Address to Vincent Browne

“Reform the Dail to fix democracy dysfunction” wrote Vincent Browne from on high in the Irish Times. The phrase “our politicians can be relied upon todo everything they can to make matters worse” sums up his irascibleprejudice. He claims that the Dail is currently irrelevant. Clearly that is hyperbole.

However, Browne hits the kernel of the real issue of ineffectiveness when he opines that the whip system and control by the government of the day makes the Dail almost irrelevant. He points out that nearly all legislation originates from the government and that amendments are at the discretion of the relevant minister.  How else can most legislation be introduced. He ignores the driving role of Brussels in our laws now.

Browne lists the recent major failures of the Dail with regard to holding the executive government to account – inflating the property bubble, narrowing the tax base, boosting a burgeoning economy inappropriately, and for failure of banking supervision. All true. There are lots of other misadventures to which Browne could have alluded including justice and
prisons, the secret nature of the HSE, the explosion in Quangos to avoid accountability and the reform of education.

Proposals for resolution by Browne include: – (1) A constitutional change to make it an offense to interfere with the vote of a member of the Dail on any matter – ie make whips illegal.

This is ridiculous as it would make the passage of a budget virtually impossible in the present context.

(2) A decisive majority of one third of members would force an enquiry into any matter and that all-papers and witnesses could be compelled by that minority. This would mean that administrative paralysis would be institutionalised. Browne refers to Denmark as a template. I know nothing of the Danish parliamentary system other than it must comply with EU membership

Both of these proposals are seriously flawed. I have already written here on this subject and have identified the whip system as the biggest obstacle to adult politics in this country. My proposal is that the whip system be applied to finance bills only. Cabinet appointments should go through a system of approvals in the Dail to establish the likely ability and qualifications of individuals to perform the duty of a line minister in any department. Many ministers are prisoners of the Civil Service because of the lack of knowledge or experience in the particular portfolio. However, if the electorate decide to elect a Dail of teachers, doctors and lawyers, experience would be at a premium and there would undoubtedly be square pegs in round holes.

Browne wants the duration of Dail terms to be limited to three years and re-election to be allowed once only. The purpose is to ensure that more people partake in the parliamentary process. I disagree with this. The Australians have three year terms.  I prefer longer terms because three years would mean a continuous election cycle and opportunism being the order
of the day. Six years maximum as a public representative? It is the choice of the people at present to elect who they want. Just look at the number of candidates in any constituency in the country. Browne has little respect for  the necessary learning curve of anyone elected to new responsibilities. The idea that more people would be directly involved is true but the number turning over in Leinster House under the current system is more than 25 each time so there is turnover. In a population of 2 million plus adults of voting age (guesstimate), admitting 166 new TDs on average every six years will not really extend participation in a meaningful way and is likely to drive good people away.

Direct democracy using referenda is common in some US states and in Switzerland. I think it is a good idea and should be adopted here. The primacy of parliament is a British idea and would be better refined and reformed here.

Browne claims that there is no possibility of adopting his suggestions. He is correct but not for the reason he gives which is “The atrophy of our existing system will see to that”. Our existing system is far from atrophic. There was a seismic shift in the last local government elections in 2009. This year, there is likely to be a huge turnover in Dail personnel.

If there is a very large Dail majority, the likelihood of organisational change is greater because the whip system will be less necessary and credible. More backbenchers will step out of line and the chances of change increases because re-election becomes less likely with the usual political see-saw. Many TDs will have nothing to lose and lots to gain.

Enda Kenny has made Seanad abolition or reform very likely in the next term. There is a need for more democracy and not less. The question for me is institutional role reform and the provision of a direct universal franchise in the Seanad. A Dail of around 100 members divided 60/40 will reduce potential expertise in parties and make for bad politics. Unelected advisors will be supreme. It is trite to point out where we are now but the overwhelming number of the population has been complicit in this mess.
Cassandra’s like Morgan Kelly or the OECD or the ESRI or David McWilliams are unwelcome until the merde hits the fan.

As for Vincent Browne, I would love to see him elected to the Seanad after standing for the Dail in Dalkey or south Dublin environs. He would learn a lot. There’s  ‘nowt’ so strange as people!