Monday 16 September 2019

Liam Weeks: 'Who's really qualified to be a politician?'

The UK has its famous PPE degree, but should there be a form of training for those who make the big decisions here, asks Liam Weeks

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Tony Gavin
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Tony Gavin

Liam Weeks

Strolling through the university campus in Cork this week, an increased level of activity was noticeable. With both the Leaving Certificate results and CAO offers out in the past few days, parents and aspiring students have been taking it upon themselves to check out their potential alma mater.

For many, their future career path is at stake. The course these young people choose to take up now could decide the road map for their life ahead. It could determine what job(s) they end up working in, what friends they make and potentially what partner they choose to make a life with.

For those who have a specific career in mind, whether to be a teacher, surgeon or engineer, for example, the students know certain qualifications and experiences are required, which may take many years to accrue.

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This is all par for the course. When we send our children to school or visit a doctor or drive over a bridge, we assume a certain level of expertise from those with whom we are entrusting our fate. We presume the teachers know how to educate, the doctors to diagnose and the engineers to design and construct.

But take one of the most important jobs in Ireland, one that affects us all - that of being an elected representative. Our politicians run the country. They decide on policy which impacts on everyone. They are responsible for the quality of education, healthcare and infrastructure.

What qualifications do they require? The Constitution makes no reference to the job specifications of TDs. Nor does any legislation. The Seanad is the one body which expresses some interest in the occupations of its members, as it requires the 43 senators elected from the five vocational panels to have "knowledge and practical experience" of the interests of their respective panel.

But the lack of specification for our TDs means anyone can be a member of the Dail and, consequently, of government.

It doesn't matter what points you get in the Leaving Certificate. It doesn't matter if you attend a third-level institution or not. If you do, it doesn't matter what course you take.

Leo Varadkar first studied law at university before switching to medicine. Both very admirable degrees, but neither entailed any training for political life. Of course, that didn't stop Mr Varadkar from achieving the highest job in the land.

But should it have? Why are there no specifications for some of the most important jobs in the country?

What have our TDs and ministers done that warrants a place in parliament and government?

Most of them certainly have professional experience, which they would argue is just as important as any formal university training.

At the last Dail election, one-fifth of the 551 candidates worked, or had worked, in commercial sectors, one-fifth in what are described as lower professions such as teaching and nursing, and one-fifth came from non-manual employment, such as administrative roles in the public sector.

But how relevant is this, or any professional experience, to a life in politics?

Being a farmer does not necessarily make you equipped to be Minister for Agriculture. There is a world of difference between the two jobs. While a background in farming might equip you with knowledge about the industry, it does not make you a politician, which is primarily what the job of being a minister entails. There have been many TDs with a first-hand knowledge of their portfolio who, in cabinet, have been lousy ministers.

While many politicians might claim they gain a wealth of practical experience in politics by being members of parties, serving in local government and generally working the political circuit before they can even contemplate a full-time career as a public servant, that is missing the point.

Yes, 320 of the 551 candidates in 2016 already had experience of holding elected office. Yes, most TDs have to go down the local government route first before they can consider a stab at national office. But is this political ladder an adequate form of training? What do our representatives learn in local government which prepares them for the Dail and, potentially, national government?

Many first-time TDs describe themselves as lost when they enter parliament, unsure of their roles and feeling powerless when dealing with government bureaucracy. A report by Dr Mary C Murphy of UCC in 2013 on those elected in 2011 describes them as feeling "left overwhelmed, inundated and even beleaguered" when they enter the Dail. She says that the "frustration among new TDs is palpable".

The TDs themselves recognise that more training should be provided as many fail to grasp the limits on their powers and the complexities of the policy-making process.

However, training our politicians after they've been elected is a bit like coaching people how to play football after you've put them on the field. It's a bit late in the day, and it's unrealistic to expect them to perform adequately.

So, what is the alternative?

Some of you who went through the Leaving Certificate process, before whatever life path you took, might recall Yeats's poem Among School Children, where he wrote of how "Soldier Aristotle played the taws upon the bottom of a king of kings". This referenced King Philip II of Macedon hiring Aristotle to be a tutor to his son Alexander the Great. Aristotle himself had attended Plato's Academy in ancient Athens, which was said to be a school for potential politicians.

Should there be a comparable Irish academy to train our future political elite? In Britain, there isn't such an institution, but there is a qualification, a degree in philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) at Oxford University that has been described as "the degree that runs Britain".

The British political elite disproportionately proliferates with graduates of this degree, from former prime ministers David Cameron, Ted Heath and Harold Wilson, to previous Labour leaders including Ed Miliband, Michael Foot and Hugh Gaitskell, and current Conservatives Jeremy Hunt and Philip Hammond.

PPE was introduced a century ago when universities decided to place some focus on the contemporary world and not just that of ancient times. The rationale of the degree was to produce a political class who could serve the State.

Former cabinet minister David Willetts described the intense nature of the programme, often having to write 16 essays a term, as useful training for government. In an interview with The Guardian, he said: "As a minister, you do sometimes think that British political life is an endless recreation of the PPE essay crisis."

While many might dispute that this ad hoc, rushed nature of study is an adequate education for what in office should be deliberative, long-term policy-making, there is no equivalent university training in Ireland for our political class.

Yes, there are degrees in almost all the universities that incorporate elements of philosophy, politics and economics, and many other useful subjects for our future leaders, but how many of them have taken such courses?

Just as we consider it necessary for our future doctors to study medicine and our teachers to study education, should we ask of our politicians to be trained?

It might not necessarily lead to a better society and a better economy, but could it do any harm?

Is it that radical an idea to suggest putting into a post, people who are trained in how to perform their duties? There are worse reasons to vote for someone.

Dr Liam Weeks is a lecturer in the Department of Government and Politics at University College Cork

Sunday Independent

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