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Aaron McKenna: What are we paying for the Dáil’s pointless pantomime?

Much Dáil business is an empty stage show – but there is a way we could make it better.

Aaron McKenna

THE DÁIL RETURNED from its summer holiday to full form this week with a parade of pointless politicking around the deadly serious issue of health. Just where it had left off several months ago, the hapless Dr James Reilly had his head on the block over his performance as health minister and the place was alight with speculation and back to school giddiness.

Journalists and onlookers in the gallery craned in their seats to see who was sitting in the chamber at what time; how their body language spoke their true feelings; and what was to be read between the lines of each speech. In the back rooms of Leinster House the politicians and their staffs swirled around, consulting one another in deathly serious tones about the timing of their entry to the chamber and what would be meant if so-and-so did such-and-such a thing.

Labour TDs remained pointedly absent for much of the debate, part of their ongoing opposition-in-government efforts to fly the red banner from within an administration directed by the terms of a bailout agreement. Roisin Shortall, the Labour junior minister in the department of health, took the opportunity in her speech to criticise Reilly without either supporting or openly attacking him.

After all the theatrics came the vote and government TDs stalked in and did the business, voting for confidence in a man they clearly had none. The opposition, who knew they would lose this one from the outset, did their bit to generate some soundbites and the vote was over 99 to 49. Everyone retired to one of the two in-house bars for post game analysis.

Charade

It would be truly interesting to plot, minute by minute, the cost of this charade when you boil down the salaries (not to mention expenses) of all involved, from the TDs to their aides and the staff of Leinster House who open doors for them and deliver water. What a productive use of time it is to have a debate in which the outcome is known, and to expend energy on gestures of no consequence.

The Dail is a place filled mostly with seat-warming buttocks and yes-men-and-women, bound to vote the way their betters tell them to.

One of the unusual aspects of our democracy – though it is shared with the British – that locks the Dáil into its talking-shop status is that the executive branch of our government is contained within the legislative. The Taoiseach and Ministers are members of the parliament that is supposed to oversee the actions of government – which in turn by its nature controls the majority vote required to effectively do anything.

In the US, for example, the President acts as the executive – able to exercise powers of government himself and through his cabinet members – but has to answer to the legislative, which may or may not be in the control of his party. In France the power of the President is limited by the results he can attain in the parliamentary elections.

In our system, where the Taoiseach as executive is bound so intimately to parliament, we operate the whip system so government can get things done. Members of political parties are bound to vote in a certain way on pain of expulsion.

To an extent, the whip system makes sense. We elect governments with the expectation that they will achieve tangible results, most of which require the passing of legislation. If we had a completely freewheeling parliament it would become impossible for governments to get anything done in a fractious political period such as today.

Abuse of power

On the other hand, the whip system is incompatible with the idea of parliament as a sovereign body with the duty of keeping the power of government in check. The last Fianna Fáil government managed to maintain an artificial majority by refusing to allow the Dail to vote for several by-elections that it would surely have lost.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen, when pressed on when the elections would be held, spoke of it being “a matter for the Dáil to decide,” as if it were some faraway colonial ruler he had no influence over. It was his whip that was keeping the elections from happening, as clear an abuse of power as can be witnessed, by government over a parliament that is supposed to be the guardian.

A lot of the time the government simply ignores the Dáil, or pays token lip service in ‘debates’ or questions – during which the parties throw prepared statements at one another like the pointless artillery duels of the First World War. Most debates on legislation, when all is said and done, are simply time-fillers. When a government is pressed to get legislation passed quickly it simply ‘guillotines’ a bill, forcing rapid fire votes without any discussion.

Rather than break up our current system however, I think we could find a workable solution. One that will allow the Dáil to be more a freewheeling body of individuals who can have minds of their own (not at all a guarantee, mind) while preserving the right of government to get stuff done.

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The government of the day should be allowed to whip its majority into voting for cabinet appointments, budgets and a set number of new laws (or amendments) per year. For everything else, the whip system should be abolished on pain of criminal offense for attempting to maintain it.

Stifled laws

The Dáil should be sovereign on matters like its own management; the establishment of committees and electing their chairs; censoring members and ministers; the holding of debates and bringing forward members bills. It should be free to hold the government to account without interference and to propose new laws that cannot be stifled by the whims of the whips.

To an extent, human nature will keep the freewheeling in some form of check. Party members who want to go somewhere in life will likely toe the line quite closely even without the help of a whip. But there are minds of stronger character than the yes-men (who are the worst-men to become ministers).

Today we are paying tens of millions for a talking shop of no value. The Dáil might as well convene after an election, select the government and send most of its members home without pay for five years. A joke about politics goes that a mother had two sons: One joined the army and went to war, the other went into politics and joined the back benches. Neither was heard from again.

If we were to reform the way the whip system works, we might be able to change that. And TDs might have bigger issues to consider than the order in which they take their seats. Alas, that would take a courageous government to show leadership and allow an un-whipped vote to make the change in the first place.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna.

Read: More columns from Aaron McKenna on TheJournal.ie>

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