In a recent* post our host has made the not unreasonable point that those who were elected to the Oireachtas in 2011 make a poor job of publicly holding the executive to account. To deny this would be quite incredulous so I won’t. Truth is that members of the Oireachtas have quite limited powers to hold the executive to account and even those limited powers they do have they rarely make any effective use of. The question is why is this?
While the portrayal in US media of their national politics might erroneously give one to believe that a dog catcher can’t buy a new net or hat without democratic oversight and approval by a Congressional committee; in Ireland little that the executive chooses to do actually requires any input from the Oireachtas. Ministers can act almost by edict provided they have the support of a majority of their cabinet colleagues. Take the provisions of the Croke Park agreement, there hasn’t actually been a vote on the Croke park agreement in the lifetime of the current government so the opportunity doesn’t arise for TDs to either prevent or modify it. *
Hence I would hold that the unfavourably comparison of their unwillingness to stand over their voting record to legislators in the United States is inappropriate. The comparison misses a key factor, that being the explicit separation in the US system between the executive and the legislature. In our system the executive is formed directly from those elected to the legislature. The Dáil elects the Taoiseach and in turn that individual picks the cabinet. While I and many others may think that the system could suffer some significant revision perhaps even involving separate elections of the legislature and the executive or the person selecting it, this is the system that current Oireachtas members have to work in.
We should keep in mind that incredibly gerrymandered electoral districts for the House of Representatives actually serve to increase the level of pandering of special interests and pork barrel politics. While it is not uncommon for certain state agencies to appear to look more favourably on applications from the constituency of the relevant minister it is much rarer that significant sums of public money are deployed at the direct behest of the Oireachtas.
As for the oft criticised whip system, whips exist because all political parties are coalitions of individuals who share the majority (say 70/80%) of political opinions with roughly the same percentage of their party colleagues. These coalitions are rather looser than most would imagine. Yet the remaining areas where people differ aren’t the same across the party. So Eoghan Murphy might share 70% of his positions with Simon Harris and Simon share 70% with Leo Varadkar but that doesn’t mean that Eoghan and Leo share the same 70%. How else could you explain Willie O’Dea and Charlie McCreevy being in the same party for all those years? The pact that the whip system enforces is that all members vote the 70% that they all agree with even if this means voting for 15% of stuff that they don’t believe in their heart in order to get others to vote for the 15% of party policy that they don’t believe dearly believe in but which you do.
Is this a compromise, yes, but it’s a practical mechanism to get things done and it works for the most part. The reason most independents are sole operators is that they can’t agree with anyone else long enough to get anything done on a policy level.
We are prone to forget with our media re-enactments of parliamentary debates of yesteryear whether Wilberforce on slavery or grand set pieces such as moves to war that though the debates were on the record they weren’t being publicly scrutinised in real time. The House of Commons, that mother of parliaments was long a lobby chamber writ large, with side conversations and deal making all over the place. What do you think the alcoves are for, eating your sandwiches? What is a backbencher in truth but a paid lobbyist on behalf of his electorate and party?
Yet I would still love to see party backbenchers in Fine Gael develop in detail the party’s own views on policy. The Labour Minister for Education has his own well formed views about primary school patronage, that the institutional church has too much control with too little mandate but what operational form should replace it: schools under the patronage of the local authority, the VEC or some stand alone PTA arrangement? FG representatives should be able to develop and give voice to their views and those of the party on such a topic. Beyond that we might think of borrowing from the US the notion of cross party caucuses on specific policy areas. Let members of different parties who share common approaches or objectives discuss publicly how those might in the long term be realised.
I will admit to being largely underwhelmed by the depth and execution of the government’s reformist agenda to date though I’d prepared to deliver final judgement after a full Dáil term. For the moment they are on a failing grade and the chances of serious reform may well be lost as the electoral timetable starts to reassert itself next year with the countdown to the local and European elections in 2014.
For all that concern, I’d not be surprised if the government goes tactical giving the people the chance to give the political system a good kicking in time for the 2014 elections, with referendums on abolishing the Seanad and increasing the upper population limit for TDs from 30,000 to 40,000.
Yet these changes aren’t a matter for the members of the legislature alone. The solution to the core the problem with Irish politics is not in the gift of Irish politicians; it remains in the gift of the electorate. So long as we value locality and longevity over originality and expertise, so shall we have Oireachtas members who ask questions but who have few answers.