Friday 15 November 2019

John Crown: Enda's petty referendum is no match for real reform

Our Government now seems to value thoughtless loyalty over expertise and talent

John Crown

If it was not already blindingly obvious that our republic urgently needs fundamental reform of its system of political governance, then the events of the last few weeks constitute a book of evidence to which no credible defence could be constructed. We have seen the systematic undermining of the principle of accountability in government, the subjugation of conscience to value-less party expediency, and the relentless purging of relevant expertise and talent from the very parliamentary committees where it is needed most.

Some examples are blatant such as the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Bill. Much has been said about the lock-step application of the party whip (party revolver would be a more accurate term – the punishment for dissent is political execution, not chastisement), but there has been far less scrutiny of the farcically negligible impact that the double dose of Oireachtas Health Committee hearings had on the bill itself.

During the equivalent of eight working days, more than 60 medical, legal and constitutional experts presented to, and were interrogated by the parliamentarians who would be charged with the task of amending and approving the bill. While the hearings, ably chaired by TD Jerry Buttimer, provided a useful public debate on a fraught issue, it soon became obvious that they were all about optics. While they fostered the illusion of collegiality, they were, from a legislative point of view, irrelevant. The bill that was constructed by the Department of Health emerged through this process virtually unchanged.

Tellingly, the by-now highly informed parliamentarians were prevented from having any legislative input into the bill. Substantial amendments were all rejected. Other potentially important amendments were never even heard, let alone debated or voted on. They were guillotined by the same Government that had declared itself so anxious to encourage maximum consultation.

For example, I was really worried that the 14-year jail sentences in the bill as offered would have the effect of preventing young girls or women who had procured an illegal abortion from presenting themselves to a doctor or hospital if they were suffering life-threatening consequences.

Similarly, I worried about issues of doctor-patient confidentiality in this setting. My amendments fell to an

arbitrary guillotine and were not heard.

It was recently reported to us that civil servants had warned their minister not to let the parliamentarians mess around with "their" bill.

Freedom of thought and freedom of expression only matter when we accept that people who disagree with us have the right to have their opinions voiced. Does the Government want to hear these voices?

A little light was shone on the attitude of government ministers to parliamentary opinion in a recent Seanad debate when a government minister repeatedly ignored, then interrupted senate speakers, at one stage telling us we were only talking to ourselves.

It was a bizarre and unprofessional outburst. The debate had gone on for many hours, and I understand that the minister had grown impatient, but it struck me that his attitude was symptomatic of greater malaise in Government. Interestingly, there was more comment on an off-hand personal remark he made to me, which caused more mirth than hurt.

I have commented before in these pages on the outrageous removal of badly needed expertise from parliamentary committees, simply to assert the dominance of the whip. The expulsion of banking expert/accountant/ financial consultant Peter Mathews from the finance committee of a country that had been brought low by lack of financial expertise in government says something about our mad party system.

The travesty that is our whip system feeds into a more general problem, a culture of thoughtlessness, which allows predetermined tribal positions to supplant analysis. If you agree that Mr Kenny should be Taoiseach, then you must also agree with him on abortion and respite care cuts.

There is another spin-off effect. You don't need particularly talented politicians if the only skill they need is to follow directions about which voting lobby to walk into.

We are reaching a place where we could replace elections with sheep dog trials.

Ours is not only an unthoughtful Government, but it is one that punishes thoughtfulness. The fruit of this culture of thoughtlessness is that they have adopted the economic policies of the last government. It is clear that they have no distinct vision for Ireland. Their hands have been tied by the Troika, but not all change requires money, and no change has been forthcoming.

Mr Kenny is the personification of this system and of how it punishes originality and thoughtfulness, while rewarding unthoughtful loyalty and adherence to orthodoxy.

I can honestly say that in the 35 years he has been a member of parliament, I cannot remember a single initiative that lifted him above the melee before he became Taoiseach. He stayed the course, abided by the whip, did what he was told, and finally survived to become the leader of the opposition when the worst government we've ever had was in power.

Though he is a clever man, for 40 years he was trained not to think for himself.

Even his Seanad abolition referendum bears this out, a rush of blood to the head leads to a promise to get rid of the Seanad, which becomes a campaign promise. Why?

Enda's referendum is a distraction from real reform. The pettiness of Enda's referendum is clear when we look at what will happen to the President's power. Our Constitution allows the President, if petitioned by members of the Seanad, or Dail, to put controversial bills to the people. This is being removed in the referendum, not because it has been abused, but because it may hinder the Government at some point in the future.

Why are there no reforms to the Dail in this referendum? Because Government controls the Dail. Constitutional limitations on the power of the Dail are real limitations, limits that the Government puts on themselves are limits that they can change at any time. Enda's referendum is not the one we need, it is the one that Enda wants.

Senator John Crown is a consultant oncologist.

Sunday Independent

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