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TheJournal.ie’s progress report for the Government: Political reform

The government has promised major political reform – but has it fulfilled its promises, one year in?

Image: Cathrine Johansson via Flickr/Creative Commons

1) WHAT THEY SAID DURING THE 2011 ELECTION CAMPAIGN

Labour said it would:

  • Introduce a Whistleblower’s Law to protect those in the public and private sector who expose corruption or misconduct.
  • Establish a Constitutional Convention to draw up a new constitution for the Ireland of the 21st century.
  • Amend the Freedom of Information Act so that it is more comprehensive and so that the fees involved to not discourage anyone from seeking information. It said the FOI’s remit would be extended to the gardai, the Central Bank and “other bodies significantly funded from the public purse that are currently excluded”
  • Abolish the Seanad, but make the Dáil stronger, with a longer working day, a longer working week, less holidays, and with more powers to hold the government to account
  • Set up a strong, bi-partisan Investigations, Oversight and Petitions Committee of the Oireachtas with the power to investigate matters of national concern
  • Restore democratic accountability to local government, and devolve more decision- making powers to local communities

Fine Gael said it would:

  • It would reduce the Oireachtas by one third, including abolishing the Seanad and cutting the number of TDs by 20.
  • Establish a Citizens Assembly comprised of 100 members chosen from the public  to make recommendations on electoral reform. This assembley will also be asked to make recommendations as to how the number of women in politics can be increased.
  • Hold a referendum within 12 months of assuming office at which the people will be asked to approve the abolition of the Seanad and other changes to the articles of the constitution covering the institutions of the State – principally the Executive, the Dáil, the Presidency and the Judiciary. This referendum will focus political reform and will not address the articles dealing with rights/social policy.
  • Amend the Constitution to Give Dáil committees full powers of investigation.
  • Publish an Open Government Bill to significantly strengthen Freedom of Information; establish a “whistleblowers charter”; register all lobbyists; and create a new Electoral Commission.
  • Strengthen local government by moving functions away from agencies to local authorities. Property-related revenues will be part of local authorities’ income.

2) WHAT THEY PROMISED IN THE PROGRAMME FOR GOVERNMENT

We will prioritise putting to the people by referendum a number of urgent parliamentary reform issues:

  • Abolition of the Seanad
  • A referendum to amend the Constitution to reverse the effects of the Abbeylara judgment to enable Oireachtas committees to carry out full investigations.
  • A referendum to protect the right of citizens to communicate in confidence with public representatives.
  • A referendum to amend the Constitution to allow the State to cut the salaries of judges in restricted circumstances as part of a general cut across the public sector.
  • A referendum to amend the Constitution to ensure that children’s rights are strengthened, along the lines recommended by the All-Party Oireachtas committee.

We will establish a Constitutional Convention to consider comprehensive constitutional reform, with a brief to consider, as a whole or in sub-groups, and report within 12 months on the following:

  • Review of our Dáil electoral system.
  • Amending the clause on women in the home and encourage greater participation of women in public life

3) PROGRESS – OR LACK THEREOF – IN FIRST YEAR OF GOVERNMENT

  • No date has been set for a referendum on the abolition of the Seanad nor has any draft legislation been released. The issue is due to be discussed at the proposed Constitutional Convention. Reports recently suggested that the government would consult with opposition parties over plans for the convention, but no date has been set for the convention.
  • A referendum on extending the power to hold inquiries to Oireachtas committees was held alongside the presidential election in October 2011. The proposal was defeated by 53.3 per cent to 46.7 per cent.
  • A referendum on amending the constitution to allow for judges’ salaries to be reduced was also held alongside the presidential election. The proposal was passed by 79.7 per cent to 20.3 per cent.
  • The government recently published draft legislation aimed at protecting whistleblowers in the public and private sector. The provisions include granting immunity to a worker who makes a disclosure about wrongdoing in the workplace against civil and criminal liability.
  • Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald said in mid-February that the children’s rights referendum will be held before the end of this year and that the vote would be taken in isolation.
  • Cutting number of TDs: The Constituency Commission was set up last year and tasked with redrawing political constituencies following the results of the 2011 census. It was taking submissions until 10 January 2012 and is expected to release its report around May or June.
  • Women in politics: The government published legislation in December 2011 to encourage political parties to run female candidates comprising at least 30 per cent of their candidates in general election or face having their funding halved. It has been given initial approval by the Seanad.
  • Minister Phil Hogan recently announced that local government reforms will focus on strengthening local authorities and expanding their role. He said that the stakeholders involved would be engaged for proposals on that reform once the government has developed those proposals.

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