Sunday, 9 January 2011

Promising Political Reform

Political reform is high on the agenda in Irish politics these days. Labour now has a paper of 140 proposals (the Twitter approach, perhaps?) for "New Government, Better Government" (PDF). Generally, the papers proposals are fair enough - longer periods with the Dáil in session, greater opportunity for private members' Bills and amendments, greater transparency of executive decision-making (whether it was a minister or a delegated power to a level in his/her department)...

Some of the major changes have been highlighted in The Irish Times:

"-A 90-member convention to draft a new constitution within 12 months
-Abolition of the Seanad
-An Independent Electoral Commission [Note: several functions of this proposed body are currently split among government departments, local government, and independent bodies]
-50 per cent increase in Dáil sitting days
-System for citizens to petition Dáil
-New whistleblowers’ legislation
-An Independent Fiscal Advisory Council to undertake economic projections
-Restrictions on contributions to parties and politicians
-Spending limits on elections
-Ministers to be more accountable for decisions to parliament
-Comprehensive reform of the public service."

Labour would also call a Constitutional Convention to review the Constitution, and proposed changes would be put to referendum. The Convention would consist of 90 members - 30 politicians, 30 citizens drawn randomly as they are for juries, and 30 NGOs/academics. 30 citizens seems too small to me if they want to get a good cross-section of society, and what impact they would make would depend on how the Convention is structured - if debates are fragmented, it could be steered one way or another. I'm also not comfortable with NGOs being represented (or people being included because they are part of a certain NGO): surely Constitutional reform should be a matter of the common good, rather than being open to change by sectional interests? (It also raises the question of: which NGOs? The composition could affect the debate - how strongly, for example, should Catholic views [or religions in general] be represented, with voting rights in today's Ireland?) It would be preferable if NGOs could report to the Convention, but they would not have a vote.

Labour now support the abolition of the Seanad (the Senate). The upper house is elected by panels of outgoing Senators, incoming TDs and by local councillors, university seats, and by Taoiseach appointment (the appointments to ensure a strong government voice). Reofrm of the Seanad has been proposed many times, but has never got anywhere. Fine Gael first called for the abolition of the Seanad last year, and now Fianna Fáil and Labour have jumped on the bandwagon - so now the 3 big parties support Ireland becoming a unicameral state.

I'm not a supporter of abolishing the Seanad, despite it being in a desperate need for reform. There is a place for a legislative house that isn't purely directly elected, which can serve as a check on the whip-driven majoritarianism of the lower house, and which may have time for less party political or more expert debates (depending on how it is elected). Though that's not to say there aren't some good points to be made against having a second house, since there are dangers for duplication. It's good to see the report rejecting the idea of (partially) turning the Seanad into a specialised body for scrutinising EU law because EU law is a broad part of Irish law. This led to the report's best line - "There would be no more point in having a body dedicated to scrutinising EU laws than there would be in having one that specialised in laws passed on Wednesdays."

On relations between the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) and the EU, the report pretty much repeated a lot of what was in the Oireachtas report on the subject last year, though with a few tweaks. Still, it's good to know that Labour is promising to implement these measures.

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