May 26, 2010
A blast from the past – a response to the 1980s crisis here in the Republic of Ireland. This was originally published as “Need Government Fail?” in Business & Finance 21 May 1987
“What is wrong with this country? Denis Brosnan, chief executive of Kerry Co-op, asked in his keynote address to the 1986 IMI Conference. “Was it that the democratic process and electoral system made it impossible for leaders in government to lead with vision or was it that we continually elected people who were not capable of giving leadership?”
During the recent election, one commentator wrote that “Since 1969, all Irish Governments, whether single party or Coalition varieties, have failed to be re-elected, principally because they were unsuccessful in their handling of the economy. All the bright rosy futures promised in a plethora of election manifestos came to nought when the heavy weight of office bore in on successive Cabinets. That eighteen-year period had seen Ireland drift towards State bankruptcy and towards ungovernÂ¬ability.” (John Cooney, The Irish Times, February 12, 1987).
This drift is clearly not due to failures of analysis or democratic accountability, but stems from the bias against action in our government system. Some suggest that a Denis Brosnan or a Michael Smurfit would solve these problems; others want to eliminate political rivalry by having a period of “National Government”. The nub of the problem is that the machinery of government is adjusted in a way that prevents solutions being proposed and implemented in today\’s complex world.
Now that the Taoiseach and leaders of other political parties have shown a willingness to review the constitution, why not start by looking at the government itself?
Our basis of government
In our system we, the people, elect a group (DÃ¡il deputies) which in turn, elects a Taoiseach who then picks a smaller group (Cabinet) to govern for a period not greater than five years. We. who as citizens own the authority to govern, pass this authority to successively smaller groups.
There is only one path to government power in our system. This path must act as a route for the transfer of our democratic power which authorises the government to act. At the same time. this path must also serve to gather the actual know-how needed to carry out the tasks of government. These two aspects may be equated with the distinction between the words “may” and “can”, ie the ability to do something and permission to do it.
Dual aspects of power – politics and governing
Any democratic political system must be able to marshal and control both elements. Our current system cannot handle the complexity of the modern world because it cannot acquire sufficient authority and know-how at the same time.
A hypothetical example shows why this “single pathway” causes trouble. Suppose that Denis Brosnan wanted to become a Minister in the normal way. He would join a political party. attend a convention, be selected as a candidate, get well-known in his future constituency, begin a round of canvassing and clinics and then, perhaps, be elected to the DÃ¡il. If his party forms the government (in whole or in part), if he has the right relationship with his party and its leader, if he represents part of the country that “requires ministerial representation” and several others ifs, he will become a Minister!
This series of steps does not quite fit our idea of a man like Denis Brosnan or any other high achiever. Why? Is it because. deep down, we regard the process of getting into the DÃ¡il as mismatched to the skills we now require in Ministers?
A recent Irish Times/MRBI poll (The Irish Times, February 5 1987) shed some light on this aspect of our political culture. This found that, of the key factors which voters said would “influence them a lot” in deciding how to vote
- 75% opted for “Choosing a TD who will look after the local needs of the constituency”;
- 53% said choosing a candidate who will perform effectively on national issues in the DÃ¡il:
- 45% said that party policies were important;
- 27% identified choice of Taoiseach as a key factor.
We use our system to select people who are good representatives – in other words, we select people to carry out the delegated authorising function. Our system is not properly shaped to select individuals who will provide the know-how which is the basis for effective and efficient government.
As Jim Hacker said. “Here I am attempting to function as a sort of managing director of a very large and important business and I have no experience of the Department\’s work or in fact of management of any kind. A career in politics is no preparation for government.” (Yes Minister, Vol- I. BBC Publications. London. 1981. p28.)
A different approach
Think about the way in which a large group would organise itself to solve some problem facing it, eg club members building a new premises. The usual way. and probably the only way, is to listen to proposals by individuals or very small groups. The group, as a whole, accepts or rejects the proposals. In a more sophisticated organisation. the proposal may be debated and modified. But even then, the group achieves its purpose by listening to individuals who put forward different options.
The well-being of the whole group is crucially dependent on the special skills of these “option-makers”. It is obvious that a group which is good at finding and using such indivduals will meet the challenges of change more successfully than one which is poor at doing so.
Ministers as “option-makers”
If we look at our system in this light, it is clear that there is a
serious deficiency in the role of Minister as a producer of solutions. Ministers are always members of the majority grouping in the DÃ¡il. This means that the examining role of the DÃ¡il (as the Representative Branch) is very closely tied to the executive role of the Minister as option-maker. It seems inevitable that one or both roles will suffer from this link as appears to be the case in our present system. For example, Ministers often comment that their reduced poll (even loss of DÃ¡il seat) at general elections results from being too taken up with government affairs to look after their constituencies.
Another example of the effect of this tie is the tax system – which the vast majority agrees on the need for reform. A detailed solution, good or bad, has been put forward by the Commission on Taxation, but nothing seems to be happening. Why? No one really knows and the government system resists giving any indication of the possibilities for change.
This lack of debate is caused by the link between the Minister for Finance and the majority grouping in the DÃ¡il. Tax reform is not easy and is fraught with pitfalls. If the Minister takes a position, he is certain to upset some party colleagues. In addition, the opposition will highlight all the disadvantages (and none of the advantages!) of any proposal. It is much easier for the Government to suppress the matter by simply side-stepping the proposals which are already on the table.
Perhaps it was this type of situation that led Montesquieu, a pre-revolutionary French political commentator, to note that “When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, there can be no liberty”.
The tax example shows the tendency to inertia, compounded by secrecy, which is built into the structure of the present government machine. It seems that the work of the elected representative has overwhelmed the executive/managerial function of the option-makers. Is this what happens to those leaders of whom Denis Brosnan spoke?
In Britain, serious, questions are also being raised about their machinery of government which we have copied so closely. For example, Dr David Owen, the SDP leader, recently pointed out that “In 1958, France was in a similar state of economic decline to ourselves. The lesson from France is not that we should have a powerful President… The lesson is that in France, constitutional changes preceded economic recovery. Indeed it was the pre-requisite. The change from the Fourth to the Fifth Republic was an integral part of French success building up slowly over the subsequent 30 years …\’” Is this what James Cawley of Atlantic Resources had in mind during the pre-election National Business Conference organised by Fianna Fail, when he drew attention to the parallels between Ireland now and France in the late 1950s?
Towards the 21st century
Our present system has served us well, but serious difficulties haw emerged over the past twenty years. Modernisation of company law and TB eradication are issues on which there is a consensus on the aims to be achieved, but little sign either that such achievement is near. Many attribute these delays to incompetence or even corruption at the top of our political and administrative systems. The problem is more fundamental.
Statecraft or the management of public affairs is not easy in modern western democracies. Madison, one of those who drew up the US constitution two hundred years ago. put it as follows – “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men the great difficulty lies in this: first you must enable the government to control the governed and in the next place, you must oblige it to control itself.”
Our present structure is like a see-saw, with the elected representative function at one end and the Minister/executive role at the other. Any rise in the effectiveness of one implies a drop in the other. A new structure is needed which would cut the tie so that each can be improved without weakening the other equally necessary activity.
There are very few useful changes that can be made without constitutional amendment to those articles which specify the form of government. It would be a pity to waste energy by attempting to fine-tune the 1920\’s-based system by, for example, changing the electoral system or restructuring the Senate. Without much more effort, we could have a completely new model that will bring us to the year 2000 and beyond, by giving our government system the means to be successful while increasing democratic accountability. Only thus can our skills and energies be mobilised to open the paths to better standards of living and greater justice for all who wish to live and work here.