Thursday 14 May 2009

Pondering Political Reform

This is a response to a thought provoking article on political reform which appeared in the Irish Times. Dr Murphy raises a number of interesting points which have been missed by a series of previous commmentators on this subject over recent months. Notably, she brings up the subject of whether the Irish people have an appetite for serious poltical reform.

In all probability they don't. First, people have an affection for our current system, and they would be wary of proposals to push them from familiar territory. Second, while there is widespread anger at the way in which our political (and financial) leadership have contributed to our economic destruction, most of the anger is probably directed at individuals (bank execs or senior ministers) or parties (FF) or organisations (the banks, the regulator). Third, most voters have probably not given much thought to the question of how the quality of our government and leadership is a function of our political system and indeed our political culture. As Dr Murphy says in relation to some changes, such as the move from the current electoral system, even political scientists cannot agree on the likely consequences.

That the electorate does not pine for change, however, is not a reason for our political leaders to shy away from the subject. Perhaps if the subject can be opened up enough - by contributions such as that of Dr Murphy - then the debate could gather enough momentum to make its way onto what might be called the national agenda.

Dr Murphy points out that any significant change, whether it requires constitutional change or not, would have pros and cons that would have to be carefully weighed up. Yet I think it is fair to say that our political machinery has shown itself wanting for the complexities of twentieth century government. In that context I think it is time for a public debate on how the quality of our governance, the very effectiveness of our democracy, is hindered by the nature of our political system - from local to national in all its facets. In terms of effectiveness I am thinking about the quality of both executive decisions and legislation; transparency, responsiveness, and accountability; the ability to form and carry out effective long term strategies; the degree to which the system allows for sensible regional development; and so on.

I would agree with Dr Murphy that the Irish people hold dear the easy access which they have to their elected representatives (though for all its charm, I doubt if this has as much merit as we imagine). But having said that, there must be some formula for tiered government possible which can retain reasonably good access and yet allows sufficient distance for decisions that are in the national interest. And it should not be forgotten that direct access, without sufficent transparency and accountability can be more of a negative force than a positive one.

Dr Murphy's warning rings true that says certain reforms, such as a better scrutiny of legislation or improved executive accountability likely have down sides in terms of speed or simplicity. But that shouldn't daunt us. Speed isn't always of the essence, and it is hard to see how effective government in today's hideously convoluted world, would not itself be rather complex.

In short, I think the innards of our political machinery are badly worn and have evidently let us down badly. We need a refit in order to make the thing fit for purpose in the world of the twenteth century. The optimist in me believes that as a people we are ciapable of remaking our system to deliver better results. But after a moment's pause, as my thoughts drift from the mechanics and theory of change to the practical reality of political inertia, voter apathy, and party self-interest, my belief in the possibility of change dissolves.

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