Wider recruitment for Ministers

The Irish Times has begun a series on political reform with the underlying premise of renewing the Republic. MacConghail writing in the Irish Times points the finger firmly at political culture and recommends primarily the  reform of local government. A wider look at how the Cabinet is actually composed may also bear fruit. Ireland is almost alone in the developed world in insisting that ministers are solely recruited from the lower house. Even in the UK ministers are appointed from the House of Lords and in many European countries ministers frequently have no parliamentary expertise or must resign constituency seats on becoming a minister, this being the case in Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium among other countries.. This provides an incentive to act in the national collective interest rather than in an  individual localist manner in order to ensure their own re-election. This of course requires constitutional change, but in the meantime the Taoiseach Brian Cowen could take up his right to appoint two ministers in the upcoming reshuffle from the Seanad. He  had one vacancy following the resignation of  a Green senator. Even the cautious Gordon Brown followed this route appointing  Peter Mandelson to the upper house and as Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills.  Surely there are many public spirited  senior business people who would do an excellent job in attracting business and winning jobs in Enterprise, Trade and Employment and could also sit in the Seanad?

3 thoughts on “Wider recruitment for Ministers

  1. I agree, if the Dáil and government were really separate then TDs might see their career paths in a different light. They might take the oversight duties more seriously and not as a way of not upsetting the Taoiseach, in order to get ahead. Unfortunately there’ll be no chance of Michael O’Leary taking over from Mary Coughlan- that senate vacancy is filled. Mark Dearey, Green councilor from Louth, got the job with indecent haste.

  2. IMO, we need a complete separation of powers – between the TDs as elected representatives and the Rialtas as Executive, which should be headed by a Taoiseach directly elected by the whole country. The directly elected Taoiseach would then have power to choose whosoever she/he watned to be members of the government. (As an aside I favour retaining the existing STV voting system for elections to both side of Government)

    My case for this change is set out in this extract from a 1987 piece published in Business and Finance

    “Our basis of government
    In our system we, the people, elect a group (Dáil deputies) which in turn, elects a Taoiseach who then picks a smaller group (Cabinet) to govern for a period not greater than five years. We, who as citizens own the authority to govern, pass this authority to successively smaller groups.

    There is only one path to government power in our system. This path must act as a route for the transfer of our democratic power which authorises the government to act. At the same time, this path must also serve to gather the actual know-how needed to carry out the tasks of government. These two aspects may be equated with the distinction between the words “may” and “can”, ie the ability to do something and permission to do it.

    Dual aspects of power — politics and governing
    Any democratic political system must be able to marshal and control both elements. Our current system cannot handle the complexity of the modern world because it cannot acquire sufficient authority and know-how at the same time.

    A hypothetical example shows why this “single pathway” causes trouble. Suppose that Denis Brosnan wanted to become a Minister in the normal way. He would join a political party, attend a convention, be selected as a candidate, get well-known in his future constituency, begin a round of canvassing and clinics and then, perhaps, be elected to the Dáil. If his party forms the government (in whole or in part), if he has the right relationship with his party and its leader, if he represents part of the country that “requires ministerial representation” and several others ifs, he will become a Minister!

    This series of steps does not quite fit our idea of a man like Denis Brosnan or any other high achiever. Why? Is it because, deep down, we regard the process of getting into the Dáil as mismatched to the skills we now require in Ministers?

    A recent Irish Times/MRBI poll (The Irish Times, February 5 1987) shed some light on this aspect of our political culture. This found that, of the key factors which voters said would “influence them a lot” in deciding how to vote
    • 75% opted for “Choosing a TD who will look after the local needs of the constituency”;
    • 53% said choosing a candidate who will perform effectively on national issues in the Dáil:
    • 45% said that party policies were important;
    • 27% identified choice of Taoiseach as a key factor.

    We use our system to select people who are good repre¬sentatives — in other words, we select people to carry out the delegated authorising function. Our system is not properly shaped to select individuals who will provide the know-how which is the basis for effective and efficient government.
    As Jim Hacker said, “Here I am attempting to function as a sort of managing director of a very large and important business and I have no experience of the Department’s work or in fact of management of any kind. A career in politics is no preparation for government.” (Yes Minister, Vol- I. BBC Publications. London. 1981. p28.)

    A different approach
    Think about the way in which a large group would organise itself to solve some problem facing it, eg club members building new premises. The usual way, and probably the only way, is to listen to proposals by individuals or very small groups. The group, as a whole, accepts or rejects the proposals. In a more sophisticated organisation, the proposal may be debated and modified. But even then, the group achieves its purpose by listening to individuals who put forward different options.
    The well-being of the whole group is crucially dependent on the special skills of these “option-makers”. It is obvious that a group which is good at finding and using such indivduals will meet the challenges of change more successfully than one which is poor at doing so.
    Ministers as “option-makers”
    If we look at our system in this light, it is clear that there is a serious deficiency in the role of Minister as a producer of solutions. Ministers are always members of the majority grouping in the Dáil. This means that the examining role of the Dáil (as the Representative Branch) is very closely tied to the executive role of the Minister as option-maker……………..

    ……Statecraft or the management of public affairs is not easy in modern western democracies. Madison, one of those who drew up the US constitution two hundred years ago, put it as follows — “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men the great difficulty lies in this: first you must enable the government to control the governed and in the next place, you must oblige it to control itself.”

    Our present structure is like a see-saw, with the elected representative function at one end and the Minister/executive role at the other. Any rise in the effectiveness of one implies a drop in the other. A new structure is needed which would cut the tie so that each can be improved without weakening the other equally necessary activity.

    There are very few useful changes that can be made without constitutional amendment to those articles which specify the form of government. It would be a pity to waste energy by attempting to fine-tune the 1920’s-based system by, for example, changing the electoral system or restructuring the Senate. Without much more effort, we could have a completely new model that will bring us to the year 2000 and beyond, by giving our government system the means to be successful while increasing democratic accountability. Only thus can our skills and energies be mobilised to open the paths to better standards of living and greater justice for all who wish to live and work here.

    From Need Government Fail? Published in Business & Finance in May 1987
    Full text available here“

    The logic underlying the ideas in this piece are more fully spelt out in a 1986 paper “A Design for Democracy” which is available here

    Click to access design-for-democracy.pdf

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