DEMOCRACY is undermined by two terrible twins: apathy and hostility. Right now there are far too many reasons for this disengagement and anything that might challenge it should be welcomed.
The Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Constitution published a report on electoral reform yesterday and made 29 suggestions on how we might improve the process of electing our public representatives, ultimately and hopefully, creating a more easily admired, respected representative and effective political system.
The committee, however, did point out that “changing the electoral system should not be regarded as the panacea that will guarantee desired improvements to the functioning of the democratic process and that other aspects of the democratic institutional architecture would also benefit from reform”.
Throwing down a gauntlet that demands an immediate response, the committee said reforms could be introduced straight away by amending Dáil standing orders. It would be nice to imagine — believing would be reckless — that this might happen but our parliamentary system has shown itself to be inflexible, often barely relevant and deeply conservative. It does not change its ways easily and in a world that changes by the day, this rigidity is a terrible weakness.
One of the suggestions was that a citizens’ assembly examine our proportional representation system and propose changes if they might be beneficial. Referring to an issue that is far more important than the mechanics of how we elect politicians, the committee pointed out that such a body would also facilitate greater popular engagement with democratic institutions, as well as enhancing the legitimacy of any proposed reform.
This would be a huge cultural shift but as elections are paths to power, politicians are unlikely to surrender any influence much less control.
The report also addresses two hardy annuals: the low number of women representatives and the funding of political parties. It neatly brings the two together by suggesting public funding should reflect the number of female candidates a party nominates to contest elections. It is a pity this is still an issue but it is.
It is disappointing though that the committee felt unable to comment on the number of TDs in the Dáil other than to say that no change be made to the formula for determining their number.
Without doubt the most important and urgent suggestion concerns parliamentary accountability. The committee wants a structured programme of Dáil reform to enhance parliamentary accountability of Government and engagement with the public.
Despite all of our great difficulties, this is one of the most pressing issues of the day. We are facing a budget that will be very difficult but if those responsible for the policies that made such a draconian package unavoidable were properly held to account in our parliament, we might not be in such a very deep hole.
Without proper accountability, any parliament is no more than a loud charade. Less than a century after it was established, Dáil Éireann should act on any advice that might help it refute that accusation.
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