To restore trust and confidence we need to change our electoral system


Noel Dempsey, former Minister of Environment, former Minister for Education & Science,, former Minister for Communications & Natural Ressources


We have come through a horrendous period in our history. There is no doubt that the crisis and suffering were caused by the failure of governance and for that the political system has to take the blame.  One would think that, after all the pain and suffering the crisis caused, those in charge, the politicians, would reform the system to avoid a repetition of the disaster. Sadly, apart from a lot of rhetoric about a “democratic revolution” and promises of reform made in election literature, little has really changed. For that reason we are destined to repeat the mistakes of the past some time in the future.

The irony is that the period from September 2008 to January 2014 represents probably the best example of how our system could work if our electoral system did not get in the way. In that horrendous period the political system actually worked as it should. Decisions were made purely in the national interest. Vested interests pursuing their own agendas were ignored. Long overdue reforms were put in place and we certainly ended up getting more for less from public services.

The major opposition parties criticised many, although not all, of the decisions at the time. The current Government came to power with promises to “burn the bondholders” and to have it ‘Labour’s way rather than Frankfurt’s way’ but quickly changed tack in government.

They too accepted the fact that they had to abandon their rhetoric and operate in the real world and in the national interest by giving effect to the four-year plan they had derided previously.

In fairness, they did seek and got significant concessions in relation to the promissory notes and the rate of interest because, unlike their Greek counterparts, they honoured the commitments made by the previous government and by themselves.

As a result of politicians doing their job and making decisions in the national interest during that period, we are now in a much better place than we might have been had they continued with “business as usual”. The sad thing is that it took a crisis to bring this about and it is even sadder that as soon as there were signs of the crisis receding and elections looming the politicians reverted to form.

The Irish Water debacle is a prime example of a Government that took its eye off the “national interest” ball and back to the short termism we normally see in Irish politics. It illustrates clearly why our political system has continually failed us over the years. We never anticipate the next crisis because the main focus of our political system and our political leaders is on “short termism”

  • We live in the moment to a dangerous extent.
  • We love the here and now rather than the longer term.
  • We focus on tactics to cope with the immediate rather than strategic planning to anticipate difficulties and potential crises.

As a result we are geared to the last crisis: never to anticipating the next one. We never seem to have enough time, space or motivation between crises to adapt our system to rapidly changing societal and, increasingly, global problems. As a result our political system is skewed to the local rather than the national and skewed towards the individual problem rather than system failures.

And, by the way, our political system moves lockstep with media on this. It is much easier to sell a newspaper if the story is of an evil individual who can be personally blamed for something – rather than if the story is about a system’s failure.

Our system means TD’s spend an inordinate amount of time representing the needs of individuals rather than scrutinising the actions of Government or their agencies and Regulators appointed to oversee our systems, financial and otherwise. The tyranny of the current system also reduces the time and opportunity that TD’s have to study, research and think about broader issues and leaves them open to unduly relying on vested interests and lobby groups for their information and research.

It is no wonder people have lost trust and confidence in the current political system which is not delivering what it should.  To restore that trust and confidence we need to change our electoral system to ensure politicians do the job they are elected and paid to do. We need to change it to make our TD’s more effective, more representative and more focused on their job. The new system must remove the tyranny of localism and clientelism while remaining representative.

Change will have to come from outside the status quo. In most countries, where significant electoral reform took place, the main impetus and drive came from outside the party political system, mainly from citizen movements or expert groups with a strong independent mandate. With our TD’s more focused on their real job, we could bridge the gulf that has arisen between the politicians and the people they represent because the system failures would get more detailed scrutiny from our elected representatives. Instead of looking after one constituent with a problem they could improve the system for all.

With at least half of the people elected chosen for their skills and expertise, we could have a much more effective committee system better able to take on the so called experts in charge of various services who simply forget they are there for the people.

A parliament made up of list system and directly elected TDs would ensure a balance between those enslaved by the clientelist culture we have and those committed to pursuing a broad strategic agenda for the betterment of all citizens. Those elected from a list would be freed from an endless round of meetings about various local issues to think and research issues and concerns from a national standpoint. The Dáil would benefit from having experts with the knowledge, expertise and experience to challenge the system and its failings.

Our members of parliament could therefore be freer to take well-reasoned positions on Government policies and activities. List elected deputies will be under less pressure electorally to adopt populist positions and thus bring greater balance to debate and decisions.

Our present system clearly failed us because parliamentary scrutiny was poor and powerless and government called the shots. In the new scenario, parliament could reassert its independence of government and begin to see their primary function as holding government to account.

Asserting their independence and their primary role as representatives of the people rather than lobby fodder will help reconnect those elected with their electors.

The first step they could take in asserting independence from Government would be to elect their own ceann comhairle. Committees and chairs should be selected by members on a proportionate basis by a powerful CPP not the Government parties.

Apart from the Committees “shadowing” Ministers and their Departments, we need to have at least one more powerful independent parliamentary committee. The Fiscal Advisory Council which is already established needs to be reconstituted and act as an instrument of parliament not a body nominated by the Government. Its terms of reference need to be broadened to give parliament access to the very best independent fiscal advice to enable it to scrutinise Government fiscal policy.

It should be based on the Canadian model where their Public Budget Office is appointed and financed by Parliament and is answerable to Parliament. It should have the same power and resources that the Dutch equivalent, the CPB has , which enables it to “vet” the manifestoes of political parties’ pre an election to ensure their policies are fiscally responsible.  It should also have the same independence and constitutional protection as the Comptroller and Auditor General or the Ombudsman. If this were to happen surely government would not be able to ignore its warnings with the ease with which they are currently ignoring advice from the existing Fiscal Advisory Committee.

Imagine, after all people have gone through, a warning from the Chair of the current FAC, appointed by government that: “The plan as set out for 2016 does not fully comply with the rules…..and as we look beyond that there isn’t a proper plan in place at all…..There are real questions about the credibility of projections for Government spending… without a strong budgetary framework we do risk a return to the kind of policies that led to mistakes that certainly contributed to the crisis” is largely ignored or dismissed by Government.

Have we learned nothing? It looks like we haven’t.

If citizens feel that they know what is going on in the system it will rebuild confidence. Ensuring information is more readily available to the public would help rebuild trust among the public.

Start with the parliamentary question system which is seriously outdated and ineffective. We need a system where the presumption is that all the information on file should be released once a question is asked.

It beggars belief that nearly a quarter of a century after the “You didn’t ask the right question” defence was uttered in relation to beef exports, it was used again in the very recent Siteserv controversy.

We need a Question system which is used to hold Ministers to account not waste time with local queries.

Have a real questions system where, once a Programme for Government is agreed, each Minister presents a programme of implementation to the relevant Committee complete with detailed key performance indicators. The Minister should then be called to account for progress on any or all of the Performance Indicators or commitments on a regular monthly basis.

Because of the distrust of politicians currently, there is a belief that there are “insiders” with all the knowledge and information and a whole series of “cosy cartels” in operation. In order to show this is not the case ministerial and top level civil servants’ official appointments should be published weekly post facto.

Similarly, all correspondence to Ministers and top civil servants which is non-personal should be listed and made public on a weekly basis.

These types of changes might convince those who feel alienated from the system that there is no great conspiracy. It might also pull the rug out from under those who try to ferment these beliefs for their own political gain. 

The question posed for this session is: “Are our public services contaminated by the political environment in which they must operate and their commitment and innovation limited by it?”

The answer to that question is “Yes”.

It is inevitable and unavoidable with our current electoral system that our public services are contaminated with the localism of our political system generally. Thousands of hours of civil service time is taken up answering PQ’s on local issues. Each Minister has dedicated constituency office staff to pursue local constituency queries, so has each TD. Tens of thousands of letters are sent to public service bodies each year raising local issues. Thousands of weeks of civil service time is used each year answering these letters and telephone calls. With so much time and resources used up on queries for individuals it is impossible to concentrate on the larger picture to ensure systems are working well for all our citizens. It also means that all the advice and recommendations made to Ministers will be tempered by the political reality of the local constituency.

A simple solution to overcome this is to devolve more power locally to a more accountable local government system. Get rid of the overly centralised system of Government we have. Peel away the layers and layers of bureaucracy trying to deal with local matters at a national level and let them be decided locally. This concentration on “local” when we have so many problems nationally is not good for the future of this country. Our parliament needs to recover its place as the centre of a national discussion on the medium to long-term future of this country in an open and non-partisan way.

I can see some merit in the current situation where the composition of the Dáil is more fragmented and diverse. It may result in a situation where there will have to be more engagement and discussion on issues of national importance. It may mean that decisions will take longer but that they will be much better for that.

It may mean that our system will move to a more continental model where Government has to listen to Parliament and its views before deciding major issues at national or EU level. Who knows it may even mean that we will have a real discussion on our electoral system and we might even change it.






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