Budget: Oireachtas still carries the burden of 1930s Catholic social teaching…

Elaine Byrne has some useful thoughts on the legislative context for tomorrow’s budget in Dublin. She is not impressed, and goes back to Charlie McCreevy’s completely nuts proposal to decentralise 10,000 civil service jobs in contravention of the government’s own spatial strategy as an example of how useless the Oireachtas has been at holding a government to account for it’s own dysfunctional populism: “The cost to the exchequer of this politically motivated and grievously flawed decentralisation policy is estimated to have almost breached the €1 billion mark.”And here’s the killer. The problem, according to the OECD, is systemic:

When Lenihan stands to announce the most austere budget in the history of this state at 3.45pm tomorrow, remind yourself of the €1 billion mistake made by his predecessor standing in the exact same spot.

The 2008 OECD report on the public service indirectly criticised the decentralisation programme. It described the Irish policy process as tending “to neglect the longer-term” where political concerns and electoral timeframes “crowd out longer-term interests”. and induce “short-termism”.

For instance, the early childcare supplement was introduced by Brian Cowen when minister for finance, in the run-up to the 2007 election. The Special Savings Investment Accounts (SSIA) scheme, which provided for a 12 per cent return on savings over a five-year period, matured just in advance of the 2007 general election.

The political decision-making process has been held hostage to geographically concentrated policies, political strategies targeted for specific demographic groups and tax cuts benefiting certain socio-economic interests.

In fact the junior Minister for Science and Innovation, Conor Lenihan admitted in Belfast at his breakfast meeting with local entrepreneurs at the President’s Club on the morning of the Slugger Awards that it had become an Irish political tradition to commission reports on reform and then to ignore them.

Byrne continues:

The only constructive input the Opposition can make tomorrow is to adopt or reject a policy menu to which they have not contributed. The standing orders of the Dáil prevent any amendment of the estimates. Parliamentary procedures dictate that scrutiny of the budget is restricted by a time limit.

There will be no meaningful policy deliberation or any stress-testing of proposals before firm decisions are made. Evidence based policy-making which opens up decision-making to interested stakeholders and the wider public will be absent tomorrow. So too will the systematic early consideration of the benefits, costs and compliance issues of new budgetary measures.

This will always be the case because our parliamentary system is dominated by the executive and the whip system ensures that the legislature will always be limited in exercising its obligation to hold the executive to account.

Tomorrow is merely a theatrical exercise in parliamentary voting fodder.

The key to understanding the problem is the embedding of special interest in the system. Byrne give the social partnership a deserved dig, but it has haunted the state right from the beginning (and even before. The very first senate was established out of the 1917 Irish Convention, with a shadow assembly of 15 Senators appointed by the British Lord Lieutenant in June 1921 to cover a range of interests, particularly business, the professions and education.

And none of the subsequent reforms have done much to tip the upper or lower houses away from those embedded interests and towards a greater capacity for scrutiny within the legislative system. Indeed, the wikipedia entry for DeValera’s reforms of the 1930 emphasise the role of Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno recommending a more corporatist approach to dealing with social issues that emphasized interdependence and solidarity, especially between employers and employees.

This is a big problem for a house of the people’s tribunes. But there is no guarantee it will even recognise the problem never mind attempt to fix it. Last word to Ms Byrne:

Unlike the US system, Irish TDs cannot individually affect legislation or get items added to legislation. Since 1923, fewer than 40 Private Members’ Bills have been enacted. In Westminster, a similar parliamentary system, 268 were ratified between 1979 and 1997.

A recent Economist Intelligence Unit report said Dáil committees do not have the necessary financial specialisation. The Public Accounts Committee has repeatedly asserted that ongoing parliamentary scrutiny of major expenditure projects is almost non-existent.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty