Our double-jobbing politicians are unique - but not in a good way not in a good way
Forcing ministers to quit the Dail could radically improve the quality of governance in Ireland
Published 10/01/2016 | 02:30
Doing two full-time jobs at the same time is not something most people would wish to do. Employers don't like the idea either. Almost no organisation seeks or allows its employees to hold two full-time jobs simultaneously, not least because neither job will be done well.
But that is exactly how the Irish State is run. Unlike most other democracies, particularly those which don't ape Westminster ways, all Irish ministers are also full-time TDs. And because of an electoral system that makes TDs do more constituency work than their counterparts in most other parliaments, the double-jobbing that Irish ministers do is all the more onerous.
This is a recipe for poor government, and not only because of the overstretch it causes. The near-unique electoral system means that ministers have a much greater incentive to devote energy to their constituencies than they do to toiling at departmental business - there is lots of evidence to show that voters give much more weight to constituency legwork from which they often benefit directly than the often obscure work a minister might do in downtown Dublin.
The incentive for ministers to prioritise constituency work over ministerial business is particularly damaging when it comes to planning ahead. While short-termism is a weakness inherent in all democracies owing to the electoral cycle, the problem is more pronounced in Ireland than most other peer countries, something which is best illustrated by Ireland's unique record of serial economic crises over the seven decades. If those at the wheel are not paying attention, a crash becomes more likely. Governing in a fast-paced, modern world with all its complexities and challenges means that crashes are inevitable if governments aren't watching for dangers ahead.
When it comes to day-to-day management of government departments, civil servants do most of the work. The central role of ministers is to look ahead for opportunities and threats and to provide strategic direction. Too often that simply doesn't happen.
Brian Cowen's testimony before the Banking Inquiry last year illustrated how bad the problem can be. He was finance minister from 2004, around the time the credit bubble began to inflate. He moved from next door to the Taoiseach's office in 2008 as it was bursting. But when questioned for many hours last July, it was abundantly clear how little he focused on his ministerial job and his constant use of the passive voice ("it was believed") rather than the active ("I believe) showed that he was more like an observer of events at the time rather than the man who should have been shaping them.
And that was true not only of issues relating to banks and credit, but other aspects of economic stewardship including insulating the public finances from crisis and driving national competitiveness.
Another huge failure resulting from amateur, part-time ministers in recent times is the Department of Social Protection. During the boom years, there was a golden opportunity to reform the welfare system so that resources could be focused on those who were out of work and out of the labour force. This was necessary because Ireland had an unusually high rate of jobless households compared with the rest of Europe, even though jobs were so plentiful that immigrants were coming in their droves to take them.
But to say that there was an absence of innovation and learning from the experiences of other countries in that department would be to seriously understate the inertia. It is not clear that successive ministers during the years of plenty even recognised the problem. It is clear that the civil servants in the department did not view it as their role to suggest reforms or drive any form of policy innovation.
It is odd that many people, including some close observers of political matters, seem oblivious to how unusual the Irish way of insisting ministers also be TDs is. Terry Prone - a wise and worldly woman - once on radio described the practice that obtains in most of the democratic world as "undemocratic". On the contrary, separating the functions of lawmakers and the executive branch of government is actually more democratic, as that term is generally understood.
The second parliament to which Irish voters elect representatives - the European Parliament - is a good starting point to show how unusual Ireland is. The notion that an MEP could simultaneously be a European commissioner (the closest thing to a minister in the EU system) has never been entertained.
When MEPs move to the Berlaymont, long-existing rules against double-jobbing forbid them from hanging on to their seat in Strasbourg. The current Estonian commissioner is just one example.
On the other side of the Atlantic it is exactly the same. When Barack Obama offered Hilary Clinton the job of secretary of state just after he won the presidency, she was a senator. In order to join his cabinet, the strict separation of powers contained in the US constitution demanded that she leave congress. Ditto then senator John Kerry when he took over from Clinton three years ago.
We do things very differently. Article 28.7 of Bunreacht na hEireann says all ministers must be members of the Oireachtas. And even that is qualified - a maximum of two members of the Cabinet can be senators, with all the rest coming from the Dail.
Reducing the pool of potential ministers to a few dozen already fully employed people is a form of lunacy that guarantees a weakened executive. It weakens the quality of Irish democracy, too.
After electoral accountability, the concept of separating state powers is probably the most important political innovation of all time. Not only does it make the branches of government more effective generally, it makes parliaments much better at holding governments to account.
And lest anyone doubt just how weak the Oireachtas is, a recent report by the OECD on the powers of parliaments to influence budgetary matters found that the Oireachtas was the weakest parliament among the 30 advanced countries around the world.
While there are multiple reasons explaining the comparative weakness of the Oireachtas vis-a-vis the executive, one of them is the lack of separation between the two.
With 30 ministers and junior ministers, close to one in three TDs in Fine Gael and Labour is double-jobbing. The problem is made worse because most backbenchers have ambitions to become ministers, rather than rise in the Oireachtas ranks as is the case in most parliaments, they toe the government line and forgo independence.
If there was a single political reform that could really improve the quality of Irish governance, it would be for Ireland to become more normal in how it separates powers among the branches of government. In other words, to institute the very normal practice that obtains in other democracies, whereby any member of parliament who takes ministerial office must resign from the Oireachtas.
In the last election, Fianna Fail included the idea of separating the executive and legislative functions. Hopefully, that party and others will commit to the idea in the manifestos they are finalising now.