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Brendan Keenan: What our elites want least, but need most, is scrutiny

IHAVE just taken possession of an Irish Rail smart card, and very convenient it is too. You can top it up with cash, and then just place it in front of the ticket machine on the way in and out.

I have had a similar card for the Luas for some time. I also have a Dublin Bus smart ticket. That works the same way, but you cannot top it up -- you merely get 10 journeys. I also have a pretty bulky wallet.

In London, one Oyster card works on half a dozen private, franchised bus companies, on the Underground, and can be used to pay for lots of other things besides.

As if this were not bad enough, some €20m has been spent preparing a smart card that will work on all of Dublin's transport, and which we are promised some time this year. The absurdity of this for what is old, everyday technology is explained thus by the Rail Procurement Agency.

"A progressive approach is being adopted to allow customers to familiarise themselves with using the new system and to permit transport operators to undertake the necessary replacement of magnetic-strip technology, the testing of smart cards and the integration of the various technologies involved," it proclaims.

The saga of the smart card has to do with much more than the convenience of Dublin commuters. It has to do with the future of a country which, after a brief flirtation with competence, appears to have again lost the ability to govern and administer itself to the standards required of a successful market economy in the 21st century.

A glance around the globe suggest there are three kinds of country. Those where the political and administrative system is helpful towards economic efficiency (Finland?); those where it is not particularly helpful but does not do serious damage (Italy?) and those where bad politics and governance actively prevent economic success (Argentina?).

Ireland is most certainly not in the first category. Some analyses of the bubble and burst would place it in the third camp. I think that is a bit unfair. One of the worst banking crashes was in the Nordic countries, which are unambiguously in the first league. But there is no room for complacency.

The demand for political reform undoubtedly reflects concern that things are not working as they should. The Taoiseach is in so much trouble over what could be regarded as a routine social meeting and informative dinner because of the widespread belief that much of recent government has indeed been crony capitalism, where the first question on any agenda is "cui bono" -- who benefits?

Government ministers, far from having cronies, should be the enemy of everyone -- of the civil servants, industry, trade unions -- on behalf of the powerless who elect them. For the past 10 years especially, any of those groups -- and others -- had only to ask and they would receive.

That may be why standards of performance, of commitment, of discipline and of honesty -- especially perhaps, honesty -- all seem to have slipped significantly in that period.

Turning things around will require firm leadership, in terms of both actions and example. To be fair, the probable partners in the next government are addressing the issue. The new proposals from the Labour Party are wide-ranging. Many, if implemented, would go a long way towards changing the prevailing pernicious culture.

What a pity then, that the subject getting most attention is the abolition of the Seanad. Of all 140 proposals in the Labour document this, without a shadow of a doubt, is the one which would make least difference to anything.

For this, the media must take some blame. Its obsession with the nitty gritty of politics crowds out the wider issue of why things are going so badly. Professional politicians, who are now among the top five per cent of earners in the country, are bound to be interested in politics. Ditto professional political journalists.

Yet the things which might make a difference are the unexciting plans to give greater powers of scrutiny to Dail committees; to allow for personal responsibility for decisions taken by ministers and officials; and grant more freely available information about what they have been up to.

Publicity is what the powerful elites hate and fear most, and it is what the rest of us need most. I do not think it is coincidence that the countries in the first category are also the most open.

The opposition proposals tend to stop at scrutiny. But those who do not match up to scrutiny should know that they will lose out at a result. The symbols of government are the mace and the sword, one for authority and the other for punishment. A government not inflicting pain and discomfort on somebody most of the time is probably not doing its job.

Sunday Indo Business