Monday 23 October 2017

Red faces in the Dail after big loss in presidential age referendum

Both government and opposition should be ashamed of their failure to enact political reform, writes Colum Kenny

'When, on behalf of her government, Minister of State Ann Phelan TD (pictured) moved the presidential proposal in Dail Eireann, she seemed to acknowledge that there was no appetite among voters for it'
'When, on behalf of her government, Minister of State Ann Phelan TD (pictured) moved the presidential proposal in Dail Eireann, she seemed to acknowledge that there was no appetite among voters for it'
Colum Kenny

Colum Kenny

To lose one referendum about political reform may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness. To lose a third is downright inept.

If this is the best that deputies can do to reform the political process, then what does it say about their competence to run the country?

"Why are they doing it?" was one of the more common and politer observations heard on all sides in the run up to voting on the proposal to reduce the age at which citizens may become president.

And there was no answer. For reasons that the media in general did not care to interrogate, ministers who had proposed the referendum never campaigned for it. If there were divisions between Fine Gael and Labour on the issue, political correspondents did not bother to explore them.

Someone would be sacked in a private company if they botched a business plan like deputies botched the presidential age referendum, not to mention two earlier reform referenda that failed. But no ministers will lose their comfortable Cabinet seats, never mind their jobs in the Dail. They spend public money and time without consequence.

There is no sense of urgency about creating a streamlined and engaging Oireachtas. Rather than ensure new, young blood in the Oireachtas, its members opted to put a vague and insignificant proposal about the age of the presidency to the public. The proposal was treated with the contempt it deserved.

First, in 2011 deputies alarmed the public with a proposal to give Oireachtas inquiries greater power to interrogate witnesses and make findings.

Then in 2013 they tried to abolish the Seanad, in a way that got voters' backs up. People could have been presented at the same time with a third option, that of reforming the Seanad, but politicians who find people smart enough to elect them to the Dail thought that those same people were too stupid to choose between three or four options.

And now they have toyed with the presidency and been sent packing by the public. Why did they do it?

There are conspiracy theories, some of which are being spun by government supporters to cover their embarrassment. The spins include a suggestion that it was to get the young vote out, so that the Yes vote for gay marriage would be boosted, or that it was to absorb hostility towards the government so that people would not use the marriage vote as a means of expressing discontent.

If either spin were true it would indicate a very cynical attitude towards young people.

But it seems unlikely that any government would actually propose a referendum that it believed it would lose. It is more probable that deputies are so out of touch with the need for real reform that they thought that this would be enough to placate the public.

Government supporters are trying now to blame the Convention on the Constitution for the presidential referendum, but that does not wash as an excuse. The devil did not make them do it. The government chose this question rather than any other, and there were many other possible reforms.

They could have proposed votes for emigrants, a remarkable number of whom flew home last week at their own expense to have their say on marriage equality.

The Convention on the Constitution proposed various measures of political reform that the Oireachtas obviously found less palatable than pointing a finger at the presidency. Had government really been bound by recommendations of the Convention then we ought to have voted this week on having the Ceann Comhairle elected by secret ballot or having no constituency smaller than five seats.

The political parties have not grasped the kind of frustration that was widely evident in a shake of the head or a sigh of exasperation when one asked voters about the presidential proposal.

Now we are left with continuing empty promises of political reform and little else. The Dail is still a body with too many deputies, spending too few days doing serious business. Its members are cosseted with a regime of expenses and perks that few other working citizens enjoy. Its scandalous bars remain open. Its committees grandstand but achieve what?

The current Banking Inquiry is rehashing material that was already clarified in four earlier reports. It is still not asking where the billions went that the public has been forced to replace in bank vaults. Its findings will be of little practical value.

The role of the Opposition in political reform is quite unclear following the non-campaign on the presidential age referendum. Opposition deputies have a fairly basic job spec, summed up in a word. That word is "oppose". They look pretty lame for backing this failed proposal. Did they step up and fill the gap when the government ran away from canvassing? No.

When, on behalf of her government, Minister of State Ann Phelan TD moved the presidential proposal in Dail Eireann, she seemed to acknowledge that there was no appetite among voters for it.

She told deputies, "It is argued that there is no public demand for change. It is suggested that lowering the age threshold could weaken the Office of President as considerable experience is seen as desirable in making decisions about such matters as referral of a Bill to the Supreme Court or dissolution of the Dail. There is also the view that the older age brings a certain gravitas to the office that might be absent among young persons. International experience gives no real guide…" She said it.

We elect a government to govern, not to float minor changes in constitutional offices that are working perfectly well.

The government's failure to be more wholehearted about political reform is lamentable. So too has been the media's failure to interrogate it more robustly. Obsessed with a poll on gay marriage that excited its liberal taste buds, much of the media abstained on the second question. Most voters did not. They have sent a clear message of continuing dissatisfaction with the political establishment. It is time now for some real reforms.

Sunday Independent

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