Let's give our committees real teeth
We should beware any State attempt to emasculate, not strengthen, the arm of parliament that has proven potential
Published 06/04/2014 | 02:30
Is the Dail being sidelined by its committees? Recent political earthquakes have tightened tension between cabinet members and Oireachtas committees. The more arrogant cabinet ministers see Oireachtas committee members as their servants. The more enlightened servants see their role as holding their ministerial masters to account.
Conflicting pressures have been ballooning at the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), where government TDs have been torn between their duty to hold the powerful to account and the need to remain in favour with their party bosses. Sceptics suggest that some are treading a delicate line between nurturing their promotion prospects and fulfilling their obligation to challenge the establishment.
Whatever the restrictions on government TDs, the PAC has certainly been receiving unfavourable vibes from the Cabinet in recent controversies. It has been responsible for the exposure of the shenanigans at the Central Remedial Clinic, Rehab and other charities. Our decision to give a platform to a garda whistleblower and to question Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan led to his resignation.
This week, Rehab will be back to answer questions, with or without former chief executives Angela Kerins and Frank Flannery.
As a result of the PAC's probes, heads have been rolling at the top of Irish charities, Irish hospitals and the gardai. The PAC does not seek heads, merely to elicit information about the destination and source of public money. The committee is seen to be effective because it has revealed (and now hopes to remedy) the rotten culture at the highest echelons in Ireland. As each story unravels, heads will inevitably roll.
Why does the Dail not perform this task? Because the Dail is being reduced to rubble.
Few TDs will dispute that the chamber is descending into a Roman amphitheatre. It is often dramatic, sometimes entertaining, but rarely relevant.
Today the action is off-stage.
Parliamentary power is concentrated in the hands of Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore, Finance Minister Michael Noonan and his Public Expenditure and Reform colleague Brendan Howlin. The cabinet rubber-stamps their decisions. The Dail provides an elegant stage for the elected members to read their speeches into the record. If they are government TDs they receive polite responses from ministers. If they are in opposition they are regularly the subject of personal insults.
The Government has complete control of the Dail. It has a huge majority. It allows no free votes. It dictates the agenda. Amendments to bills and new legislation are unwelcome, albeit occasionally accepted. Guillotines are used with gay abandon. Leaders' Questions, the high point of the day, has been relegated to a platform for leaders to make statements. Enda Kenny's replies have raised waffle to an art form. No TD any longer expects a meaningful answer from a minister. Information is scant. The Government's Dail game plan is to provide as little as possible.
The game in the committees should be to extract as much information as possible. In some cases it is working, particularly in the case of the PAC. In the eyes of the Government, the PAC has gone walkabout. It has caused nothing but trouble for the establishment in its pursuit of transparency by calling accountable witnesses.
The key to the challenging ethos of the PAC is that, by tradition, it has an opposition chairman. This term we are blessed that our chairman, Fianna Fail's John McGuinness, is not only regarded with suspicion by Fine Gael and Labour, he is also considered something of a maverick by his own party. He showed great bottle when he allowed prominent members of Fianna Fail to take the heat in the witness box as directors of the Central Remedial Clinic.
If they were looking for protection from McGuinness they miscalculated badly. Having established his neutrality on the FF links to one charity, there were no voices raised in criticism of his willingness next to hold Fine Gael members connected to Rehab to account.
An opposition chairman should be the norm on every Oireachtas committee. Unfortunately it is not.
McGuinness, along with Public Service Oversight and Petitions Committee chair Padraig McLochlain and Members' Interests Committee chair, Thomas Pringle, are the exceptions. All nine 'Departmental Committees' are chaired by coalition party TDs.
Perhaps this explains why the Justice Committee was a bystander – until last week – in a controversy raging around a subject not exactly outside its mandate, namely, justice. The chairman of the Justice Committee David Stanton, is a Fine Gael loyalist to his fingertips. Furthermore, he is an Alan Shatter loyalist. Last week he made an adulatory speech about the Justice Minister while his committee was, finally, being dragged into involvement in yet another row that could determine Shatter's future. After that, how could he be an impartial committee chairman on the tapes issue?
At the end of Stanton's Justice Committee's meeting to consider the garda taping sensation – held in private for an unknown reason – it issued an obsequious little press release kicking the biggest justice issue since independence off the pitch. It feebly decided to "write to an Taoiseach with its recommendations for issues to be included in the terms of reference of the Commission of Investigation examining the issue of taping and recording of non-999 calls at garda stations".
It was pathetically deferential.
Only Finian McGrath TD dissented. In a spat that was reported to have been "heated", the independent North Dublin TD refused to roll over and sign the craven statement.
If McGuinness had been in the chair, he would have despatched a letter to the ex-commissioner Martin Callinan and the Secretary of the Department of Justice requiring their attendance as witnesses within a week.
Happily, other "departmental" Dail committees have not been so sycophantic. They fulfil a useful role because each one shadows one (in some cases two) departments of State.
Unfortunately they are ALL chaired by Fine Gael or Labour.
The result is that they are often efficient and impartial when they question department officials, but can be pretty muted when it comes to putting ministers through the hoops. Coalition committee chairmen have rarely been noted for allowing their senior ministers to take a pounding. Ministers have an expectation that they will be afforded some protection when they appear before the committee shadowing their portfolio.
Nevertheless, they would be unwise to appear in front of the committee without being properly briefed. Detailed questioning, which they easily duck in the Dail, can still trip them up.
Many of these committees' members, particularly the opposition TDs, do a far more effective job than Dail spokespeople operating in an emasculated chamber.
Many committees are admittedly too big, with the Finance and Public Expenditure Committee carrying 27 members while others (like Health, Education and Transport) number 21.
But they often do far more targeted, forensic work than the Lower House sitting in plenary session. They have not yet usurped the Dail, but its reduction to a position of chronic weakness under this Government has left committees as a more influential arm of parliament than the Dail itself.
Those of us on the PAC would not be surprised if the Government moved to clip its wings in the coming months.
Exactly the opposite should happen. It should be a pivotal part of any reformer's platform at the next election that all Oireachtas committees will be chaired by a member of the opposition.