Ministerial inertia at heart of economic catastrophe

 

OPINION:Focusing ministers on their executive duties must be a priority reform for the Government

THE MOST localised and least cosmopolitan political class in western Europe has run the region’s most globalised economy into the ground. That is no longer in question. Many politicians now recognise that the system in which they operate has profound weaknesses. The three main parties have committed to reform.

Much of the focus thus far has been on the Oireachtas. This is fully warranted because its design flaws make it unusually weak compared to peer parliaments, in both its law-making and holding-to-account functions.

But if reform of the legislative branch of government is needed, change to the executive branch is more necessary because many of the causes of the fiasco that has befallen the State have their root in its failings.

In short, far more than the Oireachtas, it has been a failure of government to act, or to act proportionately to the challenges being faced, that has led to the current predicament. Conceptual clarity on this issue may be helpful as we move towards the constitutional convention that the new Government is to establish.

Last week Pat Rabbitte spoke of past ministers who paid no attention to their ministerial duties, merely signing off on whatever civil servants put in front of them. This follows separate claims that among the reasons for Ireland’s waning influence in Europe is ministers’ poor attendance record at meetings of the EU council of ministers.

Both points highlight the lack of focus of ministers on their core executive duties. This is not accident or fluke, nor does it relate to a dysfunctional political culture. The problem is institutional, not cultural.

But before seeking to identify these institutional weaknesses, it may help to highlight the systemic nature of executive inaction. Every area of government business is characterised by it.

The reason that the economic crisis is so much worse in Ireland than almost any other developed country is because ministers did not act during the boom. “Do nothing” was the default setting on budgetary, banking and competitiveness matters. Chickens have come home to roost in flocks.

After the crisis erupted, inaction was no longer an option in some areas, but even then, timidity of response was the norm. Banking and jobs are examples. Despite a chronic employment shock, the shambles that is Fás remains largely unaddressed and the reason outside forces intervened in November was because the government’s approach to the banking crisis had been so consistently inadequate.

It was not until last December – after being bailed out – that the government initiated legislation to give itself powers proportionate to the magnitude of the banking crisis.

Over the course of crisis, the previous government did not act to sanction those bankers who repeatedly supplied it with inaccurate information. The failure to sanction transgression almost always invites further transgression. It did so in this case. There are worrying signs that the new administration may make the same mistake.

But it is not only with regard to economic management where executive failure is to be seen. The proliferation of quangos and the disease of report-commissioning – to long-finger decisions – are examples of the under-exercising of executive power. Public sector reform provides another example.

The Croke Park deal pushes responsibility for change away from ministers to managers and unions. This illustrates a wider point about executive torpor in the face of interest groups.

It is often said that producer interests in Ireland are particularly strong. This is wrong. Vested interests fight their corner everywhere. Ireland’s problem is an unwillingness of government to stand up to them when a wider interest is at stake.

Examples abound. Health services everywhere spend a great deal on medicines, but work hard to contain costs (there are many ways to do so). Here, public spending on pharmaceuticals rose from €565 million to €1,901 in the eight years to 2008. Health ministers did almost nothing to contain it. Big pharma is never slow to spot a sucker.

How drugs are procured is mirrored in how the State purchases legal services. They are not subject to competitive tendering. This allows lawyers to dictate prices, at massive cost to taxpayers. Astonishingly, this is still the case despite the enormity of the crisis.

The church has little clout any more. If it had been obliged to pick up the compensation costs of its members’ child abuse, there would have been no political cost for the then government. Despite this, the lion’s share of compensation is being paid by the State. This is because the then government could not have been bothered to tangle with the hierarchy for the sake of taxpayers.

Farmers have experienced a waning of influence almost as great as that of the church in recent times, yet their interests continue to dictate the conduct of international trade policy. Raise the issue with politicians and, more often than not, they will never have even considered that changing interests might require a change of policy.

Inaction is also to be seen in the administration of justice. Tribunals have failed by every measure, yet they have been allowed to grind on and successive justice ministers have put forward no alternatives – such as the creation of the role of investigating magistrate, as exists in other jurisdictions.

Nor have ministers of justice advanced Garda reform. Despite having been involved in drawing up one of the most cutting-edge policing frameworks in the world in Northern Ireland, oversight structures for the Garda Síochána do not come near best practice.

The inaction of the executive marks Ireland out from any country I have ever observed professionally or in passing.

The reasons for this are to be found in the institutional structures of government. In most democracies, ministers cannot be members of parliament because the need to separate powers is taken seriously.

In Ireland, the Constitution demands that all ministers are members of the Oireachtas. In other words, there is a constitutional obligation to double-job. Doing one big job is hard enough even for talented people. In a world that is increasingly complex and fast- moving, doing two enormous jobs well is nigh on impossible.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, ministers are further distracted from their executive duties by having to operate in the most competitive electoral system in the world. Their incentives are stacked towards keeping voters in one of 43 constituencies happy, by fair means or foul.

Being an effective minister for all 43 constituencies counts little at election time. Is it any wonder that the phenomenon of the two-day-a-week minister exists?

The manner in which the 1937 Constitution collapsed the executive and legislative branches of government into each other has led to a weak parliament and ministers who are usually under-qualified and almost always overworked.

Prohibiting TDs from holding ministerial office would force professional politicians to focus on being parliamentarians or wielders of executive office. Reforming the executive branch of government should be high on the constitutional convention’s agenda.