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…

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    As more people in his constituency DID NOT vote for Gormley than actually voted for him …..its reasonable to assume that the constituent is politically motivated. But no reason why Gormleys supporters should not be equally politically motivated.
    The “Greens” claim to be different.
    A breath of fresh air. Or more perjoratively holier than thou.
    So Gormleys defence that hes no different is an excellent way of exposing that the Greens are just another political party.

    The accountancy benchmark for expenses is “wholly necessarily and exclusively” and clearly in a lot of jurisdictions legislators are playing fast and loose with the definition that they impose on say..taxpayers…the voters.
    Dog food needs to be bought……but charged to the taxpayer??? And Gormleys coffee or lunch is something he would have been drinking or eating whether or not he was in Leinster House.

    While clearly MPs and TDs are receiving taxpayers money……they are actually not different from those who receive excessive payments in expenses from private firms (eg journalists at newspapers) as this is money which should GO to the Taxpayer.
    So on a personal level I find the notion of those who are not shy about filling in an expenses form or excessively claiming when completing a Self asseesment Tax return…….slightly hypocritical.
    “Acting on the advice of the Fees office” is not that much different from “acting on the advice of my accountant”.

    But frankly the Republic is a lost cause in terms of expecting high behaviour…..it is more Southern Europe than Northern Europe Lutheran Integrity perhaps.
    And going back to the PAYE demonstrations Beef Tribunal, Haughey, O’Leary, Berties dig out……..everybody expects their TD to be the proverbial “cute hoor”.
    Fact is everybody (except the West Britons in Dublin 4) admire a cute hoor. But a cheeky hoor is not well liked (thats why Callelly is fair game).
    But the statistics are not good for expecting high standards.
    A few years ago it was revealed that most bank accounts in Milltown Malbay in County Clare were held by er……non residents.
    Amusing if it wasnt so serious.
    Wasnt the idea floated that TDs should present certificates from the Revenue to show they were tax compliant.

    Frankly we are all prepared to be vitriolic about a political opponent who is a bit dodgy with expenses. But a bit forgiving of our political friends.
    Frankly a good politician is not necessarily a good person. John F Kennedy.
    It would be an appalling vista so to speak if every politician with a dodgy expenes claim was thrown out of Dáil Éireann. Who would be left?
    Extremists? Moralists……worse……Amateurs.

    A few years ago I was told that the number of people who reached settlements with the Revenue Commissioners by coming clean about off shore money was amazing and with a lot of figures from banking (no surprise), politicians and celebrities including well loved media figures involved.
    I suspect somewhere theres a list of names which might yet be a pension plan for a disgruntled civil servant.

  • I used to think the focus on expenses etc was really a populist shortcut to whether the politician may be on the take, since the assumption is generally that, if he/she fiddles their expenses, they may have an unhealthy interest in money and may be/have been corruptible when it came to decision-making. I think the focus on expenses is already symptom of the disconnect with politics rather than a future cause of that disconnect (as Noel Whelan suggests).
    Any cursory examination of spatial strategy and planning in the republic would bring the godawfulness of the whole mess to light – inadequate physical infrastructural provision for housing (never mind schools, hospitals, sustainable employment etc) and inappropriate development in general. All of these are the effects now being felt by the general voter (often in a very intimate way – macroeconomic policy tends to pass under the radar for most people). The interest in political expenses reflects the dichotomy of failing to serve the public interest (in spatial strategy) while lining their own pockets (via the state). I do think it is also still suspected as an indicator of decision-making being bought rather than being in the public interest.

  • Mick Fealty

    Indeed John. But there’s two aspects to that. One is the failure of internal and external reporting mechanisms (of the type we’ve seen in the NI Water) and the other is the failure of politicians to grasp the need for what John Kay describes as ‘disciplined pluralism’, which he says,

    “…is contrary to the natural instincts of most business or political leaders. For politicians to support it requires them to struggle with their own inner natures. When governments make economic policies, their constant inclination is to suppress pluralism – to find the big idea – and override discipline: to favour new ventures that the market will not accept or old industries the market has already rejected.”

    The spatial plan was a ‘big idea’ about how to decentralise, and implemented in the grand centralised top down manner beloved of the Irish Civil Service. The impulse to do something was okay, but…

    1 it came too late… No one in government had prepared for the rush of the Celtic Tiger years…

    2 it was a victim of a political system based on an impoverished local democracy… In short there was a not sufficiently rich and independent understanding of local needs to feed back powerfully into central government..

    We’ve seen this failure over and over again in rail, water and electricity outages, floods, etc..

    On day the Luas was opened by Vincent Browne’s indignation at the cost over runs on that project.

    His point was that no one in the media was watching the cost overruns and keeping an intelligent eye on such a major infra-structural project until the end when they were suitably outraged (and at the politicians, not their own failure to keep tabs)…

    The temptation to hit the politicians is understandable, and for the reasons I’ve outlined above, popular. But it obscures the fact that the fourth estate is also part of the failure.

    Not least when for it’s own reasons it chooses to bat with the status quo, whomever that may be. And then hotly deny it when the wind changes.

  • I take your point about the failure to report – or the selective/political nature of reporting. But how many journalists have a professional background outside journalism?
    In the case of the LUAS ideology played a strong part in the failings – there was little governmental expenditure on pre-tender work such as geo-technical testing, so that design and build contracts were heavily conditional upon penalty clauses where the unexpected would be resolved at the government’s expense. Few journalists would have had the technical expertise to anticipate or follow that type of story. I saw a few million of the LUAS euros blown in a single morning to resolve an issue that would have been anticipated by a spend of a couple of grand pre-tender.
    The spatial strategy I was thinking of was the local one – where planning would engage in joined up thinking about how and where people lived their lives. That’s the sort of intimate level where catastrophic mistakes were made (ghost estates, disjointed provision of schools etc). That was largely abused by the sort of low level chicanery that tends to lie just beneath the surface of politics the world over. But if you think that the failure of the fourth estate to adequately keep the spotlight on such matters (rather than cheerleading the property bubble), yeah, I’ll go with that.

  • Mick Fealty

    It matters, but is not alone the problem. And you are right, shortage of expertise is a problem. As is the running down of the business end of Irish journalism.

    If all politicians ever get back from the media is the spin they put in, then there is no early warning of failure. ‘Agreed reporting’ in the NI Water case, and the use of consultancies to rubber stamp decisions already made are part of this.

    If the fourth estate can no longer do it, and the big consultancies are too committed to a machine which in part they have built then new ways will have to be sought if we’re not to run in to even bigger trouble in future.

    Some of that surely has to be about beefing up the position of elected representatives, both locally and nationally. And some greater separation of their powers and responsibilities.

  • Well, the current lessons (Wikileaks, NIW etc) seems to be – encourage whistle-blowers and use the web to publicise the information and provide the type of regulation that the ‘system’ has learned to jink past without letting their opponents ever get clear sight of the ball.

  • aquifer

    We need to grow up and pay politicians well to represent the public interest without having to make these huge expenses claims. The danger in paying people buttons is that they make up the difference in bribes from developers from rezoning or funding from industry lobbyists as in USA. I remember the story of one then Green Party councillor raising the issue of a brown envelope full of cash hehad received at christmas, only to be wrestled down in the chamber by the other councillors who had no doubt received the same item. Physical planning in the republic was a joke. Read ‘Chaos at the Crossroads by Frank McDonald. It would make your hair stand on end.

    The UK system was Maggie Thatchers way of hiding the cost of politics from the public. Result is politicians expending creative energy cheating the system.

    We need a system of party funding like grown up countries have.

    The fiction that individual members matter is only making life easy for crooks.

  • That’s a near-perfect conclusion Mick. When these demands for transparency aren’t symmetrical then the people who are forced to reveal their washing (dirty or otherwise – as Noel says, the demand itself has a lot of the ‘when did you stop beating your wife’ quality) you’re seeing an individual or caste of people who have already been defeated.

    I doubt that anyone with an ounce of sense beleives that politicians alone wield all of the power that should be made more widely accountable. So, until the directors of the finance industries, the civil service or media owners are as accountable about how they use resources that are allocated for the purpose of influencing public policy, the demand for transparency *from politicians alone* will always favour their rivals.

    That’s hugely damaging to democracy, and it’s time we woke up to this fact.