Sunday 28 December 2014

Only by creating new parties can we get real change

Voters are screaming for a more progressive political system and we need to listen to them

Stephen Donnelly

Published 27/07/2014 | 02:30

Stephen Donnelly TD has quit the banking inquiry
Stephen Donnelly TD has quit the banking inquiry

The sense of things at the MacGill Summer School in Donegal this week was a resignation that politics in Ireland is never going to change. Despite overwhelming evidence to support that conclusion, we must, and we can, prove it wrong. We must - because it's only by modernising the business of politics that we can provide the best possible public services, like healthcare and education. And we can - by changing how existing political parties operate, or creating new ones that work in better ways.

Let's be honest - while the business of politics gets media coverage, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who has lost a minute's sleep over government-imposed guillotines or three-line whips. But you'll find plenty of people who care about the quality of education in their local schools, the availability of healthcare services in their local community, or the response time of their local gardai. Making these services as effective as possible requires making the business of politics as effective as possible, as it's the politicians who set the rules and the tone for the public sector. And as it happens, the opportunities to improve both are pretty similar.

Politicians and public sector workers are largely disempowered. Non-Cabinet TDs have little meaningful role in developing legislation, which is meant to be their primary function. Similarly, many frontline public servants, like teachers, doctors and council staff, aren't allowed make changes locally they know will improve the services they provide.

Politicians don't receive specialist training. One minute you're a backbencher, the next you're a Minister of State with responsibility for something you know little about. The Civil Service still operates a generalist model, where a person's education and previous work experience isn't considered when deciding what department to put them in.

Politicians aren't held to account for the job they're meant to do. When was the last time a TD didn't get promoted, or re-elected, for not submitting a sufficient number of amendments to legislation? When was the last time an academic lost their job for poor quality teaching in a third-level institution?

The organisations politicians work for look inward. Where's the first place a political party looks for new candidates? The families of previously elected candidates. And where's the only place most public sector organisations promote from? Within their own organisations.

It couldn't be clearer from the past few years that we need to improve the robustness of public services in Ireland - from banking regulation to healthcare, to education to policing oversight. And it couldn't be clearer that the voting public are screaming for a more modern political system to help accomplish this. And yet, nothing is changing.

In fact, it may be getting worse. In his talk at MacGill, Pat Leahy nailed it when he said that you can judge the sincerity and merit of political reform by whether or not it shares power. But two of the biggest reforms - Seanad abolition and changes to local government - were designed to centralise power, not distribute it.

Hence the jaded conclusions from Donegal - yes, we may see new combinations of political parties in the next government. But no, this won't herald a new dawn of openness, transparency and devolution of power. Senior politicians will continue with centralisation of authority and protectionism, they will give the people cake before each general election, and off we'll go again.

Can't you see it already? Property prices up 40pc in Dublin and the Government is introducing 95pc mortgages. The country's still running a massive budget deficit, but coming up to a budget - which might be the last one before the next election - the Government can't stop telling us they're going to cut taxes. The cycle of bad policy and free cake repeats itself, and nothing can change.

Or can it? Eoghan Murphy and nine other backbench TDs got themselves in a heap of trouble last year by having the temerity to get together to discuss policy. It's cited as one reason why Eoghan wasn't promoted in the reshuffle. Imagine a political party that not only accepted such activity, but insisted on it.

There was much talk of putting two ministers in charge of Gaeltacht affairs who didn't speak Irish. But did you hear any mention of the relevancy of the skill sets of the other ministers and ministers of state for the portfolios they were given? Imagine a political party that actively sought candidates with applicable skills, matched them to ministers working in those areas, then promoted them to executive roles.

At Finance Committee hearings last week, few government TDs turned up to hear the budget submissions from social and business groups. That's because they don't get to influence the budget. Imagine a political party that insisted its members gathered up the good ideas being put forward so that they could be fed into the budgetary process? Imagine that was factored into promotions?

If political parties like this existed, the business of politics would very quickly improve. Meaningful reform would occur, centred around the Cabinet sharing power with parliament, parliament sharing power with local government, and local government sharing power with the people. This would act as a catalyst for improvements across the public sector, with the best ideas being implemented and public servants being empowered and rewarded for doing the best jobs they can.

Those currently in high political office don't want to share power. While this remains the case, the modernisation of the public sector will not occur, and Ireland will remain vulnerable in an ever-changing world.

So it's incumbent upon other politicians to fight for change within the existing parties, and if necessary, to form new ones.

The key is to understand that individual empowerment doesn't come at the cost of party discipline. If they do this, and if the public rewards them at the polling booths, then we can prove the pessimists wrong and set Ireland on an exciting new path.

Sunday Independent

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