Time to shift focus from economic to political agenda


OPINION:We don’t trust politicians and so we have ceded power over our everyday lives to quangos that are even less accountable, writes NEIL COLLINS

THERE IS a truism in political science that power is inversely related to noise. If you are in the streets, behind the banner or peering down from a poster, you have probably already lost. Important decisions affecting our everyday life are usually made by those we are least likely to be able to name.

This is a depressing maxim for democrats, for it suggests that the recent elections, for all their drama and colour, influence little and that, cathartic though they were, the debates on the Ryan report were just theatre. Those who find the low noise idea unpalatable can point to the impact of mass protests by the elderly and sexually abused in securing policy reversals and support. But real power – over jobs, public service provision and financial resources – is reserved for people whose faces never appear on ballot papers.

We find ourselves in an economic crisis brought on not by sloth or change in technology, but by a failure of governance and regulation. Our response it seems is to have more of the same, only tougher – the ordinary aspirin did not work, so let’s try extra-strength. The institutions we least trust apparently are the democratic ones. Better, apparently, to leave it to the tribunals, courts and regulators to find, punish and reform those who got us into this mess, whether through corruption, greed or incompetence.

Ireland is part of a highly integrated global economy, and the rhetoric of sovereignty provides a misleading impression of how much we can affect our destiny. Each political system must address questions in the context of a competitive world economy in which highly mobile investment is a key driver. The question is not whether but how to organise internationally acceptable governance frameworks to regulate economic activity.

The Irish State has in part answered this by taking power away from politicians and giving it to bureaucrats and judges. This is a trend elsewhere also. In Ireland it was given a fillip by the crisis of confidence among politicians engendered by revelations of political corruption. The parliamentary response was to appoint tribunals headed by judges. Judges were trusted; politicians were not.

Ireland has adapted a new form of public management that tries to design out politicians, except in the narrowly defined roles. Citizens are consumers and TDs distant stakeholders. This is a reaction among influential civil servants to the reality that Irish elected members place a heavy emphasis on being close to the electorate. Civil servants also back bureaucrats over parliamentarians.

The concept of social partnership has been elevated in the Republic to the status of official doctrine at all levels of the public and private sectors. In early 2009, negotiations on a renewal of the social partnership agreement appropriate to the change in economic circumstances broke down but, fearing the disruption associated with an unmediated industrial relations framework, an attempt to conclude a deal continued informally.

The partners must, of course, have their interests accommodated for any agreement to be reached. Crucially, the demands for protection of the local modus operandi have to be set against the need to meet the criteria set by outsider investors. Of course, the social partnership process has politicians at its core, but it too bypasses parliament.

A feature of the Irish regulatory regime is the inadequacy of parliamentary supervision. Annual reports sent to the legislature and ministerial accountability to the Oireachtas are inadequate. Despite the establishment of the Economic Regulatory Affairs Committee in the Oireachtas, the level of parliamentary oversight of the regulators is poor. Ireland’s political leaders have accepted the idea that the market system is self-correcting, so the last thing we need is political considerations out of line with market logic. Elected officials may protect jobs, locations and capital investments that were not yielding maximum financial returns. Their focus would be on partisan advantage, vested interests and re-election. The ultimate justification for removing powers from the politicians was the promise of better outcomes for the larger number of citizens. In parliamentary democracies, such as Ireland, the methods of accountability for the use of power by judges, regulators and other bureaucrats are essentially unchanged. The new institutions for international regulatory regimes are even further removed from the electors. In the meantime, it is politicians who are subject to popular criticism, whose names are known and from whom accountability is sought.

The irony is that political institutions have ceded power to regulatory systems on foot of economic arguments, while the mechanism of accountability from those systems has been shown to be inadequate. Political parties, pluralism, ministerial accountability, elections and parliamentary scrutiny have failed to guarantee democratic control and popular trust in political institutions, and the economic levers are proving inadequate for the purpose.

It is time for a rebalancing of academic attention from the economic to the political agenda.