For good government, we must put our houses in order

The make-up of the 32nd Dail presents a rare opportunity to break the deadlock on some very important issues, like healthcare and political reform.

From one perspective, we’ve just had a momentous election. For the first time ever, the two big establishment parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, have received less than half the national vote. On top of this, they got about the same vote each. The result is a temporary stalemate, with neither able to form a Dail majority with the help of a smaller party.

But from a different perspective, this election is simply the continuation of a consistent trend in Irish politics going back decades – that is, the steady fall in the total votes going to Fianna Fail and Fine Gael combined. There are cultural ­differences between them, of course, but their policy positions are so similar that in any other country they’d be the one party.

Data from How Ireland Voted, presented in Glenties by Dr. Theresa Reidy, shows that the combined vote of these two parties has been falling for decades. In the early ’80s their combined vote was about 85pc of total votes cast. By the late ’80s, this had fallen to less than 75pc. It then dropped again, and hovered around 65pc for the ’90’s and early Noughties, before dropping further to 55pc in 2011. Just nine days ago it fell again, this time to less than 50pc.

Instead of two similar parties swapping power every few years, we’re seeing the emergence, broadly, of three political groupings, on the centre-right, the centre-left and the left. This is commonplace in many other European countries, and should provide the Irish electorate with some real political choice in the coming years. For right now though, it’s the two parties on the centre-right that have the numbers to form a majority government.

If they succeed in this, it’s likely to take some time. And if they fail, then one of them is going to have to lead a minority government. Either way, for a short period of time, it’s in everyone’s interests to strengthen parliament, and to explore the potential for cross-party support for pressing issues like healthcare.

Let’s start with political reform. Yes, it’s deeply boring, but figuring out how to get more out of our political system and parliament could have lots of very positive, and altogether less boring, benefits. These include accountability for wrong-doing or incompetence, allocation of public resources based on where they’re needed (rather than on where the minister lives), better support for businesses and modernisation of key public services like healthcare and policing.

The objective should be to transform our national parliament from a rubber-stamping assembly into a high-performing legislative body. This means giving individual Dail deputies and Senators more input to policy-making and the crafting of legislation.

A parliamentary budgetary office would help a lot. This could provide financial advice on things like the amount of public funds available each year, the potential to reduce costs and the new funds required for proposed initiatives. Implementing equality budgeting and equality- proofing legislation would enhance parliament’s ability to scrutinise draft legislation and proposed spending.

Committees should be empowered and resourced to initiate legislation. Oireachtas committees are where cross-party cooperation tends to happen, and tooling them up to draft their own legislation could be very powerful. At the same time, the Oireachtas, rather than Cabinet, could be given much greater say in the agendas for each House – committees will only put in the long hours on policy and legislation if they know their proposals can actually make it onto the floors of the Dail and Seanad for serious debate.

To further aid committees, they need greater engagement with the civil service. Updating the Official Secrets Act and the Ministers and Secretaries Act would give civil servants much freedom to share their views with committees.

With a stronger parliament, it should be possible to start tackling the real issues, like healthcare. We have some of the best-trained clinicians on earth, working in one of the most expensive healthcare systems on earth, and yet we’re ranked close to the bottom of the European league table. There are lots of localised and operational reasons for this. However, the current approach is to pour more money into, and tack new units onto, a broken system.

We don’t have an agreed vision for healthcare. Do we want a single-tier system? What’s the right number and type of hospitals, and where should they be? What’s the minimum level of service required in each care pathway? What should be done in the community versus in acute settings? What on-going teaching should clinicians get? How should it all be paid for?

There are no agreed answers to these questions, and we can only work on transforming our healthcare system when we figure out what it is we actually want.

If we can make the leap required to give parliament a meaningful role, then we can start to tackle these issues. For example, why not create an Oireachtas committee tasked with finding as much agreement as possible on a vision for healthcare? It’s been done on a smaller level, with ‘A Vision for Change’ receiving all-party support on a strategy for mental health.

It would need much expert input, and any successful healthcare strategy needs to be led by clinicians. But it’s not rocket science- other countries with greater challenges have figured out how to run really good healthcare systems, so there’s no reason why we can’t, too.

The same applies to any number of other areas – policing, housing, infrastructure, climate. The problem has been that committees have had neither the resources to do the job properly, nor the influence to get their recommendations implemented. And with neither the tools required, nor the ability to affect change, there’s very little incentive for committee members to put in the hard work.

The Oireachtas Finance Committee, for example, produced a report on what needed to be done to tackle the mortgage crisis. But it took months to hire just one economist, and the report, which was signed-up to by 27 of the committee’s 28 members, wasn’t acted on by Cabinet.

Largely, it comes down to culture of mistrust. In the same way that we need to start trusting our public servants to do the jobs they know how to do, we also need to start trusting our elected representatives. You have to be a pretty motivated person to get yourself into the Oireachtas. And highly motivated people tend to respond positively to greater responsibility.

Before the next government is formed we have a small window of opportunity to reset the rules of parliament – to take this leap of faith in our representatives, and in the people who elected them.

We should seize this opportunity, and convene an all-party team to see what might be achieved.

This article originally appeared in the Sunday Independent on March 6th, 2016