The 32nd Dáil, in the six months since its inception, has faced massive criticism over the slow pace of legislative progress in the Upper House. While reports of a “New Politics” are just starting to take form, the media has been quick to predict that this Dáil won’t last to the one-year mark.
Taking the legislative process as the cornerstone issue, PAI invited some key critics and thinkers to a morning of discussion about what the Government has done, will do, or may not get a chance to rectify.
Chairman Andy Cullen started the morning by stressing that, no matter the pace of legislative progression, the issue that must be kept at the fore is the importance of maintaining a parliamentary system that is, above all, stable.
Regina Doherty TD, the Government’s Chief Whip, was PAI’s keynote speaker for the morning. She started by noting the big changes that the Houses of the Oireachtas have seen since the beginning of 2016 – the Dáil is younger, and women are represented more than ever. This, TD Doherty said, could in part be attributed to the fear many felt at the outset of the recession. As a result, we have a Government and a Parliament that is trying to keep abreast of societal change. An ideal parliament, she said, would be “adapting on a daily/weekly/monthly basis”. In this vein, since the appointment of the Government in March, parliamentary change has been favoured over legislative progression.
The 32nd Dáil has dedicated itself to developing a new way of conducting its business. A new system of pre-legislative scrutiny means that Bills will be well-informed, well-developed, and for the most part, well-liked by the Dáil as a whole.
The amount of time allocated for Leader’s Questions has been increased to three 4-hour slots a week, allowing many more questions to be presented, and addressed.
Committees can now be chaired by TDs from any party, either in Government or Opposition. The only exception is the Public Accounts Committee, which must be chaired by an Opposition representative.
Addressing the slow pace of legislation, she noted that the Government released their Legislative Programme last week, which planned for the passing of 25 Bills.
Ms Doherty said that cross-party reform has proved much less partisan in nature than previous Dáils, and more collaborative. She said there was a feeling within the Upper House that this is not a stoic system anymore; rather, now “we own it ourselves”.
She went on to say, “The whole system was wrong. Now, it may not be perfect, but it is right”.
Dr Eoin O’Malley and Regina Doherty TD
Ms Doherty was followed by DCU’s Dr Eoin O’Malley.
The value of a minority composition, according to Dr O’Malley, is that it goes to some way to taking the large swathe of power away from the Government. In our previous systems, Government dominated the parliamentary system. Now, there is opportunity abound for Opposition members, and backbenchers. This leads to much better legislation at an earlier stage – legislation that is informed and refined.
More issues are likely to come on to the agenda in this way. While many of these Bills will not pass, Dr O’Malley commented, they will be indicative of the public voice, and thus, can enlighten the Government as to what the citizens really care about.
He also said that increasing transparency does two things: it will break the caste set more than two centuries ago and change the political culture; it will also inspire faith in the Dáil by the “end user”.
Jennifer Carroll Mac Neill
Dr Jennifer Carroll Mac Neill – former Special Adviser to both the Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence and to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs – picked up on this point in her own presentation. She said that, historically, there has been a lack of trust about the legislative process. By subverting this narrative, “law will become current, relevant and accessible”.
Accessibility is one of the areas in which our own legislature falls down. This is even more apparent when our systems are compared with our European neighbours.
She highlighted a situation in which even our own High Court fell prey to the lack of adequate presentation for our Statute Book. We need, according to Dr Carroll Mac Neill, a central and regularly updated resources wherein all of Ireland’s legislation, amendments and statutory instruments are compiled. This would include making revisions to old Acts when they are referenced, amended or deleted by new legislation. Such systems are available in the Netherlands, Austria and the UK.
This would be an invaluable resource to anyone drafting Bills to bring to the Oireachtas.
Dr James Johnston of the Scottish Parliament gave the conference a short, informative speech, detailing the Scottish experience with minority governments. In contrast to the eight Bills passed by our own Government in its first Dáil session, the Scottish National Party (SNP) 2007 Government only passed seven Bills in the entirety of its two years in office.
The main thrust of his presentation was the idea that “politics is about relationships”. He raised some very interesting questions:
If we have a minority Government, does that mean we may have a stronger parliament at the cost of a weaker executive? If you work to closely with an ideological opponent, does it blur the political lines, and will you lose support?
The media, he noted, was little interested in a peaceful parliament. “They are not interested in parties working together. That doesn’t make headlines”. The real story, he noted, can be very far away from what the media report. Despite the slow pace of the Scottish SNP minority to pass legislation between 2007—2009, it was a time of political stability.
Tom Ferris, an economic consultant, spoke briefly about the value of Regulatory Impact Assessments (alternatively Regulatory Impact Analyses, or RIAs), especially in a time of Governmental change. The importance of evidence-based research cannot be understated in the development and improvement of legislation and services.
Ireland have, in theory, introduced RIAs. However, a 2010 OECD report found that there were “policy failures”, and that “RIAs [were] not being carried out as/when they should” be.
Since that time, we have improved some. Our central departments are compliant with RIA legislation, but outside of that, the application was “patchy”. This, according to Mr Ferris, was a vulnerability. RIAs can serve a “gatekeeper role” in ensuring that policy is applied correctly, and is having the desired effect on both civil servants and service users. He also commented on an article he wrote for PAI in Issue 1 of The Public Professional, in which he discusses the application of RIAs, and the reasonable shroud of secrecy about them.
The final speaker of the day was PAI’s Garrett Fennell, who examined the role of special interest groups under the minority Government. The Programme for Government, he noted, recognises the need for consultation on specialist matters, an idea that echoed one mentioned by Ms Doherty.
Mr Fennell went on to note the “Dáil athematic” of the delicate imbalance the Government must maintain. However, the Upper House is still “in the formative stage of a post-election environment”. The real work would begin this month, as the Dáil resumed.
The collaborative nature of the Dáil was acknowledged. Opposition Bills and amendments do actually pass, under the “New Politics” of the 32nd Dáil. Interest groups, then, will also have equal chance of progressing their own issues in the House. However, it is still a very challenging environment. Picking up on Ms Doherty’s comment that it was a “near miracle” that even those eight Bills were passed in the Dáil’s first session, Mr Fennell asked of the 25 planned Bills:
“Exactly how much time would be needed to advance all of those Bills?”
Only time will tell.
PAI’s Policy Conference Speakers. (L-R: Chairman Andy Cullen, Dr Eoin O’Malley, Regina Doherty TD, Tom Ferris, Dr James Johnston, Dr Jennifer Carroll Mac Neill, and Garrett Fennell)
The Question and Answer section of the morning picked up on a prevalent theme of the morning’s discussions – the ability for many voices to be heard in legislative debates. William Maher BL, directing his question at the Chief Whip, wondered whether this could lead to stalling or stalemate when it came to contentious issues. While the Chief Whip noted that this was possible, she commented that major “disagreement hasn’t happened yet”. The pre-legislative stage, plus the increased time for Leader’s Questions means that they can “smooth out any contention before it becomes a problem”.
On the whole, then, an emphasis was placed on the movement away from the “confrontational politics” of old, and a move towards a politics that was more collegial, with looser political lines, that would yield much better legislation, albeit somewhat slower.