and would tackle the widespread abuse of funding regulations by independent groups in referenda.

The government’s model of reform is to make minor changes but accelerate the drift of all real power into the hands of the Taoiseach and which ever ministers are allowed into the discussion.  If this continues, Ireland will be unique in the developed world for the amount of power it concentrates in the hands of ministers.  Most of all, it will spell the end of any realistic hope that Irish politics will be reformed.

Since 1937, our economy and society have changed in many profound ways.  Our people have a dramatically higher level of access to education, they work in industries which have only existed for a short period and they live in different communities.  The Irish people and their country have changed but their political system has not.

There is no doubt that the basic political structures of this republic contributed to the crisis.  A parliament which spent more time debating greyhound doping than financial regulation in the years before a financial meltdown is flawed in a systemic way. If we do not implement genuine systemic reform then, no matter how soaring the self-congratulatory rhetoric of the Taoiseach and his ministers, we will not have learned the lessons of the crisis.

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