Government progress on political reform: some boxes ticked, but much more to do

Posted by David Farrell (March 8, 2012)

The government’s (presumably first) annual report 2012 includes a chapter on political reform, helpfully listing the achievements to date. At first blush, if we take the list purely at face value, it does look impressive enough:

  • The referenda on Oireachtas enquiries and judicial pay
  • Legislation to reduce the number of TDs
  • Legislation relating to political funding
  • Gender quotas
  • Increased Dáil sitting days
  • Reduction in number of Oireachtas committees
  • The new Investigations, Oversight and Petitions Committee
  • Dáil procedural reforms (various)
  • Most ministerial cars gone
  • Ministerial salaries cut
  • Enhanced role for the Oireachtas relating to EU scrutiny
  • Start of local government reform
  • being trialed
  • Public Sector Reform (various issues here) on-going
  • New Department of Public Expenditure and Reform
  • Restructuring of, and more experts in, the Department of Finance
  • Reforms to the estimates process
  • Reform of Top Level Appointments Committee
  • Fiscal Advisory Council established (and soon to be given statutory basis)
  • Decentalization programme stopped

Other things are listed as ‘ongoing’ including:

  • The long awaited Constitutional Convention
  • Referendum on children’s rights
  • Whistleblowers legislation
  • Register of lobbyists

Of course, it would be wrong to let the government off the hook by not noting a number of shortcomings, notably: (1) those matters on the list that hardly rate as ‘political reforms’; (2) those matters not on the list that were in the programme for government; and (3) those matters that really should be on the list but aren’t. Let’s deal with each in turn.

The first criticism should be obvious to readers of this blog. There have been repeated criticisms in various posts and comments over the past 12 months or more about the ‘tick box’ approach the government is taking to political reform; the tendency to list items of varying importance next to each other without any attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff. Rather than going over this well-trodden ground yet again, let’s instead just pause for a moment on the following items: a slight reduction in the number of TDs; Friday Dáil sittings; less Oireachtas committees while more sub-committees; ministers without cars… ‘Nuff said!

Secondly, the list in this annual report is not complete. The issues listed in the Programme for Government that appear, to date, to have been forgotten/sidelined include (the following is by no means a comprehensive list):

  • Reinstatement of proper freedom of information legislation
  • Unvouched expenses
  • Relaxing rules on Cabinet confidentiality
  • Establishing an Electoral Commission
  • Replacing County Managers with Chief Executives
  • A LOT more reform relating to the role and significance of Oireachtas committees
  • (Bizzarely) the much-trumpeted proposal to abolish the Seanad

And, finally, there is the third criticism – again a long-standing bone of contention in posts and comments on this blog – namely that the government has not given enough/any thought to areas of real political reform, i.e. to those aspects of reform that could truly change how politics operates in this country. Again, just a few pointers to illustrate:

  • Serious steps to deal with accountability shortcomings (e.g. secret ballot to elect the Ceann Comhairle; allowing the Dáil to control its own agenda; allocation of committee chairs by d’Hondt; a civil service department for the opposition)
  • Serious steps to address the lack of openness and transparency (e.g. much more than mere reinstatement of freedom of information; publication of audited accounts of political parties)
  • Serious steps to address shortcomings in how representative politics operates here (e.g. radical local government reform; ending ‘hot line’ access by TDs to civil service departments; diversion of parliamentary administrative support away from TDs and to Oireachtas research support services instead)

5 thoughts on “Government progress on political reform: some boxes ticked, but much more to do

  1. The stifling Cabinet tyranny by the dictatorial triumvitrate of Taoiseach, Tánaiste and MInister for Finance who control this State as if we were on a war-footing appears nowhere. Backbenchers,opposition deputies, and to a lesser extent Cabinet members are mere spectators. Their role is to primarily watch and wait while the Big Three rule or ruin the country as the case may be.

    Michael D talks of the “charade” of politics where no one is accountable. No sniff of accountability measures.

    Nothing to deal with these two fundamental issues.


  2. It looks like you have the Government ‘bang to rights’, but you are being terribly unfair. The Government has played a blinder; it deserves genuine, sincere congratulations. You are not giving it the credit it deserves, nor expressing gratitude for the expenditure of so much time, effort and resourse, to project and sustain this elaborate optical illusion. All those who specialise in the art of governance should hold them in awe. Machiavelli, were he alive, would doff his hat.

    I think it would be difficult to find a government, either in the past or currently, whether in a democracy or an authoritarian polity, that has put in so much effort to convey the impression of pursuing deep-seated meaningful reforms while doing everything in its power either to whittle them down to nothingness or to introduce distractions and red herrings to avoid consideration of badly-required reforms.

    Apart from dropping the ball on the Oireachtas inquiries, its management of this whole charade has been well nigh faultless. Governments everywhere are the same – but this one has exceeled in projecting this optical illusion. (The Government of China, in its desire to promote a ‘harmonious society’ should take note.). None will voluntarily relinquish, delegate or devolve any power they have accreted. It must be wrested from them. In addition, law and democratic governance have developed and evolved to resolve the inevitable conflicts that arise in all societies in a peaceful manner and with due process – Churchill’s ‘jaw-jaw rather that war-war’. Rather than having these conflicts resolved to the greatest extent possible in parliaments and being directed to execute and implement the setlled will of the people decided by parliament, governments in the so-called ‘parliamentary democracies’ have accreted more and more power to manage, suppress or resolve these conflicts directly. Huge effort is expended in farcical ‘public consultation’ or ‘partnership processes to suppress any hint of conflict and to secure a ‘stakeholder consensus’. And by operating in this manner governments have exposed themselves more and more to capture by powerful and influential narrown, sectional economic interests operating behind the scenes, but capable of spinning the public agenda to their advantage.

    And maybe this is what a majority of citizens want. Whenever of problem arises in the public domain the cry goes up ‘the government should do something’. It’s certainly what most citizens are used to and, perhaps, can conceive of no other way.

    It is for the elected representatives to demonstrate that there is a better way. And all the citizens’ participation in the world won’t achieve this unless they demand that their public representatives deliver it.

  3. Let’s start off by looking at the facts in relation to Mr Kenny and his claims and let’s take one example.

    Since 2002 Mr Kenny has received a leaders allowance payment of €44k, tax free, which is €440k since 2002. Added to which as per the Oireachtas website, he has claimed an average of €4k per month since 2002, which is €48k per year or €480k since 2002 – all of which is tax free.

    That’s €1million in expenses alone since 2002 and Mr Kenny has never once provided or published a single receipt to show how he spends that money. He is still claiming expenses for his Dublin accomodation costs.

    Mr Gilmore has creamed off the same in leaders costs and don’t forget the money Mrs Gilmore got out of her local taxpayer.

    Yet these men claim they are not motivated by money, I’d hate to see what they’d be doing if they were.

    Also, he claims he took a pay cut when he became Taoiseach but it depends how you look at that issue. The day before he became Taoiseach he was on a TD’s salary of €92k (plus expenses of course) and the day after he became Taoiseach he was getting €200k – so he doubled his income and if you go the other day and say Brian Cowen was earning €214k and Mr Kenny cut it to €200k – big deal. If he’d been told there was no payrise because the country is broke would he have refused to become Taoiseach, would Ministers have refused appointment if they were told they weren’t getting any payrise? Of course not.

    Then there’s the myth about ministerial cars and the ‘savings’ made by withdrawing those cars.

    Now unless I’ve missed it, I have never once seen any member of an Irish government on public transport yet here in Lonond you see politicans and even ministers on public transport all the time and they do not have use of a ministerial car for personal use.

    So the taxpayer footed the cost of the topups paid to the pension of every single garda driver because the terms of their employment changed. So the ‘saving’ by not having so many drivers was lessened by those pension add-ons.

    Then ministers are now allowed to claim the cost of their ‘own’ car on expeneses so instead of the cost of the car being a ‘cost’ a slight of hand allows the government claim to have ‘saved’ that cost when in fact it’s just been transferred to ministers’ expenses.

    Then each minister now has their flash car and 2 drivers, who I assume don’t work for free. So their salaries are paid but the salary is now charged to the department and it gets lost within the department figures.

    So on paper the claim is that the government scrapped all the cars and drivers and ‘saved’ millions but in reality every single minister and junior still has their own car and 2 drivers and the best bit is that some of those ministers have rehired former garda drivers who were ‘retired’ so the taxpayer is paying the pension and the new salary!

    That’s before you even get into FOI or corporate donations or lobbyists.

    Also, why is it I can walk in off the street to listen to proceedings at Westminster or the US Capital but you need to be signed in by a TD or Senator if you want to sit in the Dáil gallery (of course the public aren’t even allowed sit and watch the Seanad).

    There are companies who have more customers than Ireland has citizens and they can cope with offering specific deals to each customer but that is a concept that would blow the mind of our civil service.

    If Mr Kenny is serious about employment he would rip up the ‘how to do things in Ireland’ book and start again and he would find a way so that every single one of the 200,000+ SME businesses in Ireland could set out exactly what they specifically need so that they could each create one new permanent full time job and one part time job and then Mr Kenny would make it his mission to see those specific needs were made happen.

    But someone like Mr Kenny isn’t intellectually capable of thinking like that as he is 100% a product of the system that looks after people like him so well, why would he want to change it.

  4. I have to admit sometimes I get a bit bemused by the eloquent commentary on this site on the faults of the system, the politicians that run the system and the passivity of the citizenry.

    Surely there is a clear pattern that politicans won’t reform themselves or their system.

    In this crisis you would think Kenny-Gilmore-Noonan would spare a moment to reflect on their promises. Fat chance. We need a radical vanguard to get the worried it might make them loos voes if they do nothing.

    • But what crisis do you mean Roger?

      The ‘crisis’ has had zero impact on the political class or those in the public sector above a certain grade – you don’t think any TD ever worries about paying the bills or when have you ever seen a former TD sign on – how are all the TDs who lose seats in 2011 supporting themselves now? On the pensions they receive from the taxpayer yet other people who lose their jobs are lucky to get a modest redundancy and they can’t access pension until they are 65.

      Remember Mr Kenny has cleared €1million tax free in expenses since 2002and Mr Rabbitte about half a million and Mr Gilmore about a half a million (and others of course have lined their pockets too) so when you hear them talk about equality etc bear that in mind. Also don’t forget these two were members of SF then the WP then Democratic Left! Funny how those who start off on the far left always seem to end up far away from the far left and personally very wealthy after careers in politics. I’ve yet to hear of a socialist politician who ever dies poor?

      Plus add in how all most Irish people do is whinge into a pint but ask them to actually get up off their backside and do something and then they look at you like you’re insane.

      So Kenny & Gilmore know whenever any issue is on the frontpage they just have to bear it for a few days and it’s old news.

      The Irish public don’t have the attention span to reform anything it would seem. How many Irish people have even gone to the effort of goggling info on this new treaty to educate themselves on something that will add a debt burden onto the backs of their as yet to be born grandchildren – you’d think most people would want to know what they were voting for? Perhaps they are holding back until they see the wording and know the date.

      But I would bet that when the ‘deal’ on the debt is announced suddenly the government will find out it can have a vote asap so they can link the ‘deal’ to the vote but for some reason they don’t want to link the ‘debt’ with the vote – I mean if austrity is working, why would we even need access to a 2nd bailout and where is the money to repay that bail-out going to come from?

      The storm in a teacup over ‘the tweet’ is an example with all the attention focused on how the tweet was relayed and not on why Mr Gallagher was a party to collecting money in envelopes for Fianna Fáil in the first place regardless of where the collectioin took place or whether he claims it was ‘legitimate’ (the only way to make a legitimate donation to a political party is to do so officially and to make sure there is a public official record of the donation no matter what the amount is and when any donation cannot be traced publicly – whether it’s from a little old lady or a develope then we need to ask questions) and also he needs to ponder why is it the public were so quick to accept he was the type of person likely to be taking dig-outs and lie about his involvement with Fianna Fáil.

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