Beyond the easy wins of politician’s expenses…

Noel Whelan has a useful take on the expenses scandals which have rocked the Oireachtas over the last  few years, but says that the selective investigation of some TDs (though he makes a reasonable exception for Ivor Callely), is open to the suggestion that it is being done now for political reasons…

And he notes that it is the inappropriate nature of the previous system rather than any egregious wrongdoing that will mark the card of the victim. He looks at the John Gormley story:

When packaged as a claim over 10 years, the scale of Gormley’s expenses at €200,000 will outrage. Gormley is however entitled to feel aggrieved at being singled out for attention, although his expenses over the period are considerably less than most other TDs.

Curiously, we have been told nothing of the constituent’s motivation. If the interest was purely transparency, he would have sought the details of other TDs in the constituency. Singling out Gormley suggests a political motivation. If embarrassing the Minister was his aim, then by getting his unfounded complaints published in a national newspaper he has succeeded.

There is nothing in the detail of Gormley’s expenses published in The Irish Times on Thursday to suggest anything inappropriate in the manner or extent of his claims – but the detail does show how inappropriate that system was. An average figure of €14,000 a year for a daily allowance looks peculiar for a TD who lived so close to Leinster House and made a point of cycling to work. However, it is not a travel allowance but an allowance paid, even to Dublin TDs, for attending. The suggestion that some aspect of Gormley’s constituency operation was bilocated with party headquarters and that he claimed for being in Leinster House on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve make for interesting copy, but can be easily explained.

The problems for Gormley and any politician dealing with such stories, however, is that if you are explaining, you are losing. The allegation of inappropriate expenses claims, once made, hangs in the air, even when unjustified.

It would be interesting to run a random check over a basket of politicians from different parties to see how they stand up to ‘the Gormley Test’. It would at least set a bench mark by which we could judge what was reasonable given all operated with an unreasonable system.

In some respects elected politicians are the easy meat in this media sandwich. It’s relatively easy to go after these stories because it confirms an all too easy to believe idea that all politicians are on the make.

And because under STV PR, all politicians have more enemies than friends, it also has the happy corollary of selling more papers. Yet, as we’ve seen with the Northern Ireland Water story, when it comes to inspecting what actually happens under the bonnet of  government, most journalists either don’t understand the story, or for reasons best known to themselves, would rather not tangle with it.

That’s not to take away from the perfectly legitimate demand for greater transparency from elected representatives. This is simply the new condition under which politics must be conducted.

But if that is the case for politicians, then some senior civil servants, heads of publicly funded bodies, not to mention an enormous amount of consultancy hours, often brought in for little more than a cover for poor management, must understand that those new conditions apply to them too.

That is only likely to happen when the fourth estate stops playing politics and resumes its primary duty of reporting what’s actually happening.

Don’t hold your breath though…

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