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Reforming politics - where we should begin

Michael D. Higgins*

Irish politics is in need of reform. On that there is general agreement. In response to the loss of trust visited on the public by individuals and institutions political and financial, an adequate response is both urgent and unavoidable. There is, however, a real danger that by concentrating on the wrong part of the task of reform, the entire effort may end up feeding a dangerous populism rather than achieving the changes that are necessary.

I believe we should not shirk from a fundamental reform of the legislative process. In doing that it is important not to begin in the wrong place. A concentration on reform of the electoral process without examining the role and function of those in Parliament, Cabinet, or the senior public service, would be a futile exercise.

Any serious examination of the process of making, changing, and implementing legislation in Ireland would have to acknowledge a serious case for reform of a general and fundamental kind. Unfortunately recent proposals for reform have been aimed almost exclusively at where the populist dividend is highest, making the prospects for real reform least promising.

I was recently invited to give evidence to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution and in the course of my submission I suggested that the task of reform should begin with the monopoly of the right to initiate legislation enjoyed by the Cabinet of the day. That monopoly is translated into a weakening of the committee system and has implications for the appearance of expert advisors to government at such committees. One cannot ignore the recent developments in the United Kingdom surrounding the dismissal of Professor Nutt, a senior advisor whose professional comments were deemed unacceptable to the government he advised.

While proposals for reviewing our electoral system have merit, the exclusive control exercised in relation to the right to initiate legislation is, to my mind, a real obstacle to participation by elected representatives in making law. This is where we should begin. As to political careers, unlike those systems where a person can concentrate on areas of interest or excellence and make a career of it, advancement is confined to membership of the Cabinet or the Front Bench. Thus the most impotent role is that of the government backbencher.

Were the monopoly of Cabinet in relation to legislation to be broken; were not just opposition spokespersons, but members of committees of the Oireachtas allowed to initiate, amend, or reject legislation; members of the Oireachtas could participate more meaningfully. In addition, those advocacy groups who attend committee meetings would have a real chance of influencing legislation where it counted. They in turn could put such meaningful advocacy to work in establishing a connection with citizens.

What we have at the moment is a weak committee system that does not work in terms of connecting either citizens or groups to the parliamentary process. Indeed any comparative study would show that where a strong committee system is resourced and respected, legislators may choose to build a career of service in a specific area, be it health, housing, planning or whatever. Others may move through a critical path of committees on their way to Cabinet or higher office.

A legislation producing committee system at arm’s length distance from the Cabinet of the day would be more likely to require that level of media attention which might motivate the attention of political reporters, political correspondents, political editors, and others. Thus, the public would have a committee system that worked and was being reported.

The concentration in recent discussion on the electoral system has produced a renewed assertion that our existing system produces clientelism. This analysis is somewhat dated.

When I wrote of clientelism in the 1970s and of its effect on intra party competition I realised that, while it did indeed continue to damage the state and erode the confidence of citizens, it was changing. The content of the favours involved was weakening. Later work would show that its influence was a response to bureaucracy, and its function was one of reputation maintenance and enhancement by the representatives involved. I was aware that the greater threat to the state would come from corruption and such networks of toxic influence in the surround of politics which have wrecked our financial system and imperilled our economy.

There was a shady intersection between the elected component of politics and speculative activity in the economy that was easily identifiable. It was a feature of Irish politics that everyone knew but chose to support, admire, or stay coyly silent about. It also had, at times, its accommodating blindness in the administration. It was the way things were done.

In those times, and indeed into the present, a statement from a political journalist that such corruption was or is a characteristic of a small group on the right of the political spectrum committed to extreme individualism in general, and individual greed in particular, and that such corruption did not usually occur on the left, is rare. The phrases ‘the politicians’ or ‘the political class’ is perceived as safer, even if they are morally and intellectually evasive.

The tribunals that were established in recent decades are dealing with corruption. Clientelism is fairly empty of transmittable benefit and, while enhancing political reputations on a real or mythical basis, it is sustained more by a stubborn refusal to strengthen citizenship, or address a dehumanising bureaucracy, than anything else.

Those who work within the state know full well what a price has been paid for a system that is hierarchical, patriarchal, authoritarian, inflexible, and, in relation to recent failures in regulation as to banking and the economy, unaccountable. Those who have to interface with this archaic and sometimes dysfunctional system turn to TDs as much for a sympathetic hearing as anything else. That is what happens in advice centres and in constituency offices.

Dr Garret FitzGerald, in a recent article in the Irish Times (2009), described the constituency office as ‘hard to justify’. He suggests TDs should get on with legislating. Most TDs however, under the system of legislative monopoly we have, are excluded from doing precisely that. Dr FitzGerald is silent on the consequences of the monopoly of the right of legislative initiation that excludes them. He leaves the monopoly intact.

I believe, further, that any political scientist serious about reform would also question the hegemony of the Department of Finance in relation to other departments of state. Such hegemony does not have a constitutional base. It is simply a relic of Westminster practice in very different times and a laboured mimicry of Treasury practice.

If, as an alternative, Cabinet allocated blocks of capital and current expenditure to significant areas, and make them accountable to committees with real power, one could see how an enhanced ability to respond to change could be achieved.

Surely it is important to address some of the crucial issues of governance, transparency and legislative efficiency, before one decides to say that one has too much representation, that representatives should be lessened, chosen in a different way or have their facilities for interaction with their constituents reduced or abolished.

We need reform. We need a discourse that can draw on our own and others’ genius for creativity. So far the debate has begun in the wrong place. The consequence may well be one of securing a place at the front of the righteously enraged crowd, whose trust has been squandered, but it may be at the cost of genuine legislative reform or deepened citizenship. That would be a dark future.

  1. FitzGerald, G. (2009), ‘Culture of political expenses a break with the past’, The Irish Times, 10 October.