Are the Irish people prepared to hold government to account?

I’m not sure citing cases of media proprietors backing the losers and then commending them as an exemplar was the most inspiring start to Elaine Byrne’s Op Ed today, but in the end, she asks for greater transparency from a political class which is (past as well as present) still reluctant to ante up its dues. 

In the same paper, Fintan O’Toole notes that the Irish appetite for policing the probity of its politicians has been short lived in the past:

For a time [in the late 80s], no politician could utter a sentence that did not contain the words “openness”, “transparency” and “accountability”, which were in such general use that they were boiled down to an acronym, OTA.

OTA gave us three pieces of legislation – the Ethics in Public Office Act, the Freedom of Information Act and the Electoral Act. Their purposes were, respectively, to set standards of behaviour for politicians; to ensure that government would be done, as Albert Reynolds put it, “behind a pane of glass”; and to break the influence of big-money donors over political parties.

But we couldn’t keep it up. Like grunge, leggings and scrunchies, OTA was a 1990s fad. Once the economy started to lift off and the political system seemed to be delivering the goods, there was a collective loss of interest in the idea of good government. One by one, the three pillars of OTA were allowed to crumble.

That’s a genuinely useful perspective. Does transparency work then, if once our collective minds wander off in other directions? One of the organising principles behind The Interactive Charter is that transparency is not enough in and of itself.

But if politicians wish to retain their legitimacy. The trouble with demands for transparency is simply that they can be gamed. As O’Toole points out, this too is not a recent phenomenon:

The Freedom of Information Act was deliberately sabotaged. Charlie McCreevy gutted it in 2003. What was significant was the complete lack of public response. Journalists and campaigning groups complained, but no one, almost literally, wanted to know. The citizenry as a whole simply gave up without a fight a right it had acquired in response to the corruption scandals of the 1990s.

Which left the Electoral Act and the new transparency about party funding. Last week, it crawled off into the bushes and spluttered out its last lonely breath. The cause of death was ridicule. The main political parties have laughed it out of existence.

What happened is this: precisely nothing. Zero, nada, zilch. That is the grand total of donations reported last year to Sipo by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour. It was, remember, an election year, with the European and local elections, two Dáil byelections and the Lisbon referendum. Political parties were spending money, so they must have been raising it. Yet none of the three big parties (or Libertas, which ran an apparently well-funded campaign on Lisbon) declared a single cent in donations. Indeed, the only donations declared by anyone were those made by Green, Sinn Féin and Socialist representatives to their own parties.

You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to work out what’s going on. The limit below which donations do not have to be declared is €5,078.95. I’ll take a wild guess and say that there are an awful lot of individuals and companies who find that they can just about afford €5,078.94 to support our precious democratic system.

Yet, I think the problem here lies in the idea that government can legislate us all into a bigger and more vigourous independent society. In lieu of not being able to find my copy of Putnam’s Making Democracy Work, here’s a summary of one of his findings from cooperationcommons.org:

Fabrics of trust enable civic communities to solve social dilemmas by raising the potential cost of defection and risking loss of future benefits by defectors, enhance the flow of information about who can be trusted, foster norms of reciprocity that are reinforced by the flow of reputational information, capture strategies and institutions that worked in the past and keep them available as templates for future collaboration.

That’s a rather dense way of saying actually the problem is more likely to be resolved by freer and multiple associations above and beyond the ties to government and its substantial powers of patronage. Raising the cost of ‘defection’ can only be achieved if citizens are prepared to take a closer look at the business of politics and particularly of government.

Of course, stray too far down that line and you are in danger of straying into Poujadism, which exclusively frames all political life as an interminable struggle between the common man and the manipulative control of the ruling elites.

This in part what Michael McDowell was complaining about at UCD last weekend:

Do we want a society where every €100 or €200 contribution needs to be public? Most people don’t want their neighbours knowing they gave money to a party. If you can’t afford posters to put up, how are you going to get ideas across? They’ll only be heard after they’ve been interpreted by Denis O’Brien or Tony O’Reilly or Rupert Murdoch.

Indeed, given the Indo’s coverage before the conference, it’s not surprising he may have been feeling a little tetchy about Big Media… (Not that the timing had anything to do with his intention to speak on the media two days later, or anything…)

The problem from a politicians point of view is they are in competition with other public and pseudo public bodies for legitimacy and public trust… Interactivity in itself will not address the perceived deficit in public trust.. But what we know about pure transparency is that civil servants  (and politicians) will always be tempted to ‘game’ them for short term gain, even if that in turn leads to further long term erosion of trust…

If it is not a problem, how else do you explain those embarrassingly stalled by election writs the government won’t call, because the government knows it will lose them. Why? Because in Ireland, the government nearly always does…

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