Results show public favours giving PAC more teeth
Perhaps unwittingly, the Public Accounts Committee has been sowing the seeds of a new political party.
Debunkers of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) have been mushrooming in the media recently. Opponents have accused us of "grandstanding". Alternatively, we have been branded as "witch-hunters". Today's opinion poll appears to answer the critics. Not only do an overwhelming majority (77 per cent) seem to endorse the committee's current investigations, they appear to demand an expansion of them. The Irish people are developing an appetite for giving more powers to ordinary TDs to hold powerful people to account.
We can thank Angela Kerins and Frank Flannery of Rehab for this reaction. The Rehab duo's reluctance to attend a parliamentary committee may prompt the Government to give the PAC sharper teeth. The power of an Oireachtas Committee to compel witnesses to attend is on the brink of being tested. The public view on its direction runs more than six to one in favour of giving the PAC extra powers.
Whether the powers of the PAC are tested in the Oireachtas itself (compellability is currently decided by a government-dominated Committee of Procedures and Privileges, CPP) or in the courts public opinion obviously favours giving the PAC its head.
A court challenge may soon be launched. Opponents of the PAC will inevitably argue that we have exceeded our remit. Yet even an adverse verdict would provide an opportunity. PAC members would welcome the all-clear to define our remit more widely, allowing us –without ambiguity– to summon reluctant witnesses who can provide us with information about the source and destination of all public money. If the courts found that we had strayed too far, legislation could be introduced in line with today's opinion poll: technical, legalistic arguments that we should not enquire into the antics of any State-funded body unless it been audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General could be discarded. We could amend the law, removing current wriggle room which allows the PAC's activities to be deliberately delayed in the byzantine bureaucracy of Dail procedure. As the law stands today, a specific plea from the PAC to the CPP is bogged down. Cynics suggest that the Government majority on the CPP is delaying a decision on compellability in the case of a request to compel former Siptu employee Matt Merrigan to help the PAC with its enquiries into a controversial HSE/ Siptu fund.
Today's favourable poll on the work of the PAC contrasts sharply with recent polls showing low satisfaction with the Government, and by implication with its Dail performance. While the PAC is seen to be working, the Dail itself is often plainly dysfunctional. While many heads have rolled following the PAC's exposes, no heads ever roll in the Dail. Democracy can work downstairs at committee level while, upstairs, Cabinet seats are unassailable. This message has not been lost on a disillusioned public, promised radical reform of the Dail by the current coalition, but seeing an opposition-chaired PAC as the only torch bearer.
The link between the high approval for the PAC and the poll's stunning findings on the desire for a new political party are impossible to deny.
In a damning indictment of an entrenched political establishment, 54 per cent of respondents want a new party. There are predictable variations: a majority of traditionally conservative farmers are opposed to such innovation, while the under-35s are among the most enthusiastic for an end to tribal political rivalries.
The local and European elections approach. If there are breakthroughs for Sinn Fein, for Independents of all views and a rejection of all three main political parties, the scene will be set for a sea change in Irish politics. There are many Leinster Houses insiders wondering, watching and waiting for the returns on May 23. A convincing sign that the disillusion with the old parties is now beyond repair could be the trigger for a new party, now maybe demanded, rather than merely desired, by 54 per cent to 34 per cent.
The Government will need a Damascus-type conversion to counter a tidal wave of demand for change. The signs are not good.
The Coalition's response to the PAC's crusade for accountability has been inconsistent. It has been rattled. Its innate resistance to reform initially led it to oppose the transparency of bringing in the Garda whistleblowers as witnesses. Then, it relented, sensing the warm winds of public opinion towards the two gardai.
Similarly the PAC's decision to invite former Rehab boss Frank Flannery into a session prompted a u-turn. Flannery, deeply involved in a life- time's work at Fine Gael, initially seemed untouchable but the court of public opinion compelled expediency. A political imperative, rather than ethical principle, forced Fine Gael to throw one of its favourite sons to the wolves.
The PAC has twice drawn blood from the Government where the Dail had drawn a blank.
Perhaps the new politics is making a mark at the PAC, encouraged by the hunger so evident in today's poll. Certainly key Fine Gael members of the committee – notably Simon Harris and Kieran O'Donnell – have taken up the cudgel for accountability. They did not need a signal from on high from Taoiseach Enda Kenny to demand the attendance of Flannery and Kerins.
Perhaps unwittingly, the PAC has been sowing the seeds of a new political party. The "grandstanding" charge is reinforced by evidence that a growing section of the public has been switching on their televisions to watch its activities live on air. Some describe the hearings as "box office". Those of us regularly accused of playing to the media are not ashamed of exposing a long hidden series of wrongs in more dramatic surroundings than normal.
The Dail does not really do drama. It should do more of it. It is designed to be dull. Apart from the rare spectacular row, there is little room in the rules to allow meaningful exchanges. New facts rarely emerge in the chamber. Time is deliberately limited on questions to protect Government ministers from coming under consistent pressure. Spectators see the PAC as the antithesis of the old parties and restrictive procedures in the Dail.
The message in this opinion poll – that a disillusioned public approves of PAC-type politics – is a signal to the Government that new politics, and possibly a new party, are on the brink.