John Bruton: Majority government is the only show in town
Published 12/03/2016 | 02:30
The new Dáil is entering unknown territory. No party, or group of parties that is willing to coalesce, has a prospect of forming a majority government. In response to this, a case is being made for radically altered political practices in the Dáil.
Some envisage a loosening of the whip system. If this is confined to well-defined conscience issues, this would be good, but if it is to be extended to economic and social policy, implementation of coherent government policy would become exceptionally difficult.
If there is to be no government with a majority in the Dáil, this will require a moving of power away from the government itself towards shifting majorities of groups of deputies in the Dáil, who would decide for themselves, on a case-by-case basis, whether to pass, amend, or reject government legislation. The government could make pacts, with particular parties or groups, to pass individual pieces of legislation, but, if the whip system had also been relaxed, these pacts might not hold. Devising a legislative programme would be very difficult.
The loosening of the guillotine on debates has been suggested. The present rigid arrangements for speaking in the Dáil have removed spontaneity from ordinary Dáil proceedings, and have meant that what we have in the Dáil are not so much debates, as a series of scripted recitations of pre-set positions. So a change here would be welcome.
But some time limits have to be set, or legislation will never be passed.
Rather than remove the guillotine, it might be better to give the Ceann Comhairle some independent power to overrule the government and provide extra speaking time on a case-by-case basis for particular topics at his own initiative.
There is shadow boxing going on, but miscalculations can occur. Bluffs can be called. The result could be another election. That scenario needs to be carefully analysed. The parties would be faced in such an election with the same questions about who they would refuse to coalesce with. If they ruled out the same coalitions again, the election might resolve nothing, and if they did not do so, voters might ask why they had to have a second election at all.
Suppose, to avoid an election, we had a minority government. How long could a such a government survive?
The new EU-mandated rules for budget preparation allow some leeway.
The new government, if we have one, will be obliged to present proposals for the 2017 budget in October 2016.
When the 2016 budget proposals were presented in October 2015, I believe a defeat on one of the financial resolutions associated with the budget, would, at the time, have been treated as a confidence issue, requiring the resignation of the government. But this need not necessarily be the case this year because the actual budget for 2017 does not need to come into effect until January 1, 2017, almost three months after it will have been presented in October of this year.
The EU rules do, on the other hand, require that the budget be passed in final form by December.
Between October and December, the proposed budgets of each EU state are to be the subject of review by the EU authorities and by the other EU states. This is to ensure that the budget policies of all states are consistent and are not of a kind that might undermine the euro itself.
So, if other countries are to have a say on our budget between October and December, there is no reason why the parties in the Dáil might not propose changes, so long as these are consistent with the overall budget arithmetic and with the Stability and Growth Pact, which the Irish people approved by referendum.
The requirement on the opposition parties, if they object to a minority government's October draft budget measures, to put forward alternative cuts or revenue-raising proposals, could be challenging and uncomfortable for them. Thus, a minority government could be simultaneously negotiating its budget, with both the Dáil and its EU partners, over the two months from October to December. That gives welcome flexibility to a minority government and could educate the public about the choices to be made.
But, once December arrived, there would be no more time for haggling and transferring money from one place to another to satisfy opposition parties. In December, there will have to be an up-down vote on a final package. And if the government fails to win that vote, it would have to go.
The big problem with these imaginative scenarios is that we have no idea how they might work in practice.
Would opposition parties abandon the practice of a lifetime, and negotiate seriously with the government on alternative ways of cutting or taxing, to replace measures they have objected to?
Would the civil service be able to cost accurately the alternative proposals? This is not a trivial question. Unless one can rely on the figures, political agreement is impossible
Take the example of the health service, where it seems we are spending more to get less in return than most comparable EU countries. Although most government departments have been able to produce reliable estimates, this has not worked in health, where the cost of the service has been consistently underestimated. Would a government that had to negotiate every change it wished to make with an opposition which had no executive responsibility for anything, really be able to make coherent health reforms, that would give the people value for money?
In this scenario, the possibility of an early election would also have to be taken into account, and this would increase the risk of insincere or opportunistic negotiating tactics by both minority government and the majority opposition.
There is also the possibility of unforeseen events.
An increase in international interest rates - caused, for example, by the burning of sovereign bondholders in another jurisdiction - cannot be ruled out. A vote for Brexit in the UK, or a failure of economic reforms in France, could dent confidence in the euro. In such circumstances, a minority government could find itself in acute difficulty.
For all these reasons, every effort should be made by the parties in the Dáil to negotiate the formation of a government with a majority.
John Bruton is a former Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael