Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, but thankfully those delicious creatures have no say in the matter. Likewise, politicians are unlikely to vote for measures which will curtail or eliminate their power or privileges. So how do you get political reform when no political party is offering the realistic prospect of delivering such reform once they get their hands on the levers of power? There is no simple answer but the media, the IMF and possibly the creation of a lobby group like the UK’s Tax Payers Alliance might have a role to play. Because, left to their own devices, it seems no political party will address the following no matter how fulsomely they promise to.
(1) Abolish Seanad Eireann
Last December 2011, An Taoiseach (pictured above) delivered an address to the nation on the eve of the budget, and he looked us straight in the eye and said “50 quangos will be abolished or merged, and the public sector will be downsized by 23,000 people by 2015. Next year, we will hold a referendum to abolish the Seanad. But these steps are just a start”. There will be no Seanad abolition referendum this year, the commitment has gone the same way as the patronising proposal for An Taoiseach to prepare report cards on his ministers and to deal with underperformance – if Ministers Hogan, Reilly, Shatter, Howlin, Noonan and Bruton are all performing well, then the standards are such that any report card review is a waste of time. Our benefactors in Denmark who are advancing us €400m as part of the so-called bailout got rid of the Seanad in the 1950s, it hasn’t done them any harm. And although decision-making in the Oireachtas would suffer from the absence of some of our 60 senators, we just can’t afford a quasi-undemocratic organ of government, many of whose members seem to be regularly absent from voting.
(2) Cut political pay and perks
Just over a week ago, we witnessed the spectacle of our €200,000-a-year Taoiseach flying to Rome to meet with the €0-a-year Italian prime minister Mario Monti, with the objective of building support for debt relief for Ireland. The rumour that Mario asked Enda for the loan of a tenner for a week is probably aprocryphal, and of course Mario is an exceptional leader who hasn’t been elected but who has nonetheless waived his entire salary in solidarity with the Italian nation which is facing austerity to rein in a small deficit and to reduce a colossal debt mountain. But Enda is better paid than his counterparts in the UK, Denmark and Sweden – the three non-euro countries providing bilateral loans as part of the so-called bailout. An Taoiseach is at the top of the pile and the relative extravagance of his salary is mirrored all the way down until you get to lowest of civil servants who are seemingly paid less than their European peers. If you feel like raising your blood pressure without going for a jog on this dreary Sunday, you can read the full list of rewards on offers to our TDs and senators here.
(3) All expenses incurred by politicians to be vouched
Unless you’re one of the Quinn family who doesn’t know how much their wedding cake was but know that the tab was definitely picked up at Daddy’s company, anyone working in the private sector knows that when you claim expenses you provide receipts or other evidence of the sum claimed. Not so, if you are a TD or senator, entitled to the following unvouched payments – “unvouched” means they don’t need offer receipts to get the allowance
(a) Travel and accommodation: TDs get €12,000-€37,850 each per annum depending on distance from the Leinster House. Senators get paid €7,000-€32,850 per annum and so-called “office holders” get paid €8,400-€36,150 per annum, the lower limit is unvouched.
(b) Public Representation Allowance: TDs get €15,000-€25,700; Ministers €12,000- €20,000; Senators €9,250-€15,000, the lower limits are unvouched
(c) Dual Abode Allowance for ministers which includes €6,500 unvouched for maintaining property
(4) No hiring of family or friends to political positions funded from the public purse
Unlucky Labour party chairman Colm Keaveney recently hit the headlines when it was revealed that he was paying his wife €52,000 from the public purse to be his parliamentary assistant. There was a minor murmur of discontent but he is not the only one employing relatives. Here’s the list.
(5) Compulsory acquisition of land capped at 125% current value
Back in 1973/4 Judge Kenny produced his famous Kenny Report which primarily examined the cost of private land acquired using the public purse to develop public infrastructure – roads, schools, hospitals etc. And yet in 2012, it remains the case that farmers get paid €100,000-plus per acre for agricultural land worth about €10,000-an-acre, when that land is compulsorily acquired for the common good. The essence of Judge Kenny’s recommendation 40 years ago was that landowners would be paid a premium of no more than 25% of the land’s value when that land was compulsorily acquired, so a farmer would get no more than €12,500-an-acre for land worth €10,000-an-acre. All political parties embraced this recommendation, and yet somehow when they got into office, they – Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Labour, Democratic Left, Progressive Democrats, Greens – never managed to give effect to the recommendation. Cynics might suggest that political parties didn’t want to offend donors or the wealthy with reform. So we have ended up with the flagitious position in 2012 that property millionaires are being created by the Government which is at the same time demanding €100 from every household regardless of means.
(6) Reduce the number of county and city councils
Remember this brilliant report by the Irish Examiner, extract shown here?
Yes, Ireland, a country with a population of just under 4.6m people has 34 city and county councils and the head of each one of them earns nearly twice that of the Spanish prime minister. Of course merging councils may mean a local backlash from grass roots, and the Croke Park Agreement seemingly prevents any adjustment of salary.
(7) A comprehensive property price register
Last weekend with the introduction of the Property Price Register, we finally saw the partial realisation of the proposal in Judge Kenny’s 1973/74 Kenny Report for such a public register. And oh how we have embraced this new transparency, less than a week after the website was launched it is the 488th most visited website in Ireland, and the betting on here is that it will be in the Top 20 by the end of October 2012. We can see that (current Minister) Paul Kehoe paid (current Minister) Phil Hogan €355,000 for 17 Heddington Square in Dublin in 2010, we can see that NAMA has some questions to answer about its deferred mortgage initiative but most of all, we can see how much property really costs in this country. But this is only for residential property which is transferred from one person to another. It excludes residential property transferred via shares in limited companies or alterations to trust deeds. But more importantly, it excludes other types of property, commercial and land. We found out during the week that (then Minister) Mary Coughlan created two property millionaires in 2010 through acquiring two plots of land for schools. But Minister Ruairi Quinn refuses to tell us how many millionaires he created in 2011. We are also in the dark on commercial and residential rents. Knowing the value of land transactions including those involving our money improves transparency and competitiveness, and reduces the scope for corruption and stroke politics.
(8) Streamline and reduce quangos
Remember last year – July 5th 2011, in fact – when Minister for Jobs Enterprise and Innovation Richard Bruton announced the merger of Ann Fitzgerald’s National Consumer Agency with the Competition Authority? You have? Well it seems it has slipped Minister Bruton’s mind. In fact Enda Kenny promised last December to merge or abolish 50 quangos and nearly a year later, there is precious little evidence of the promised Bonfire of the Quangos. Of course there is a need for some quangos and some perform a decent service, but we all know that quangos act as a receptacle for political patronage, and if there is downsizing, the incumbent ministers lose power.
(9) Reform competition in the legal, medical and accounting professions
This one might confuse you, because you might have thought that these so-called sheltered professions were being reformed as part of the IMF programme. But nearly two years since the IMF came to town on official business, there has been no obvious reduction in the cost of our professions. Indeed it’s gotten so bad that even the second best paid judges in Europe are criticising the fees being run up by receivers. But political parties depend on the patronage of these professions for support, so how do politicians reform these professions which will have the effect of cutting pay, and at the same time hope to keep much-needed practical support.
(10) Open recruitment for positions funded by the public purse
Remember the advertising for vacancies on the NAMA advisory board earlier this year? They received 25 applications with the closing date for receipt of applications, 6th March 2012. And less than 24 hours later, with what looked like indecent haste, they had appointed John Mulcahy. Remember the appointments to the Fiscal Advisory Council in July last year? And it seems from the recent Oireachtas hearing that the Council has itself engaged a so-called secretariat of economists. Did you see any advertising for these roles?