Time for a ministerial shake-up
We need to act like France, which made radical changes to start again with a blank slate
Alan Shatter started and ended last week in possession of a seal of ministerial office. The same cannot be said for many of his erstwhile counterparts in France. There, half of the cabinet was either summarily fired or reshuffled out of ministries over the past seven days. Why are there so few resignations and sackings in Irish public life compared with peer countries, why are reshuffles less common and more limited when they do happen, and can anything be done to make Ireland more normal in this regard?
The rarity of high-level resignations and sackings has long been remarked upon despairingly by those with an interest in improving our quality of governance. "We don't have a culture of accountability", is the common lament of those who wonder – for instance, how Shatter can get away with police-state tactics of using garda-obtained information against a political opponent during a television debate or how James Reilly can remain as Health Minister after being caught out so blatantly favouring his own constituency in the allocation of primary care centres.
The lamenters will very frequently follow up their observation about the lack of accountability with a call along the lines of "we need to change our political culture", as if positive change is going to come about by magic.
Cultural change is usually difficult to engineer and almost always takes a lot of time. But it is always happening, both because cultures of all kinds are constantly changing and evolving of their own accord, and – crucially – because actions can and are taken to bring about desired change. There are plenty of examples of the latter in public life. The end of smoking in
public places happened by way of a simple prohibition, not because smokers spontaneously decided to "change their culture" and get their nicotine fix out of doors. The curbing of drink-driving was engineered via a whole range of measures, from lowering blood-alcohol thresholds, to more checkpoints on the roads, to the use of awareness campaigns.
Can anything be done to make holders of ministerial office more accountable? As it happens, last week marked the winding-up of the Constitutional Convention set up to look at how the State's institutional infrastructure might be modernised. It put forward two proposals that could change the culture of ministerial accountability and would certainly make Ireland's core political institutions more like those in most other democracies (and less like the Westminster model we inherited).
The 100-person convention proposed that people who are not members of the Oireachtas could be made ministers and that TDs and senators who take up ministerial office be obliged to resign their parliamentary seats so that the crazy practice of double jobbing as lawmaker and executive office holder be done away with. If the Government decides to put these proposals to referendum, and if the people vote in favour, there could well be a real improvement in the quality of Irish governance.
To see why, imagine if the Justice Minister was not Alan Shatter, but a non-politician who had been given the job of implementing the relevant part of the programme for government in 2011. Given the upheavals in that department in recent months, and regardless of the extent to which Shatter is culpable, he has presided over the debacle.
Sorting it out would be best done by appointing a new minister who has no baggage and can start with a blank slate. It is exactly for that reason that French president Francois Hollande made such sweeping changes to his ministerial line-up last week.
But in our system, because Shatter is so deeply embedded in Fine Gael, firing him would be seen as a defeat for the party and an admission of having got it wrong, rather than a proactively cathartic act, as the firings and reshufflings in France last week were seen there. In countries – from the US to the Netherlands and Norway to Austria – where ministers often have little or no connection to the party that appoints them, moving them on is much easier to do if they have erred or if a fresh start is needed.
But it is more than just loyalty to party colleagues that inhibits taoisigh from firing ministers, or even reshuffling them against their wishes. Fear is also a factor. That fear is that the dumped minister would go to the backbenches and foment trouble or – worse still – leave the government benches altogether. Michael Lowry is a classic example. Since he was forced out of ministerial office in 1996, he has deprived Fine Gael of a likely seat in Tipperary North for almost two decades.
Breaking the link between parliamentary and ministerial office would also make the Oireachtas more capable of holding ministers to account, partly because legislators would be tougher with somebody who was not one of their own colleagues.
Another effect of separating the Government from the Oireachtas would be to change the career path of elected representatives. Instead of all ambitious government backbench TDs keeping on the good side of the party leaders in the hope of being appointed ministers, more would view the role of parliamentarian as a proper job in itself, as is the case in most other countries (for an ex-insider's view of how the Dail works, you will not find a better description than that contained in Ivan Yates's column in Thursday's Irish Independent).
Instead of seeking the "prize" of executive office, elected representatives could focus on building parliamentary power bases in the committee system, as happens in other countries and in the second parliament to which Irish citizens elect members – the European Parliament.
Indeed, the very notion of second-tier parliamentary "backbenchers" would disappear if cabinet members were not allowed to have seats in the legislature. In non-Westminster systems, including the European Parliament, the concept of the "back benches" and "front benches" is unknown because the executive branch of government is not mashed into the legislative branch, and each has its own clearly demarked powers.
If the suggestions of the Constitutional Convention came into effect, it would mean a much clearer separation between government and parliament, something that is a foundation stone of modern democracy. We had the misfortune to inherit the Westminster system, which, because it was already well developed before 18th-Century enlightenment thinkers developed the doctrine of the separation of powers, makes little distinction between the two branches of government.
With the 100th anniversary of the severing of the link with Britain fast approaching, it is past time we started thinking outside a British box when it comes to the basic institutions of government. Accountability of ministers, and much else besides, would be improved if we moved towards the more normal arrangements of most of the rest of the democratic world.