The referendum has only just started but the core issues are now clear. This is the only constitutional change to our political system which the government is currently planning to propose. It is the heart of what they repeatedly claim to be a ‘democratic revolution’.
If the referendum is passed ministers will hang out the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner and spend even more time praising themselves. However what they won’t have done is to change a single significant element of the political system which failed us in the past.
A Yes vote is a vote to keep parliament completely subservient to ministerial control. It’s a vote to reduce the scrutiny of legislation, to reduce the opportunities to question ministers and to end the chance of real reform.
The government is proposing to make over 40 amendments to our constitution – but has not been able to find a single power of government which should be amended.
The referendum’s passage would leave Ireland with a political system unique in the modern world for the combining a single house of parliament, weak local government and complete ministerial control over the entire system.
This referendum is about a government which wants to talk about reform but to actually gather more and more power into the hands of ministers.
They are spending over €14 million to hold this vote – which is money taken directly from public services – but are hiding the fact that its passage will not reduce by one cent the spending cuts and tax increases of this government.
It will not reinstate special needs assistants, respite care grants of home help hours that have already been cut over the last two years.
It is by far the most cynical and negative referendum campaign ever run by a government. It has adopted the tactics of attacking its opponents personally and relentless spinning the media.
It is indeed very cynical for the Taoiseach to threaten the people by saying like he did on Thursday last that the reform of the Oireachtas Committees would only occur if the Seanad was abolished. If he was and his government were serious about reform the changes should go ahead anyway.
Not one of the government reform measures requires Ministers to spend more time answering questions and being more accountable in the Dáil.Trying to get rid of the Seanad is the ultimate ‘power grab ‘by a government that has the biggest majority in the history of the state.
The decision not to allow the people to vote on reforming the Seanad and Dáil is the most cynical decision of all. It is based on the simple fact that there is not a single person in this campaign who is advocating retaining the Seanad as it is.
The clear majority of Government TDs who spoke during the Dáil debate said that they wanted reform not abolition. By trying to make this a referendum about retaining the Seanad as it is Fine Gael and Labour are specifically trying to avoid having a debate about reform. They cannot be allowed to get away with this.
As part of the campaign there has been a particular emphasis on misrepresenting what opponents have said in the past. Fine Gael makes a point of not saying that my party’s position in 2011 was that, the first thing required was a complete change to the workings of government and the Dáil which would include constitutional change to their powers.
The reality is that every party in the Dáil has changed its position on this issue over the years. Minister Richard Bruton, who unlike me started his national career as a Senator, has served 32 years in the Oireachtas and for 28 of these he was a defender of the Seanad.
In the case of Sinn Fein, they both want to scrap and re-establish the Seanad at the same time. Deputy Pearse Doherty, who is representing them here, also started his career in the Oireachtas as a Senator – his abhorrence of elitism didn’t seem to be too acute when he was seeking votes from the Seanad electorate.
In 2011 every party agreed with the core idea that our political system had failed and required a profound change. The core of this was to be a change in the balance of powers between different parts of the political system.
Since then the situation has actually gotten much worse. Even the Fine Gael Whip has described his government’s performance as “deplorable”. It’s not just that legislation is being pushed through more aggressively than ever before; the absolute dominance of government over every aspect of the Dáil has been tightened.
Routine consultation between parties which was seen over many years has been ended. For example, the Fiscal Treaty referendum was the first time when pro-European parties in opposition were shut-out from discussions about the wording of the referendum.
Even more significantly the opposition has been shut out of discussions about the operations of the Dáil itself.
The package announced on Wednesday demonstrates this powerfully. In the name of supposedly making the government accountable the government has announced a package of changes to the Dáil’s operations.
Ministers have spent hours talking to journalists about how they are committed to being accountable to the Dáil but couldn’t find a single minute to talk to members of the Dáil before announcing the package.
The Taoiseach himself said repeatedly that there would be an all-party approach to Dáil reform, a promise which has been comprehensively broken.
He gave a personal commitment to me in the Dáil about consultation with the opposition parties on reform and unfortunately this is now added to the government’s long list of broken promises. When elected the Taoiseach talked about “humility and hope” and since, all we are getting is arrogance and spin.
In addition, the Taoiseach has refused to take part in a debate with me on the referendum. He is ducking and diving .What is he afraid of?
His promise “about a fresh start from the failed politics of the past” did not last long….I am repeating my request to the Taoiseach for a debate here today.
After this package is implemented the situation will remain that only a member of government will be allowed to propose a change of Dáil business. Only a member of government will be allowed to get a vote on any matter which involves spending or raising money.
Every political party wanted to reform the way the Oireachtas worked so that we could learn from the mistakes of the economic crisis but the government’s entire package of changes could have been in place during the last decade and it would have done nothing to address the core faults which led to the current crisis.
It’s not just the opposition which has a problem with what’s happening – one Fine Gael backbencher recently described his role as being expected to “turn up and shut up”.
If anyone is foolish enough to believe that accountability is being changed in the slightest, then you should realise that Minister Shatter will still be able to refuse to answer questions about why he could avoid a breathalyser test obligatory for every other citizen.
Minister John Perry will still be able to refuse to explain how he used his ministerial position in negotiating with his bank. Equally, the Taoiseach will still be able to refuse to answer any serious questions.
The people are not being offered reform – they are being offered the further concentration of the existing political system.
This is a betrayal of what the people were promised in 2011 by every party.
The alternative is to say no to this referendum and demand proposals for real reform. While this government is already known for its arrogance, it would not be arrogant enough to take a defeat and refuse to return with a better proposal.
There is an alternative to what is being proposed. It is to change what our political institutions do – not just the amount of time they spend doing it.
My party has set out over 70 specific proposals for changing the balance of power between government and Oireachtas – and giving our national parliaments the space to be more expert and effective.
– Opening up ministerial office to non-politicians
– Reforming the ministerial appointment process in the Dáil
– Elections for the Ceann Comháirle by secret ballot
– Reducing Ministerial control over Dáil agenda
– Introducing regulation orders for all proposals discussed in the Oireachtas
– Reforming cabinet procedures
– Reforming Committees and allowing more independence from government
– Reforming elections and Dáil questions
A reformed second chamber is an important part of this. Fianna Fáil is proposing:
– Direct election of 40 senators and 11 appointed by Taoiseach which will reduce costs
– 50% gender quota for Seanad elections
– Three senators from Northern Ireland
– Increased powers for scrutiny and enhanced EU role.
– Specific minority representation
By voting no on October 4th people will confirm that they want real reform while ensuring that the government parties do not get more power and continue to make false promises on savings.