Quick fixes that could make a difference?

In the various debates on the media, on twitter and on blogs like this there has been much call for specifics, for real practical suggestions on reforms that could be implemented without the need for full scale referendum debates over constitutional reform. To that end, those of us involved in making regular contributions to this blog are trying to raise the resources to arrange some events (probably starting in the autumn) to help stimulate further debate, and we will ensure to give as much notice as possible as these unfold. Continue reading

Party finance to enable democracy

Few could argue that the regime of political finance has not had an impact on Irish politics and policy. It was the famous Tent at Ballybrit each year which symbolised the symbiotic relationship between Fianna Fáil and the property industry. Thanks to Elaine Byrne we know that the property industry accounted for more donations than ay other group. We know that the industry lobbied hard and we know it got its way. We even have an admission from government that its policies of providing tax breaks to the wealthy to facilitate more building in a building boom encouraged greater speculation, fuelled the boom and in turn made the crash so painful. Continue reading

Intellectuals against ideas

Posted by Dan O’Brien
Reading this blog in recent weeks and Elaine Byrne’s piece in Tuesday’s Irish Times, it strikes me that while anti-intellectualism has long been a feature of Irish life, it seems that even the intellectual class in Ireland is hostile to ideas. Some thoughts.
First, last weekend a conference was held on constitutional reform in UCD. One of the organisers, Eoin Carolan, stated on this blog that it was organised “partly because we wanted to allow people an opportunity to respond to a lot of the patent nonsense on the Aftershock programme”. Quite apart from the fact that serious people ignore “patent nonsense” (there’s far too much of it about and they have better things to do), the description of the ideas, including reform of the voting system and the method of executive formation, as “patent nonsense“ is very strange.
Second, I find it astonishing that an event organised “partly” to respond to specific ideas does not invite the people who have put forward those ideas (I was not approached and Justine McCarthy only received an invitation on the day of the event without reference to the show). This is more reminiscent of academic life in the Soviet Union circa the 1960s than that of an inquisitive, questioning free society today.
Finally, one of the two suggestions I put forward in Aftershock was to change Ireland’s very unusual method of executive formation. It seems the matter was not discussed at the event in any depth. Much more widely, neither the political science nor constitutional law communities shows any real interest in this issue. This is very puzzling. To ignore the relationship between executive formation and government performance would, in economics, be akin to ignoring the relationship between, say, capital formation and economic performance.
Almost no other democracy has so little separation between the executive and legislative branches. That this issue, and its implications for the quality of governance, receives so little attention suggests, if not a hostility to reform and re-evaluation, then at the very least a lack of interest in them.

Department of Finance

John Considine and Theresa Reidy
University College Cork

The Department of Finance has set out its mission statement in very broad terms. Its role is ‘To support the achievement of the Government’s economic and social objectives by promoting a sound, sustainable economic and budgetary environment, continuing improvements in the efficiency of public services, and an effective framework for financial services.’

There are competing views on the role of Finance departments. The Irish Department of Finance takes the broad view for itself. The narrow view allocates a tax and expenditure role. This narrow view presumes that monetary policy and financial supervision is controlled by the Central Bank and is usually accompanied by a non-interventionist disposition on policy. The broad view is that they control tax and expenditure policy, as well as managing the economy and administering financial policy.

In evaluating the Department, whether you take a broad or narrow conception of the role of Finance, the Department has an unfavourable track record. This in itself is not particularly noteworthy, Government departments are often subject to criticism. However, the Department of Finance has long promoted itself as “first among equals”. There is a significant body of evidence which undermines this view.

The narrow view of Finance posits the Department as the “guardian of the public purse”. Hecklo and Wildavsky (1981: 40) quote a British Treasury official describing their role as “the first lesson for any new official in the Treasury is that it is the Treasury’s business to save money, not to spend it”. In this core responsibility, the Irish Department of Finance has a variable record. The first fifty years were marked by an enthusiasm for austerity, though this did not always translate into actual policy outcomes in terms of fiscal imbalance. This preference for fiscal conservatism may have led Whitaker (2009) to refer to a culture of “miserabilism” in the Department. Some looseness in current spending was planned from the 1970s and the period since 2000 marks the start of sharp increases in public spending. Recent evaluations (European Commission, Mc Carthy Report) have indicated that concern with value for money slipped sharply during this period.

In the broad view of Finance, departments are allocated wider roles in economic planning and finance policy. Economic planning is most associated with TK Whitaker’s time in the Department. This was the highpoint for the Department and economic planning in Ireland, while the low point is associated with the creation of the separate Department of Economic Planning and Development in 1977. More recently, low numbers of professional economists in the Department have pointed to the low priority given to long term economic planning and new departures in economic theory and policy.

Limited economic expertise has also been cited as an explanation for the poor forecasting record of the Department of Finance. High margins of error have long been a feature of forecasts of revenue and deficits. Poor forecasting is a feature of general Irish economic commentary and the Stability and Growth Pact update from October 2008 outlines a number of forecasts from several agencies, including the Central Bank, ESRI and private sector commentators, all of which were inaccurate, a point was made by the Secretary General of the Department to the PAC on May 6 2010. However, European evaluations have highlighted the poor forecasting record of the Department for some time. Importantly, in a comparative evaluation, the Department came second last of the 12 Eurozone countries. While there is an element of uncertainty in all forecasting, the Irish Department of Finance is amongst the worst at this inexact science.

These points are important in terms of the reputation of the Department of Finance. The myth of Finance suggests a rigorous Department, keenly focused on controlling public expenditure. The international and domestic evaluations paint a very contradictory picture to the conventional wisdom of Finance. The Department of Finance seems lax in its approach to budgetary predictions, particularly multi-annual budgetary projections and targets, and control of spending outcomes, despite their overwhelming fixation with control of the expenditure process.

The final aspect of the role of a Department of Finance is financial policy. Traditionally, this area has been delegated to the Central Bank (and the Irish Financial Service Regulatory Authority). This delegation has not always worked and has resulted in unclear lines of responsibility. A good example was the evasion of DIRT. The Department of Finance claimed the issue should have been dealt with via exchange controls (i.e. the Central Bank was responsible) while the Central Bank claimed that it was a taxation matter (i.e. the Department of Finance and the Revenue Commissioners were responsible).

Of all other policy areas, this is the one where the Irish Department has been subject to the greatest criticisms. Financial policy has been marred by scandals for many decades. The small size of the financial sector in early decades mitigated the need for a developed financial policy. As the financial sector expanded, policy and regulation have tended to lag. Scandals in relation to DIRT, the collapse of ICI and the more recent banking crisis are glaring flaws in the management of financial policy.

Inadequate performance is a growing theme in public coverage of the Department of Finance since the 2008 financial crisis. There are big questions to be addressed in the Department of Finance. The first must be whether the Department should have, or has the capacity, to achieve the broad objectives which it sets for itself. Despite, their institutional pride and view of themselves as superior, the evidence does not support this.

Local government reform

The Irish Times reports that Fianna Fail is completing a submission to feed into the Government’s promised White Paper on local government reform. The report indicates that there is some disagreement among the Coalition partners as to the importance of mayors with Fianna Fail preferring less executive powers. There is also some discussion on amalgamating local councils to create some metropolitan councils. There is no mention, however, of real local government reform which many believe is necessary condition for change in Irish political culture. The report does not appear to be online so it  may be that there are more radial proposals than those  highlighted here.

Are we being too timid?

Strong stuff from Elaine Byrne and Fintan O’Toole in today’s Irish Times. The latter berates the Irish people for lacking the ‘political viagra’ necessary to push through true political reform; whereas the former throws a punch directly at blogs such as this for ‘pouring cold water’ on the question of fundamental constitutional overhaul.

Fair points? Perhaps, yes. As the previous posting (on last weekend’s UCD Law conference) observed, there are differing views in the wider academic community about whether we need change and, if so, just how much change.

I am of the view that major change is, indeed, needed as part of the general process of renewal, of making a fresh start. I know that this view is shared by some of the other colleagues who make regular postings to this blog. But perhaps we now need to express these views more forthrightly? Perhaps we need to tease out more precisely where we all stand?


Morgan on reform of judicial appointments

David Gwynn Morgan makes the argument in today’s Irish Times that the current judicial appointments process is too loose and open to charges of party patronage.

Given the law-making functions that judges effectively exercise, should the Oireachtas have a role in judicial appointments, if only to act as a counterweight to the government? Would it be desirable to have public hearings in a joint committee where the judge would outline their legal and maybe even political philosophy?