Fintan O’Toole: Still the best little parliament in the world for rubber-stamping budgets
The level of engagement the Houses of the Oireachtas in the budgetary process is the lowest observed in any OECD country
Fine Gael leader Dr Garret FitzGerald (right) and Mr John Bruton, TD, FG, spokesman on finance promised reform of the budget process in 1981. Photograph: Pat Langan
On these harsh winter mornings, it is good to start the day with a laugh. So, many thanks to my local Fine Gael candidate whose big posters blazon: “Reforming Politics”. The old ones are the best.
The shocking state of our democracy is laid bare yet again with the apparently doomed struggle of the Oireachtas banking inquiry to produce a meaningful report. Why did anyone imagine it could, given that the same Oireachtas is the worst parliament in the developed world? If it cannot even scrutinise the budget, how could it get to grips with a complex bank collapse?
Raise a glass with me. Today is the 34th anniversary of the appearance of the following headline on the front page of The Irish Times: New budgetary process planned. “The 1982 budget will be the last of the traditional budgets as we know them. A set of reform proposals that will alter radically the budgetary process was introduced by the minister for finance, Mr Bruton, yesterday. As a result, said Mr Bruton, the element of theatre and drama that has been associated with budget days in the past will disappear.”
Nailed-on factsThe date was November 24th, 1981, and the correspondent was reporting apparently nailed-on facts. John Bruton, then finance minister, had published a paper called A Better Way to Plan the Nation’s Finances. Government in Ireland was about to take a significant step towards democratic accountability and parliamentary scrutiny. In future, governments would publish their proposals for current and capital spending in October and November every year. They would give a broad outline of their plans for taxation. The Dáil would then have three months to examine, debate and amend the proposals before the budget was passed in January. The lights were coming down on the old budget day vaudeville show, in which a ministerial magician pulled figures from his, eh, top hat. The Dáil would grow up and do its job, like parliaments in the developed world.
IndifferenceA fortnight ago, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published, to universal indifference, a report called Review of Budget Oversight by Parliament: Ireland. It states bluntly that “the level of budget engagement by the Houses of the Oireachtas is the lowest observed in any OECD country”. No developed democracy anywhere has a parliament that is so weak, and therefore so useless in scrutinising how public money is raised and spent. We have the best little parliament in the world for rubber-stamping State budgets. This suggests that our politicians are collectively among the most spineless on Earth.
Some of the report headings give a flavour of what happens, or fails to happen, in Leinster House: “Lack of engagement with parliament as a partner throughout the budget process”; “Lack of parliamentary input to medium-term fiscal planning”; “Limitations in legislative scrutiny of budget Bills”; “Lack of meaningful debate and discussion on the estimates”; “Delay in the presentation and debate of audited appropriation accounts.”
Most damning of all is “Lack of willingness and/or capacity of parliamentarians to engage in the budget process”. Think about that finding for a moment – many of the people we pay to represent us either cannot be bothered or are simply incompetent to engage with the uses (and abuses) of our money. The OECD notes: “Committees can struggle to achieve a quorum for estimates hearings. It can prove challenging for the chair to keep the committee discussion focused upon the scrutiny of the estimates, and the discussion may sometimes turn to constituency matters and general critiques of government policy... few questions tend to be asked in relation to the estimates themselves.”
The report made as much of a splash as a dragonfly landing on the Shannon. The irrelevance of the Dáil to the raising and spending of money is taken for granted – even by TDs. The OECD notes: “Many stakeholders and participants question whether the existing process is meaningful or impactful.” One might, without being unfair, tilt the language a little: everybody involved knows the parliamentary process is meaningless and has no impact. Everyone has known this since at least 1981, when it was so confidently reported the curtain was finally coming down on the annual budget charade.
And everyone could surely join in with a hollow laugh when, at the launch of the OECD document, Ceann Comhairle Seán Barrett came up with another killer quip: “This is not a report that will find its way on to a shelf and gather dust”. How much dust has A Better Way to Plan the Nations’s Finances gathered in 34 years? Until we as voters elect politicians with enough self-respect, and enough respect for us, to demand the right to do the job we pay them for, dust will be general all over Ireland, falling faintly through the political universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the groaning shelves and all the dead reports.