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Analysis/Comment Last Updated: Oct 3, 2010 - 8:21:17 AM

New approach needed to fix broken Irish political system
By Michael Hennigan, Founder and Editor of Finfacts
Apr 1, 2009 - 5:20:37 AM

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The sign "The Buck Stops Here" was on President Harry Truman's desk in the White House Oval Office (1945-1953). On the reverse side, i.e. the side that Truman saw, it was inscribed, "I'm from Missouri". That's a short form of "I'm from Missouri. Show me". Natives of that state (a.k.a. the Show Me State), which included Truman, were known for their skeptical nature. As President Truman said, "The President – whoever he is – has to decide. He can’t pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That’s his job."

The saying "the buck stops here" derives from the slang expression "pass the buck" which means passing the responsibility on to someone else. The latter expression is said to have originated with the game of poker, in which a marker or counter, frequently in frontier days a knife with a buckhorn handle, was used to indicate the person whose turn it was to deal. If the player did not wish to deal he could pass the responsibility by passing the "buck," as the counter came to be called, to the next player.

Facing a very serious economic crisis, Ireland remains a very conservative country and while we can look back with wonder at the debacle in 1951 about the Mother and Child Scheme, vested interests in property, the professions, farmers and trade unions, continue to resist change with little countervailing political force. Clientism can give the individual a perception of access but it is an illusion. There is however much, that can be done at minimal cost to change a system of failure.

"Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants," Louis Brandeis said in 1914 - two years before he became a justice of the US Supreme Court

 Days in advance of an emergency budget on April 7th, there is little sunlight on Irish public spending and the public procurement process. The outdated secrecy promotes bad government and cronyism.

 Summaries of Departmental spending are published but no information is provided on cross-Departmental spending categories. A Freedom of Information (FOI) request would have to be submitted to 15 Departments and onward to local councils for a full picture - -  but at an undermined cost. It’s not even clear if the Department of Finance produces such data for its own use.  So detail on public spending is made available via a hodge-podge of FoI requests and Dáil questions. The world of procurement is even more opaque and basic information such as the top 100 suppliers to the State, is unknown. What chance has a start-up in such a system of Insiders?

The article below is published in  today's issue of The Irish Times:

OPINION: Pervasive cronyism must be replaced if the country is to start making progress, writes MICHAEL HENNIGAN.

US PRESIDENT Harry Truman had a sign on his desk, which read: The Buck Stops Here. In Ireland, despite the second period of monumental economic mismanagement in a generation, there appears to be little appetite to fix a broken political system that had its genesis in the era of the donkey and cart.

For Irish politicians the country remains beyond a radius of 15 miles from Leinster House in central Dublin.

Parallel with an economy dominated by world-class American companies is a governance system with little accountability; a default mode of responding to problems only when there is a dire crisis; a culture of cronyism, that in the developed world is only rivalled by Japan’s, where one party has also held power for too long; a level of transparency on public spending that predates the information technology age; a part-time parliament of 216 members, who are among the best-paid in the world but during the current crisis most voters would struggle to name five to 10 who have provided a credible response or vision, and a slow-motion process of government, where ministers are generally one or more reports away from making decisions, vividly illustrated by a 17-page reply in 2004, to a Dáil question, which confirmed that minister for health Micheál Martin had commissioned 145 reports over four years.

The collateral damage of the broken political system is the avoidable ruination of tens of thousands of lives during the current economic crisis, while in or out of power current political leaders will remain in clover.

Ireland compares with New Zealand in economic development and population terms. New Zealand has 122 members of parliament and 25 ministers compared with Ireland’s 216 members and 35 ministers. A Kiwi MP is paid the equivalent of €55,500 compared with more than €100,000 paid to a TD and expenses are also very moderate. The Oireachtas is shuttered for more than three months each summer, while the New Zealand parliament is only closed for a maximum of one month, usually in January. On transparency, the Oireachtas website provides no information on pay and allowances in contrast with its Kiwi counterpart, and spending on a system that has patently failed the Irish public has risen at more than annual rates of 12 per cent, in recent years.

It’s instructive to consider that the biggest potential reform in recent decades was the decision to transfer half of the public service out of Dublin and the related Tammany Hall style lucky-dip division of the spoils by ministers, for their constituencies.

It was as bogus as the farcically named benchmarking scheme where an average pay rise of 9 per cent was sanctioned, even though the claim of underpayment, compared with the private sector, was not sustainable.

In April 2008 former taoiseach Bertie Ahern launched a report by the OECD on the public service and said that an estimated 800 State agencies, commonly known as quangos, was “too many by half”.

Almost a year later, a report from a review group is pending. Why would an epic economic crisis accelerate action? Political leaders set a target to become a world-class knowledge economy by 2013, but the inability to provide a broadband service, comparable with countries such as Denmark and South Korea, didn’t seem to matter.

The Irish, Chinese and Mexicans had built America’s transcontinental railroad in the 1860s and Chinese and Irish crews were chosen to lay the final 10 miles of track to meet the May 10th, 1869, deadline, when the railroads from the east and west would meet at Promontory, Utah. It was completed in only 12 hours. Today in Ireland, 41 years after the completion of the Dublin-Naas dual carriageway, a Dublin-Cork motorway is still a work-in-progress. It took nearly 36 years to complete 80 kilometres of continuous motorway/dual carriageway, from Dublin to the Cork/Limerick side of Portlaoise.

Windfalls from the boom aided by the likes of Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide, enabled developers and farmers to become landlords in the capital of the defunct British empire, while crumbs were left for investment in the Irish-owned tradeable goods and services sector. Where else in the developed world would a public tribunal inquiring into planning corruption be sitting for more than 11 years, while nothing is done to change the underlying system?

Ireland’s crack cocaine, the land rezoning system, creates an artificial scarcity in a country that is 4 per cent urbanised. Owners of land, who are already in receipt of public income subsidies, make huge windfalls where property has been rezoned or there is a potential for rezoning. It is a tax on everyone else. Councillors have power to rezone, including the significant number that make a living from the property industry.

In 2001, the Irish Farmers’ Association under the leadership of Tom Parlon, forced the government to agree new terms for land acquisition for road building. The Comptroller and Auditor General said, in a 2004 report, that traditionally land accounted for about 11 per cent of the cost of a new road project. By 2006, the National Roads Authority estimated that 23 per cent of the €18.5 billion roads budget in the current National Development Plan would go to farmers.

Thirty years after the so-called Kenny Report, recommended that the price of land for housing should be based on agricultural value plus 25 per cent, Parlon, then a PD minister of state, said: “Any measure giving the State the power to control the value of private assets would have major negative ramifications for thousands of property owners and would be a jump back to the dark days of the 19th century . . . Such an approach is gift-wrapped in an ideology somewhere left of Stalin.” And taking State handouts, is maybe to the right of Stalin? It is also worth noting that unzoned Irish farmland is currently the most expensive in Europe and no public statistics are issued on development land sales. Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan has promised to end crony capitalism with changes in rules applying to company directorships. Beyond such baby steps, there is no evidence that Taoiseach Brian Cowen will embrace radical change. The current Irish system of election favours nepotism and generally produces national politicians who have been promoted beyond their capacities. Politics is dominated by teachers, auctioneers, farmers, publicans and small-town solicitors.

In 1996, the Constitution Review Group, which was chaired by Dr TK Whitaker, recommended a list system which allocates parliamentary representation proportionately to parties but lets parties choose the members of parliament.

A number of countries have changed their electoral systems in recent decades. Italy, Japan and New Zealand have switched to “mixed systems” of the German type, which combine national lists (where political parties offer lists of the most capable people willing to serve) alongside constituency representation. This would dilute the hold of vested interests and localism. An improved citizens’ bureau system and a halving of national representation should also promote efficiency.

The nexus of the dominant political party Fianna Fáil with the construction industry, the election of one-issue candidates who are bizarrely termed “Independents” and small niche parties, has effectively made Ireland a one-party State.

The buck appears to stop nowhere, and during the boom no one among the well-paid establishment shouted stop, including the Central Bank governor. Transparency, the appointment of overseas professionals to procurement, senior recruitment, public appointment and international best practice panels, would signal a commitment to change from pervasive cronyism. Tackling vested interests, would take political courage and it’s easier to say in the White House “Is féidir linn”, than to make a new departure at home. The critical question is the limit of public patience with the conspiracy against the public interest, as a detached elite fails to fix a broken system?

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