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Don't reform the Seanad, scrap it

THE great humorist Myles na Gopaleen, aka Flann O'Brien, was in real life a civil servant who worked in the old Department of Local Government. Asked back in the 1950s to describe his ideal system of government for Ireland, he suggested "two clerical officers in Whitehall". Perhaps Myles had an unhappy time in the day job, but his suggestion has survived as the cynic's default option. Myles, I imagine, would vote Yes in the referendum to abolish the Seanad, whenever it comes along.

The depth of the current crisis has provoked many commentators to call for fundamental reform in our political and administrative structures, including demands for a new Constitution and a new Republic. It is fashionable to denounce the political parties as a bunch of thoughtless careerists, but there has been quite an amount of self-examination going on in the political class.

The Labour Party published its reform proposals on Thursday (New Government, Better Government). Its likely coalition partner, Fine Gael, released its plans for reform back in November (Reinventing Government). Both documents are detailed, thoughtful and have thus far received rather cursory -- even dismissive -- coverage in the self-styled 'serious' media.

The headline-grabber from both parties has been their commitment to abolish the Seanad and it now seems that most political parties (the Greens and Sinn Fein have concurred) agree that it is time to move to a single-chamber parliament.

There is a lot more to political reform than just scrapping the second chamber and both the Labour and Fine Gael documents have other important things to say. But both documents are silent on one large elephant in the kitchen.

Ken Whitaker once described the Bovine TB Eradication Scheme, still trundling along after 50 consecutive years of failure, as the greatest scandal in the history of the State. This judgment must now be revised. The Irish public administration has produced an even more spectacular failure in the shape of the collapsed banking system.

The Central Bank and Financial Regulator, with a combined staff of more than 1,000, all the statutory powers they ever asked for and an unconstrained operating budget, have contrived to deliver the Irish State into an IMF bailout. The Nyberg commission of inquiry is expected to report within a few months (economists do these things a little quicker than lawyers) and it needs to address the sources of this disaster. It is not every day in the week that a European country loses the ability to finance itself.

But both Fine Gael and Labour are clear that the central Civil Service needs a shake-up. They both propose more outside recruitment, focussing in particular on the Department of Finance, and a simpler grade structure. Numerous procedural improvements to the budgetary cycle are also urged.

Both want to see a full cabinet minister take charge of public service reform, accepting that the reform agenda has suffered for want of political leadership. Fine Gael has declared a war on quangos, with Labour more than a touch reticent, proposing a "review" (Oh dear!) and cuts only "where appropriate" (Oh dear again!). The party even suggests that new quangos would be established only in accordance with "guidelines". New quangos?

Both parties want to see major changes at the Department of Finance, favouring an independent Fiscal Council, something that EU members may be required to establish anyway under proposals emerging from Brussels. This will provide some badly needed employment for economics graduates, who might otherwise be available for assignments with, for example, the Department of Finance.

The concentration of the reform focus on the Department of Finance is understandable, given the genesis of the current crisis, but the Civil Service needs serious re-engineering across the board.

A major contributor to the bubble excesses over the last decade has been the rampant abuse of economic-evaluation procedures for capital projects. Both the Fine Gael and Labour documents hint at changes here, but they are both too vague.

There are formal procedures already in place which purport to require that state capital projects should only go ahead if they satisfy a proper cost/benefit test. These procedures are routinely circumnavigated and a whole industry has grown up for the provision of sham cost/benefit reports.

Cost/benefit analysis, a sensible and useful technique, has been hijacked by the public relations industry and the next government, whatever its composition, can do a good day's work by insisting on proper appraisals of capital projects. The best way to do this is to establish a unit in

central government, on a statutory basis, to undertake these appraisals and to publish them, before political decisions are even considered.

Serious amounts of public money have been wasted over the last decade through the abuse of procedures already nominally in place. This must change. There are powerful vested interests behind wasteful capital spending. Reform of economic-evaluation procedures is long overdue and wishy-washy aspirational verbiage will not do the business.

An intriguing proposal in the Labour document is that the advice to government from the Attorney General on policy matters should be placed in the public domain. It has often struck me how often ministers can simply state: "Well, we have been advised by the AG" and all rational debate is therewith concluded. Of course, there may have to be exceptions for practical reasons, but it is rarely difficult to locate a barrister who can argue the opposite side on the legalities of any issue.

Aside from a decisive conclusion on the issue of the Seanad, Labour has rather kicked constitutional reform into the long grass by proposing a constitutional convention to consider other changes to the basic law. It may well be right of course, but having convicted the party of being soft on quangos, I want to award it a rosette for the appendix to its document on the abolition of the Seanad.

It is quite simply the best discussion of this issue that I have seen. It is truly extraordinary, now that the political establishment, across all parties, has decided to amputate 60 cushy numbers in the Seanad, how many Seanad-enthusiasts have suddenly emerged in the commentariat.

It is one thing to demand unspecified radical reform but quite another to take a close look at a real red-blooded example that is actually going to happen. Ireland is truly a most conservative country, as exemplified in the shocked reaction of the left-liberal media to Seanad abolition. The median position amongst radical journalists would appear to be that the Seanad should be reformed -- again.

The Seanad is a comprehensive waste of time and money, whose reform has been on the political agenda since its foundation. To those who fail to accept that reform is an evasion and who wish to duck the issue of abolition, Labour delivers this magisterial rebuke: "On the contrary, a bad Seanad is very much worse than no Seanad at all. It provokes cynicism, brings the political and parliamentary processes into disrepute and wastes scarce public resources."

Labour took its time deciding on the Seanad issue, with Fine Gael's Enda Kenny first out of the traps on this critical reform early last year. But the Seanad appendix to its document was worth the wait.

Any programme of public-service reform needs to pursue two objectives simultaneously. The system needs to work much better and it needs to cost much less. The record of the last decade has been one of missed opportunities, waffle, increased cost and reduced effectiveness. Both of the prospective partners in the next government have now revealed their intentions. There is plenty of common ground and the full cabinet minister to be assigned to public-service reform will not be short of material.

Colm McCarthy lectures in Economics at University College Dublin. He has headed an expert group examining state assets and chaired the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes, aka An Bord Snip Nua.

Sunday Independent