“People expect political reform and want to see it happening”

Yesterday, the chamber discussed a motion put down by the Technical Group on reform of the Oireachtas. Amongst the proposals put forward by the group included the abolition of the whip system and allowing committee input prior to drafting legislation. The full motion can be viewed here.  I spoke in support of the government amendment which cited reform proposals in the Programme for Government. The amendment can be viewed here.

There is no reason why there should not be debate here about the need to change the way the House operates and the practices which may be in existence for decades. As Deputy Eoghan Murphy argued, we should address the elements that should be changed, and I have no problem with the debate or the Technical Group raising those issues.

The point regarding the Whip system has been ventilated and I will not repeat it other than to pose a question. How could it be abolished and who would do so? How can the Dáil determine that people cannot come together in a voluntary way through a political party, make decisions together by compromise and come to the House to vote in a particular way? It is not open to the Dáil to abolish the party political system or the Whips in the sense proposed in the motion. As a result the argument against the Whip system is really unconvincing, demonstrating a frustration which Independents in the Dáil and Seanad have with the system. That is natural and although there is a luxury in being an Independent, those Members must also face the obstacles relating to the processing of business and the ability, essentially, to get work done in this Parliament. As Deputy Stagg and others have argued, practices have evolved through political parties because they are at the heart of our current system. Apart from that it is good to have this debate.

Everybody is in favour of reform and apart from the Whip issue, we are probably all in agreement. There is very little difference between the original motion and the amendments. Calling for reform is one thing, but implementing it or setting it out on paper is another. Prior to the election, the Labour Party carefully and at some length examined this issue. My colleague, the Minister, Deputy Brendan Howlin, set out in a document 140 proposals for genuinely radical change that would appeal to Members on all sides of the House. It took us a considerable period to analyse the problem and set out proposals which could be implemented.

Deputy Murphy is right to express frustration at how the House operates but change requires the unpicking of entrenched practices and the way business has been done for many years. Every time we look at a practice we can find a reason for its existence. Although we may want to get rid of it, we can see the rationale behind it so we have to unpick the practice in order to change it. We should do that, and every Member should be involved in the process. The necessity for reform should not be the subject of contentious debate, although some of the individual aspects may cause people to differ. Deputy Stagg is right when he states that the process is ongoing and the impression should not be given that the matter is purely within the remit of the Government. Opposition parties should be involved, and I hope they will be.

I was struck by some of the debate, particularly when Deputy Catherine Murphy spoke more broadly about civic morality. It was a good issue to bring to the heart of the debate. There is a great expectation amongst the people for this Dáil. This does not just relate to the economy and the principal issues that must be addressed, but how we do our business. People expect change and want to see it happening. That is a reason for us to proceed with the constitutional convention, although there is little detail yet as to how it will operate. That would be a genuine opportunity for us to examine the kind of republic we have and the sort of change we want to see in the republic.

I will comment on the committee system. There is general agreement that the committees should be vested with real powers. The committees should be given a genuinely enhanced status. It should not just be a question of rhetoric that the Government will take committees seriously – as I am sure it will – and provide additional resources; we must see that happen. As parliamentarians we should stand up for the Parliament and our independent role, separate from the Government, even if we support that Government. We have a crucial role to play on behalf of the people who sent us here. We are right to demand that the Government should take the committees seriously, attend them and resource them. They should have an enhanced status.

We also have a responsibility in regard to how we conduct our business in committees. They ought not to be opportunities for grandstanding and set pieces, and we need to learn discipline with regard, for example, to scrutinising witnesses and asking questions. Many people have forgotten how to ask questions. A question is not a statement. I say with all due respect to my colleagues that we should take the committee system seriously. Let us be seen to make it work rather than simply expect the Government to do all the work.