No Contest: Shane Ross on election of Public Accounts Committee Chairman

Very interesting article from Shane Ross on Sunday about his perspective on the ‘contest’ for the PAC chairmanship. If you didn’t get to read it, I’d suggest following the link for a look.

This is a story that went relatively unnoticed in the Irish weekend radio/newspaper coverage that I picked up from Amsterdam, but it seems to me to be quite telling. The story builds on Jane’s earlier post about the depth and impact of the reforms that the new government has undertaken to the Committee system. This insider account of the nomination process for the PAC chairmanship reinforces Jane’s conclusion that ‘ The parties still nominate and divvy up the chairmanships’. 

Perhaps the reputation of McGuinness as an individual is important to bear in mind here – certainly he was somewhat outside of the favoured circle in the previous regime, and his co-authored book ‘The House Always Wins’ was one of the most cogent recent analyses of the failings of the Irish political/administrative systems that I’ve read, especially coming from an elected representative. So I don’t think that McGuinness is a bad appointment at all, and I think that he will bring plenty of energy and new ideas to the role.

Still though, it seems to me that it would have been better if there had been a free vote with open hustings on the PAC chair position. It’s hard to think of many TDs who have demonstrated a committment and capacity on policing public expenditure that would match Ross’s record. The sad thing is that there never really was a debate on who might actually be best for the job, you know, in terms of defending the interests of the people. Hard to imagine, I know, but maybe that should have been a key criterion for the position? In the event, the matter was sewn up before that conversation could even get started.

The seeming unwillingness of ‘back benchers’ to defy the executive on even marginal matters such a Committee chairmanship appointments in Ireland is difficult to explain, especially when our electoral system provides such strong incentives towards legislative individualsim. It is hard to say whether it stems from a finely developed sense of careerism, a natural culture of deference, a fear of  the consequences of whip loss, the lack of attention that voters pay to such matters, or perhaps just unusually high ‘cohesion’ (i.e., maybe TDs just tend to agree with their party leadership in nearly all matters). There is little doubt, however, that this ‘go along to get along’ approach to casting one’s vote, more than the actual institutional rules of procedure, leads to an exceptionally anemic lower house. 

It is telling that Ross reports that ‘ Fine Gael members were angry when they were forced to vote publicly for Fianna Fail’. The anger of FG members indicates that the extent to which the line is towed in Irish politics is not something that TDs are too keen to emphasize in public or in their constituencies.

Overall, I have to conclude that the chair selection procedure that we have just witnessed for the PAC chairmanship doesn’t augur well for promises of a more robust committee system, even though it managed to produce a reasonable appointment.

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7 thoughts on “No Contest: Shane Ross on election of Public Accounts Committee Chairman

  1. Out of interest, are there any legislatures where the chair of a committee isn’t within the powers of the parties? Shane Ross seems to be going on about this is a unique feature of Irish politics, as if the same doesn’t happen in the US, UK, or EP.

    • The short answer to your question is the UK House of Commons. In recent times, UK parliamentarians have made some fairly deep reforms to their committee system (arising out of work done by Tony Wright and the Reform of the House of Commons Select Committee http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200809/cmselect/cmrefhoc/1117/111702.htm ). I’m not aware of other countries where committee reforms have come anywhere close to this. Many parliaments (e.g. Canada, Australia, UK, Scotland, European Parliament) use secret ballots to elect their speakers/chairs/vice-chairs. In terms of committees, several European countries do use the d’Hondt or a similar method to proportionately allocate committee chairs to political parties. This means parties still control the allocation, but at least positions are divvied out fairly (at least in party terms), which is more than can be said for here. I think committee chairs/vice-chairs are allocated via secret ballot in the European Parliament. But am not familiar enough with that body to say how this works out in practice.

      However, recent committee reforms in the UK do ensure committees are largely outside of party control. Committee membership is determined by secret ballot within party groups. Most committee chairs are now elected by AV by a secret ballot of the entire house. There’s still a certain degree of party control in that the parties first agree amongst themselves which party is to get which chair. This is done proportionately so in the current parliament the Conservatives got 12 chairs, Labour got 10 and the Liberal Democrats 2. So all contests for committee chairs saw MPs from the same party competing with each other (yet still in a ballot by the entire house). For 8 committees only one candidate put themselves forward, and who therefore was returned unopposed. For 16 committees secret ballots took place for the chairs, with anything from 2 to 6 candidates competing (with the average number of candidates being around 3). So, even if a chair was allocated to a government party, candidates for the chair still had to canvass opposition MPs.

      Not all of the Wright report has been implemented. The report proposed transferring substantial control of House of Commons business away from the government and back to the House via two new committees: the Backbench Business Committee and the House Business Committee. The Backbench Business Committee was indeed created last year (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Backbench_Business_Committee ). The chair of this committee is elected by AV secret ballot and its other members by a secret STV ballot from the entire house. This committee controls house business for time allocated to backbenchers (roughly one day a week when the House is sitting).

      The House Business Committee hasn’t yet been created. The Wright report proposed this have a substantial input into choice and scheduling of House of Commons business and be composed of backbenchers (those MPs elected to the Backbench Business Committee), and members of the government and opposition party front-benches, and one of the deputy-speakers (Chairman of Ways and Means) elected by secret AV by the entire house.

      The current UK coalition government has committed to implementing more of the Wright committee report (see p. 27 of its programme for government http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/sites/default/files/resources/coalition_programme_for_government.pdf – this also contains an interesting summary of its other political reform proposals), and has committed to creating this House Business Committee later in this parliamentary term.

      Some interesting comments and reflections and these reforms and 2010 committee elections can be found in the following magazine article http://www.totalpolitics.com/articles/4933/a-house-rebuilt.thtml

  2. “Deputy John Deasy: As far as the Government Deputies are concerned, the Whip was applied to our vote. I cannot speak for anyone else, but had there been a free vote, I would still have voted for Deputy John McGuinness as Chairman. Deputy Shane Ross should not assume that he would make a better Chairman. I would have some concerns about him and his cheerleading of Michael Fingleton and Seánie FitzPatrick in the past decade.”

  3. On Sunday last (Marian Finucane RTE R1), Minister Joan Burton TD defended this appointment (by the Government parties) on the basis of Dáil custom, practice and procedure. It is precisely custom, practice and procedure in our way of governing ourselves that got us into the crisis in which we are. Our political, administrative and governing elites have failed. Carrying on as before is no longer acceptable.

    As Achille Ratti, a well known Italian mountaineer, is reported to have said, “I am all in favour of tradition. That is why I like starting new ones”

    Yet the government continues its do-minimum policies and practices on political and institutional reform.

    In another thread, I posted some comments in response to Joanna Tuffy’s defence of the the existing Dáil Committees. see here

    https://politicalreform.ie/2011/06/09/committee-reforms-a-good-start-or-not-enough/comment-page-1/#comment-5137

    My key point is that without full separation of the Dáil from the Government, neither can be reformed to the extent needed.

    As an example of the contempt with which the powers that be treat the Dáil, the Ceann Comhairle has not been given a state car with two drivers – to match those given to the President as Head of State, Taoiseach as Head of Government and the Chief Justice as head of the Judiciary.

    The Ceann Comhairle now ranks below the Minister for Justice and the Director of Public Prosecutions see here http://www.taoiseach.gov.ie/eng/Government_Press_Office/Government_Press_Releases_20111/Ministerial_Transport_cuts_and_staffing_reductions_.html

    IMO, the Ceann Comhairle as head of the Dáil – our directly elected legislative assembly – merits equal status with the other major offices of state.

    • At least the impression is conveyed that the Vice-Chair position remains open – though we all know it isn’t.

      Politcial reform, how are ya.

  4. Why does Shane Ross think he is more suitable than someone from Fianna Fáil as it’s not clear to me? Mr Ross as far as I can see is no more open and honest about his financial dealings than any of the people he professes to be better than.

    Mr Ross is a stockbroker and that profession is even more of a closed shop than most others and is even less transparent about the fee formula than even the legal profession.

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