National Governance

The Quality of National Governance can not Exceed the Quality of those who Govern

If Ireland were a business the Director’s would be held liable for reckless trading and the concern would be wound up. Angry shareholders would have good reason for demanding answers to a litany of complaints.

Why did you stimulate rather than curtail the construction bubble? Mention of a property tax and withdrawal of tax incentives would have done the job even though you no longer control interest rates or currency. Why did you narrow rather than broaden the tax base and ignore warnings that the building bubble and the associated tax bubble were going to burst? Why did you increase public sector salaries by 25% above the consumer price index since 2000 and at the same time add 71,800 people to the public pay roll? As a result you have unnecessarily increased the annual tax bill by €7b.  In 2000 Ireland was the worlds 4th most competitive country, but your mismanagement since then and the extra €7b tax burden have contributed to plummeting competitiveness and bankruptcy. Why did you fail to curtail pay increases or deal with the sustained erosion of competitiveness? Why did you fail to act prudently in regulating the banks? Why did you fail to take evidence-based policy decisions in a whole spectrum of areas that you have got seriously wrong, such as planning policy, energy policy, decentralisation policy, Irish language policy? Why did you not tidy up the 25 separate pieces of labour legislation and the 7 enforcement bodies that make Ireland one of the most regulated countries in the EU; and for that reason less attractive for foreign direct investment? Why did you further compound the quagmire for enterprise and discourage investment by adding an eight regulatory body, the National Employment Rights Authority?

From this litany of complaints must follow the key question: why has national governance been so defective?  It is not because members of the Government are lazy. Anyone who is familiar with the ministerial work load can only marvel that it can be sustained.  The ministerial executive role of managing a large budget, the portfolio of public organisations, party politics, ceremonial duties, media traps, exhausting international travel and the petty but vital constituency issues, combine to make the life of an Irish Minister unenviable. Most Ministers I have had the opportunity of knowing over the years have been totally dedicated to doing their jobs in the best possible way.  But the best possible way is constrained both by the extent of their own ability and the need to be re-elected. There are vivid examples during the past decades of effective Ministers who focussed on major national issues of the day, who took the correct and difficult decisions but who failed to pander to their local constituents and were not re-elected.  As a result Ministers know that responding to clientism is the best formula for re-election: taking difficult decisions is not.

Given this backdrop there is good reason to conclude that the solution to improving national governance can best be found in changing the election process. It is self-evident that the quality of national governance can not exceed the quality of those who govern.

We have one of the most conservative and unaltered constitutions in Europe: a constitution which was shaped in 1937 by an old-fashioned politician for an inward -looking, agrarian, slow-moving country.…/Constitution%20of%20Ireland.pdf In the mean-time World War II disrupted and reshaped Europe; subsequently the Soviet Union disintegrated. Since 1950 almost all the countries of Europe, with the exception of our nearest neighbour, have introduced new constitutions, new electoral processes and new systems of national governance: systems geared to the need for proactive response in a fast-moving world.  Those that had electoral systems similar to Ireland have long since abandoned them: leaving Malta with Ireland as fossilised remnants of an old fashioned unresponsive political system. The new European democracies have shunned the Irish system of election and national governance.  All have adopted versions of the Scandinavian List System whereby members of parliament are elected partially from local constituencies and partially from party lists of individuals that have proven records of distinguished national and international achievement: many from business and the professions. When a government is being formed in these countries the Prime Minister has available a rich pool of proven talent from which to select the Government.  In most advanced democracies such as Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the Netherlands a clear distinction is also drawn between the executive (Ministers) and the legislative branches of government.  As a result those who are appointed to executive roles as Ministers do not have conflicting parliamentary duties: their challenge is not to be re-elected but to make the right things happen.  Without the distraction of constituency and legislative affairs Ministers, and the Government as a whole, can focus on their demanding executive responsibilities and when necessary take timely and unpopular decisions that are in the best long-term interests of the country as a whole.

We should not blame the current and former members of Government personally for their grave mismanagement during the past decade.  Each has acted to the limits of their ability. Our system of election and national governance in effect deters the Government from moving swiftly and taking difficult decisions. While our electoral process results in the election of a small number of excellent people the pool from which a Taoiseach draws when forming a Government is limited indeed, because in effect it bypasses leaders of enterprise and the professions with the necessary strategic management skills and experience. Our system of election draws over 80 percent of the Oireachtas from a group of some 1000 people: the members of local authorities.  While a county or city council would certainly be a source of pleasant and well-intentioned people it would be an unlikely source of the experienced talent required to strategically guide national policy and effectively manage a multi-billion budget. Every democracy needs  participation from the parish pump in its parliament, but when all of its members are drawn from that same source, to the exclusion of the necessary available talent, the outcome is as we have it: not good.

The Leader of Fine Gael, Enda Kenny has shown leadership and a willingness to challenge the status quo while facing down his own colleagues. He has had the courage to address the elephant in the room:  the failure of the Oireachtas and the need for radical reform.  The most important element of his proposal is the introduction of the List System: since it represents the best and proven means of introducing the most experienced and talented citizens into parliament.  Whether or not the Seanad is retained, or Dail membership reduced, are matters of lesser consequence. If the Taoiseach has a rich pool of talent from which to draw when forming a Cabinet better government can be expected irrespective of the size or structure of the Oireachtas.

Under the existing electoral system, and based on performance of the opposition members, there is no reason to believe that a change of government would significantly improve the current dire situation: opposition membership is drawn from similar sources and if in government would face the existing constraints.

Unless Ireland does as New Zealand did in 1992, along with the new European democracies at about the same time, and replaces its existing outmoded electoral system its governments will continue to be constrained in taking difficult decisions and acting promptly.…/content~db=all~content=a790945601  Ireland will continue to have well-intentioned but inexperienced Ministers fearful of making serious mistakes as they attempting to learn on the job, or worse than that, postponing difficult decisions indefinitely. Ireland is in grave danger: continuation of the kind of governance and leadership we have endured during the past decade not only threatens Ireland’s economic prospects but possibly also the stability of the State.

While demonstrations are still peaceful, and one sincerely hopes they will remain so, there is no cause for complacency. The trauma of debt, job-loss, taxation, home repossession and frustration will intensify in 2010.  Far better for a Prime Minister to give leadership and show statesmanship in a peaceful environment rather than being forced to act in what appears to be a response to street violence. Serious unrest may well make an appearance in 2010, as it did in Iceland, unless things change, and are seen to change significantly. It is imperative that the Taoiseach acts now and behaves with the kind of statesmanship citizens expect from their Prime Minister at a time of great national crisis.  He and his Government have failed to respond swiftly and effectively since the onset of the crisis. The Oireachtas has not risen to the occasion by conveying a new seriousness appropriate to these dangerous times; rather it has continued the pursuit of trivia and political blood-sports in a raucous way that has not enhanced its standing. It is unlikely that the Oireachtas still commands the confidence of its citizens. Both time and patience are now in short supply.

There is still hope that Brian Cowen can give the kind of strong leadership expected at a time of crisis in addressing major national issues. Reform of national governance is one of the most important. He should respond to Enda Kenny in a spirit of partnership with a view to jointly appointing a small international commission including former distinguished EU Prime Ministers to report by April 2010 on Oireachtas reform and a new electoral system…. followed by a September referendum.

As an immediate measure the Taoiseach could announce a Government reshuffle in December and bring world-class talent and experience into Cabinet. Were they willing to do so people of the calibre of Intel’s Jim O’Hara or Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary could be Government Ministers by 15 December?  How could this happen? Article 7.2 of the Constitution permits two members of the Seanad to be members of Government. Three Seanad vacancies are due to be filled on 14 December. The Government’s majority in both houses gives it effective control over the filling of these seats. It is expected that three county councillors will be nominated.

However the Taoiseach has an opportunity to rise above the mundane at this time of national crisis and do the unprecedented: reach out into the national talent pool and bring the best of it into Government.  Were he to do so his own ratings would be transformed and a clear signal would issue nationally and internationally that the Irish Government is serious about recovery and the long haul back to prosperity.

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