Thursday 14 November 2019

Theresa Reidy: 'If TDs can't do transparency, they aren't fit to be in the Dáil'

Place to be: There is a constitutional requirement for TDs to be in the Dáil for voting. Photo: Tony Gavin
Place to be: There is a constitutional requirement for TDs to be in the Dáil for voting. Photo: Tony Gavin

Theresa Reidy

The Constitution is clear: TDs must be "present and voting". There is a big difference between a TD voting for another who is not in the Dáil chamber, and a TD who leans over to a colleague's seat while they are in the Dáil and presses the button for them. It's become clear the practice of voting for others has been widespread. Even if those whose buttons were pressed were in the chamber at the time, it's a sloppy practice. Fortunately, it has been brought to an end by the voting controversy.

Indifference is corrosive in democracy. Dáil reforms and a minority government have been blamed for the cavalier approach to voting, and perhaps there is some truth in the minority government point. Governments don't fall on the back of a lost vote any more, and this may have mistakenly led some TDs to be less concerned about voting. It has been admitted that TDs don't always correct the Dáil record, even when a simple mistake has been made.

There is no malevolence here, just indifference. But indifference is corrosive in democracy. The margin of victory or loss on a vote is irrelevant - citizens are entitled to know how their TD has voted. The public record should be correct.

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TDs are elected to represent their constituents in parliament, to make decisions on their behalf, guided by the interests and views of their constituents, and filtered through the judgment of the TD. Some TDs have shown very poor judgment. If TDs can't uphold basic transparency in their voting records, they are not fit for the representative roles that they hold.

But indeed, the current controversy is part of a sorry pattern of TDs not taking their legislative work seriously. The casual approach to voting in the chamber is replicated in other areas. TDs are regularly on their phones standing at the back of the Dáil chamber and in committee rooms. Ministers read out dull speeches and some of them frequently look as though they've never seen the words on the page before.

There has been a massive surge in private member's bills. Some of these are ill-drafted and dangerously unsound. And those private member's bills that are valuable and thoughtful are duly stalled by the Government, which uses the money message provision as a crude tool for managing the Dáil agenda.

But Dáil reform is not to blame

Recent reforms have included the election of the Ceann Comhairle by TDs, rather than appointment by government, moving Dáil voting to a single slot on Thursday to make it more convenient for TDs and improving conditions for committee work.

Having an impartial and respected Ceann Comhairle was critical this week and Seán Ó Fearghaíl acted swiftly to address the controversy and maintain the integrity of the voting system, in the face of often petulant and partisan sniping from the two biggest parties.

Moving votes to a single slot on Thursday was done to address a long-standing problem of TDs leaving committees and other business so that they could vote. Given the careless approach to voting that has crept in, it is hard to see how dispersing votes across the week would have led to better practice. Many of the Dáil reforms were long overdue and have strengthened the system and many more are needed.

One of the reasons why so many of us readily knew that TDs must be in the chamber for voting is because a reform which is regularly called for is proxy voting, where a TD votes on behalf of another TD under agreed conditions. This is used in the UK, and is especially important in facilitating voting for members on maternity leave. It has always been shot down in Ireland because of the constitutional requirement for the TD to be in the Dáil. Fair enough, but in the 21st Century, the Dáil still has no proper provision for maternity or long-term illness leave. What we need is more reform, not less.

But Dáil reform is not exactly a vote-winner, and this must be acknowledged. Many TDs may well be taking their cues from voters, many of whom do not see Dáil business as all that important. The 2016 Irish National Election Study told us that for 41pc of voters, choosing a candidate to look after the needs of the constituency was the most important thing for them in making up their mind who to vote for. Policy choice mattered for 32pc, the next biggest group. The priority given to constituency needs is a long established one and visible in data going back decades.

There are a lot of voters who do not see the Dáil as a priority. They want representatives that will negotiate the largest possible share of the State's resources for their constituency. But this is a false choice. If TDs don't grow the nation's resources first by introducing carefully thought-out and sensible policies, the nation's resources could well shrink and we have plenty of evidence from the economic crisis to show that poor attention to key sectors of the economy led to grave policy errors.

Undoubtedly, there is a touch of chicken and egg to this. Many voters don't see the Dáil as a priority. TDs respond to this, taking calls on constituency matters while they are supposed to be reviewing legislation.

Controversies around voting remind voters that the Dáil often doesn't work very well and they are reassured that their priority in picking a good constituency worker, who is not that bothered about legislation, is a sound one.

Dr Theresa Reidy is a political scientist at University College Cork

Irish Independent

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