It may surprise readers to hear this, but when we go to the polls next Friday, we won’t actually be participating in the legistlative elections of a parliamentary democracy. Of course, ostensibly, the people we elect go to Leinster House to choose our laws for the coming years, but the reality is very different. Like some sort of Quasimodo-esque cousin of the US presidential elections, what we’ll really be voting for is an electoral college. We elect 166 TDs whose most important role is fulfilled on their first day on the job; voting in a Taoiseach and a cabinet.
In Ireland, these 15 people in the cabinet are the real legislative branch of government. Due to our exceptionally strong party whip system, every bill proposed by a cabinet member is passed along party lines, every bill proposed by a member of the opposition is defeated along party lines, and backbench government TDs simply don’t get to propose bills at all. Even amendments are managed carefully by party whips, with only the most trivial being passed in the Dáil chamber. Our Ministers are the only legislators who actually get to legislate, and even then, power is overwhelmingly held by the Taoiseach and Minister for Finance.
Without any meaningful input into legislation, the remaining 151 TDs have little choice but to focus their efforts solely on local affairs in their constitutencies to get elected. This constituency work, which TDs freely admit to spending more than half their working time on, can range from quite literally getting potholes fixed, to securing passports and welfare payments for constituents. As a result, the cabinet themselves are appointed from amongst a Dáil composed entirely of local politicians, who rarely have any expertise relevant to their portfolio.
Furthermore, with little basis to distinguish by expertise or competence, front bench posts are chosen largely by seniority, which has lead to the worrying scenario where the current Taoiseach, Táinaiste and leader of the main opposition party all entered the Dáil in their twenties, from political families, and have almost no experience of life outside Leinster House. Our cabinet, then, who have little to no expertise, but are expected to fulfil both executive and legislative roles simultaneously, rely heavily on the civil service to devise policy and draft legislation. Of course, the civil servants themselves are generalists by nature, and almost never hire outside experts to senior departmental positions.
To make things even worse, Ministers are expected to continue their duties as local TDs while in office. This results in perverse situations such as the one John Gormley found himself in over the past four years, where he has had to implement the proposed development of an incinerator at Ringsend as Minister for the Environment, while at the same time opposing it as TD for Dublin South East. In the end, the conflict of interest has benefitted neither the nation nor the constituency.
It is clear, even without the country’s economic collapse as a wake-up call, that the political institutions in Ireland simply don’t function as intended. We have a political system that is actively biased against expertise, backed up by a civil service that is actively biased against expertise. What’s more, in the continuous quest to get reelected, the national interest is always fighting a losing battle against 43 separate local interests.
While there have been a broad array of proposals put forward to reform our political institutions over the past months and indeed years, there is a single reform which would clear up the litany of problems which I’ve described. That is, we should introduce an executive branch of government which is completely separate to the Dáil. This would both allow for the appointment of cabinet members with real expertise, as well as freeing up TDs to actually legislate.
We could, for instance, hold an election for an executive President concurrent with our Dáil elections, as happens in France and the US. As we move further away from our two party system, though, it’s highly unlikely that the President’s party would also hold a legislative majority, as is often the case in those two countries. An optimist would see this as ushering in a new age of legislative bipartisanship. A cynic, however, would see it as ushering in a new age of legislative deadlock. To appease the cynics, it would be possible to bring in a more subtle change instead, where a Taoiseach is still elected from within the Dáil, but then gives up their Dáil seat to head a seperate executive branch. This would ensure the executive branch has the support of the majority of legislators.
Regardless of how the head of the executive branch is chosen, Ministers could then be picked from the populace at large, no longer restricted to the 80 to 90 government-supporting TDs. Once chosen, the appointees would then, like in the US, be individually questioned and ratified by the Dáil prior to taking their posts, ensuring that only those who can demonstrate competence and expertise in their field would become Ministers. Furthermore, the reform would completely reshape the legislative process, as there would no longer be a distinction between frontbench and backbench TDs. All TDs would be expected to initiate and contribute to legislation.
Of course, other reforms could also be introduced to help reduce the pressure on TDs to resort to local clientelism. For instance, the number of constituencies could be reduced considerably, resulting in larger constituencies where clientelism would no longer be feasible. Extra Dáil seats could also be allocated by a national list vote, creating a constituency of TDs for whom the national interest is paramount. Reform of local government would be another positive step; by providing better resources to Councillors and directly-elected Mayors, they could take over much of the local work undertaken by TDs.
In the end, though, the most effective reform is the simplest one. We need a cabinet of experts and a Dáil of legislators, and separating the two is the best way to achieve both.