An overhaul of politics in Cardiff Bay?

Andrew RT Davies outlines his plans to increase interest in Welsh politics and tackle voter apathy.

Last week I made a speech to the think-tank Gorwel, in which I outlined proposals that I believe would restore interest in Welsh politics and tackle the chronic issue of voter apathy – particularly amongst young people.

During that speech I announced plans to cut ministerial pay by 10%, with the additional funds being used to support youth engagement.

I also renewed calls for a full procedural review of the way the Assembly operates, to make proceedings more relevant and engaging.

Clearly the focus, during the next Assembly term, must be on bridging the democratic deficit; and Welsh politicians of all political colours should have an interest in making our political affairs as transparent as possible.

We must restore trust in politics and politicians – and I truly believe that Wales can lead the way, starting by reforming the process for key political appointments.

We’ve long called for Commissioners to be appointments of the Assembly; not the Welsh Government – ensuring they are more accountable, and representative, to the views of the people of Wales. Even Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas broke ranks from his Plaid Cymru colleagues to back that policy this week.

It is my firm belief that before taking up a Ministerial post, AMs should be subject to ‘Confirmation Hearings’ in front of the appropriate Assembly Committee. A similar ‘hurdle’ – albeit, usually a symbolic one – exists in America, where appointments by the President are made subject to the approval of the Senate.

The necessity of obtaining Senate approval is in place to act as a check on presidential power, and here in Wales I can see a very persuasive case for checking the power of the Executive.

Committee members would not have power of veto over the First Minister’s cabinet appointments, but this symbolic process would shine a light on their suitability to serve in the cabinet – as well as giving the public a clearer sense of who holds these important positions of power in Wales.

It would also inject a dose of humility in the ministerial appointments process, reminding cabinet members that their appointments hinged on an election during which many other parties will have received votes and won seats.

And we must go further – delivering true transparency to the heart of Government; and inspiring public confidence in an institution which too many communities in Wales lack an understanding of, or appreciation, for.

Prominent bloggers, such as GuidoFawkes, often publish lists of Special Advisors – as though they’ve uncovered a guilty secret, tucked away in dark recesses of the Ministerial briefcase.

Such mistrust linked to significant Government appointments is unfortunate – and is something I’d want to change as First Minister of Wales.

The SPAD network has grown greatly in Wales in recent years; and their influence often rivals that of Ministers themselves; but could a single member of the Welsh public name one of the Welsh Government’s current crop?

In reality the SPAD phenomenon isn’t a new one at all, and advisers have been part of government deliberations since at least the 1800s. But the notoriety of prominent SPADs has certainly placed a greater level of scrutiny on their roles.

They have huge involvement in policy decisions, on what appears in the papers, and in what many Ministers say – all without an electoral mandate. And that’s why the appointments process needs to be reformed.

Clearly they play important roles, providing political advice and support to Ministers but it’s not unreasonable to suggest that before appointment, Special Advisers should be subject to similar scrutiny to Ministerial appointments – giving the Assembly an opportunity to properly assess their suitability for such high-profile, public, political roles; and provide a dose of reality to SPADs as to what their role should entail.

In recent days, I’ve articulated passionately a new vision for Welsh politics which not only devolves significant new power to local communities and prioritises localism; but also seeks a radical overhaul of how we do politics in Cardiff Bay.

For too many people across Wales, the Welsh Government is regarded as remote; out-of-touch and inaccessible. It is a Government which has too often appeared concerned with feathering its own nest – just this week backing huge increases in spend for central services and administration; whilst cutting other vital areas. Confirmation hearings could be another part of this toolkit – reminding Ministers who they’re in place to serve, injecting new levels of accountability and transparency in to our politics and aiding the creation of a nation of informed, active, engaged citizens.

Andrew RT Davies is Leader of the Welsh Conservatives.

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