Water, alcohol and judges feature in limited plans from a minority Government

There are a few high profile Bills in the Government’s Autumn programme published this week, but they serve only to put a veneer on what is a limited legislative plan from a minority Government.

In a normal year in the life of a normal Government, it is not unusual for it to put more than 60 Bills through the Oireachtas. But this Government put through just 44 in its first calendar year and has done just 25 in 2017. 

And critics say the problem is not only the low number of Bills:  it is their quality.  Much of what has been enacted since the Government took office in May 2016 has been uncontentious, technically necessary legislation.  There has been little of political controversy or of great policy importance.

The reason is simple: This is a minority Government. Fine Gael, which in effect is a single party Government with a couple of independent Ministers thrown in, has less than a third of the Dáil seats. So if there is any significant political opposition to any piece of legislation, its chances of enactment are remote.

The Dáil resumes this week, and the Government is determined to counter claims that this is a “do-nothing Dáil”.  Yesterday it announced it would publish 28 pieces of legislation during the remainder of 2017, and would also push to have some key Bills currently before the Oireachtas passed into law.

But the Government is determined not to accept that it is constantly living in fear of collapse and of an election.  High profile legislation identified yesterday as a priority includes the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill which, among other things, introduces minimum unit pricing for alcohol, and restricts the display of alcohol in shops.

This legislation has been the subject of resistance from the drinks industry but the Government seems determined to face that down and have it in law before Christmas. There could yet be amendments to the controversial plans to restrict the visibility of alcohol in shops. Whilst Government is stressing the public health arguments others also note that the Government will like being able to display assertiveness in facing down powerful opponents despite its unstable Dáil position.

The controversial Judicial Appointments Commission Bill, which has been championed by Minister for Transport Shane Ross, has also been identified as a priority for Government. The Bill would set up a new Commission to recommend appointments as judges, with a lay majority and a lay chairperson. This Commission would also give the Government a much shorter shortlist of candidates for appointment to choose from.  Its supporters say this will restrict the ability of judges, and the Government of the day, to influence who gets on the bench.

During the controversy over the appointment of former Attorney General Maire Whelan to the Court of Appeal, the Taoiseach renewed the Government commitment to Shane Ross that this Bill would be passed.  While Fianna Fáil is likely to oppose it, a rather odd alliance of Fine Gael, Sinn Fein and the protest left is likely to see it passed.

This Dáil period will also see an attempt finally to politically neutralise the water charges issue.  Fine Gael and Fianna Fail seem to have agreed legislation which would provide for funding of water services through general taxation and not user charges, introduce charges for excessive use, and allow future Governments increase those charges.  There is discussion about a referendum to enshrine public ownership of water services in the Constitution, but there is no agreed wording yet and this is complex due to the current existence of private group water schemes and wells.

There is no legislation promised yet on the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution – the abortion issue. An Oireachtas Committee on this will make recommendations by the end of the year.

Of course the biggest Oireachtas set-piece during the remainder of 2017 will be the Budget and the subsequent Finance Bill. Discussions continue on the final detail of this:  Much is being made of the conflicting aims of Fine Gael (broaden the lower tax band) and Fianna Fáil (reduce USC). Political discussion and media speculation will focus on this for the next three weeks.  In the course of this discussion it is easy to forget that the changes proposed – either to USC or the tax bands – are very limited and will not be transformative for anyone’s pay packet.

The full Government legislation programme for autumn 2017 is here: http://merrionstreet.ie/en/ImageLibrary/20170919_Legislative_Programme.pdf

Mark Brennock, Director of Public Affairs