Reform must involve the rebalancing of power in a fundamental way

19 May 2016

Speaking in Dáil Éireann

I am glad to have an opportunity to speak in this debate.  The issue of reform has been talked about since I was first elected to this House nearly 30 years ago.  Like draining the River Shannon and restoring the Irish language, it is a permanent concept to which we all give allegiance and pay lip-service but seldom do we apply real action. 

In the previous Dáil, as the Government Whip indicated, we certainly had some improvements on the Dáil reform issue and a very remarkable suite of improvements on political reform.  We had a deepening, extension and fixing of many of the problems with the Freedom of Information Act.  We had the establishment of overarching whistleblowing legislation, the Protected Disclosures Act, which took much careful work to get right and to ensure it works in every area of not only the public service but private business.  

As we have seen in recent times, bringing about legislative change is often easier than bringing about cultural change whereby an awareness of a different way of working is required to be embedded and driven in every workplace.  We had the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015, a measure we had talked about for a long time and probably the most difficult of the suite of political reform measures we did because we have to protect the right of every citizen to lobby.  It is a fundamental part of the way we do our democracy.  Every citizen has the right to talk to every Member of the Oireachtas but we have to ensure that it is done in a public and overt way so that there is not covert lobbying influencing policy-making at the behest of the few.  We had the inquiries legislation, which strengthened, within the constitutional constraints, our capacity to hold public inquiries; the public appointments reform, where, for the first time, we have an independent system of appointment to State boards through the Public Appointments Service; and the strengthening of the role and functions of the Ombudsman, more than doubling the remit of the Ombudsman during the previous Dáil.  

Notwithstanding all of that, and I listened carefully to the Government Whip speak about some of the changes we made about the workings of this House, in truth, there has been little fundamental reform in the way that the Dáil works up to now. 

For some commentators, Dáil reform amounts to sitting longer hours or counting the number of days.  It is a “never mind the quality feel the width” approach to legislation, whereby the tick box for it is the more hours we clock up, as opposed to what we usefully do, where we do it or what the outcomes are.  Reform must involve the rebalancing of power in a fundamental way between the Executive and Parliament.  I used the word “rebalancing” deliberately because, first, we must know and accept the respective role of Government and Parliament.  Government proposes expenditure and it is constitutionally responsible for ensuring that overall expenditure and State revenues match.  It is in charge of the big picture.  Put simply, the Government presents to this House its detailed requirements for the financing of the public services.  It is for this House acting on the sole initiative of Ministers to authorise the relevant expenditure or supply and to provide, through taxes, the ways and means necessary to meet that supply voted or granted by the House.

The system, as the Government Whip, Deputy Regina Doherty, suggested, transposes from the British parliamentary tradition their workings and mechanisms.  The parliamentary tradition has been transposed across the common law world.  In our 1922 Free State Constitution, we set out the workings of Parliament but that was not the first to mirror the British system.  Australia, Canada and other common law countries with written constitutions had already captured the Westminster model in their systems of government and continue to do that to this day.  We began that process in the Government of Ireland Act 1920.  I say that because it is important that Government and Parliament are allowed to function within their respective rights in the people’s interest.  The gridlock or stalemate often found in the United States, for example, between President and Congress would not serve us well.  The report to the House signals significant and remarkable progress arrived at on a cross-party and cross-Member basis because everybody in the House, and people outside it, had inputs into our thought process in bringing about a thoughtful set of proposals which, if applied with care and reason, can bring about meaningful change in the public interest.

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