Keeping an eye on promises of reform

11 Feb 11

A new website will assess each party’s campaign pledges in key areas and monitor implementation, writes ELAINE BYRNE in the Irish Times 11 February 2010


Reformcard.ie

politicalreform.ie


IN 1987, not long after the Dáil met following the general election that year, there was a Private Members’ debate on political reform. Paddy Cooney, a Fine Gael TD for Longford Westmeath, dismissed the suggestion that ministerial pensions should not be paid to sitting TDs, describing it as “ill-defined emotionalism”. It has only taken 24 years for this mild reform to be implemented. After the current election, such payments will be abolished. There are two reasons why such an implementation deficit exists in Ireland.

Firstly, the structure of political and media debate does not embrace rational, coherent, calm and constructive exchange of views. Although adversarial debate may be entertaining, it is ultimately a narcissistic and self-defeating approach. We become obsessed by all that heat at the expense of any light. The personality of debate happily distracts us from the complex challenges of mortgage default, debt restructuring and IMF conditionality.

The second reason is that suggestions for reform in politics, health, education, justice and so on are often regarded as an extraterrestrial concept. Conservatism does not necessarily mean right-wing views but rather a deep-seated fear of change.

For example, Cooney rejected the 1987 reform proposals on the grounds that the existing system had “stood the test for 50 years, something that was devised on the basis of carefully analysed premises and had a conclusion drawn that was irresistible”. In other words, it is the way it is because it’s always been that way. How do we challenge that mindset?

The academic contributors on politicalreform.ie have teamed up with Joseph Curtin and Johnny Ryan, two senior researchers from the Institute of International and European Affairs, to create a new website, reformcard.com.

The objective of their Political Reform Scorecard is to evaluate and compare each of the parties’ reform proposals. Each manifesto is being rated by members of the political science community in the five priority areas of Oireachtas, electoral, open government, local government and public sector reform. The final ratings will be published next Wednesday.

Fianna Fáil’s manifesto scores strongly in the Oireachtas section. Micheál Martin, in the TV3 debate, was more convincing on substantive reform than Eamon Gilmore.

It appears the party that has been in government for 21 of the last 24 years has had a flash of inspiration. Discounting the justified cynicism one feels, the proposals to appoint ministers from outside the Oireachtas and to remove members of cabinet from TD roles are imaginative.

The academics have yet to finalise their scores but to my mind, Fine Gael and Labour rank favourably on open government with Fine Gael perhaps better on electoral reform and Labour stronger on public sector reform. Fianna Fáil and Labour appear weak on local government.

By identifying key reform areas and comparing each party’s commitment to them, it is possible to communicate to the public what is meant by the ambiguous term “change”.

The second part of this project is to monitor the implementation of these campaign promises. After the election, the programme for government will be rated to assess the extent to which manifesto promises have been included. Reformcard.com will then operate as a hub for monitoring implementation of campaign promises.

This tool does not just apply to political reform. The process is a template for other policy areas. This is potentially the beginning of a broader initiative that will monitor whether reforms are actually implemented over the life of the next government.

Initiatives like this provide opportunity for engagement by facilitating interaction between citizens, experts and politicians.

Vibrant web communities in Europe and America, for example, have focused on policy delays and finance irregularities through websites such as wegov-project.eu and sunlightfoundation.com.

After reading through those 1987 Dáil debates, I got the sense that those advocating reform grew disillusioned at the unwillingness of the system to change.

This time, it’s different. The motive to engage in state-building and the ambition to advance the principle of solidarity are powerful – and can be used to reimagine Irish society.

The language of reform has caught the public imagination because it has reignited the belief in the possibility of politics.

The perception of political failure facilitates the triumph of anti-politics. Yet the only answer to assumptions of a democratic deficit is politics itself. Politicians now have the opportunity to demonstrate that they are not all the same.

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