Ronan Mullen: Reforms must start with our politicians remembering their job is to serve people
Published 25/03/2016 | 02:30
It will be unforgivable if our politicians backslide from their recent commitment to parliamentary reform as a prerequisite for allowing a new government to get going.
But the history isn't good.
In 2011, a triumphant new government proclaimed a 'democratic revolution' and promised a new way of doing business.
What followed was a mere pretence at political reform, the low point being the failed attempt to abolish the Seanad. The voter on that occasion smelled a rat.
The Seanad referendum was an insincere reforming posture at best - a power-grab by the political elite at worst.
Political reform is not just a matter of changing the rules of the parliamentary game to spice up the lives of TDs and Senators. Many of our social problems are connected with the poor functioning of our institutions.
While the economy has been put on a sounder footing lately, the social crisis has intensified with homelessness on the rise and a concentration of wealth into fewer hands.
Services are still creaking.
The unevenness of the economic recovery was a key factor in the downfall of the FG-Labour government and it is partly the result of a disconnect between the political elite and the people they are supposed to serve. They stopped listening to the message alerts from the constituencies. Communication needed to only be one-way. 'Keep the recovery going. Pass it on.' Rank-and-file politicians colluded. Keeping right by the governing elite seemed more important than insisting that the folks at home were hurting.
Many voters came to feel that they had no one to defend their values within the Houses of the Oireachtas. And not just on economic issues.
Whatever people's views on last year's marriage referendum, it's a problem that none of the political parties felt, or yet feel, any responsibility to the 38pc in their ranks who voted 'No'.
Where there's a failure to represent people's values, it fuels a spirit of alienation from our democracy. Not good.
Though the last government engaged in some political reform, the central problem, the concentration of power in the executive branch of the government, went unaddressed.
The abolition of town councils made things worse, taking power and accountability further away from local level and re-enforcing the centralising tendencies of the State.
As far as possible, power should devolve from the capital to local areas, not the other way around. We should imagine greater local responsibility for public services, with a proportion of taxes raised locally, and structures to ensure value for money.
Too many of our TDs are content to be local fixers and to follow every order from party headquarters on anything that's not local.
The PR STV electoral system is wonderful in many ways but it doesn't solve that. Some of our TDs could be elected by list. This would strike a better balance between attention to local concerns and responsibility for the bigger national picture.
And then there's the Seanad. What is the point of having a second chamber, which should in principle be able to delay controversial legislation, if the Taoiseach can pack it with party cronies or establishment hangers-on, and if the party whip dominates like in the Dáil?
Failing the adoption of a list system for some TDs, there should at least be a full national franchise for the Seanad using the list.
And it should be clearly understood that the Seanad is for free-thinking, where no whips would apply.
As for the party whip in the Dáil, it would be nonsense to claim that every single issue should be the subject of a free vote. Clearly party manifestos and budgetary matters should bind elected members.
But we need a system that allows TDs and Senators to signal deep personal convictions and to canvass and promote these actively. Conviction politicians should be seen as assets - not half-tolerated eccentrics, the butt of jokes in party headquarters.
Many of us are tempted, these days, to wonder at the some of the negative people who are beginning to succeed in politics - people who want only pleasure and never pain, who want to take but never to give, and who know well how to knock but neither know nor care how to build.
This trend can only continue for so long before we start making seriously bad decisions.
But these people are here for a reason. They are succeeding because, up to now, too many establishment politicians have shown no humility and scant respect for the people they are meant to serve.
They have not seen themselves as instruments of public decision-making. Parliamentary reform must be all about changing that.
Senator Rónán Mullen is running for re-election to the Seanad on the NUI Panel.