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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Dail Eireann - Overpaid Legislators and an Indifferent Public

Dáil Éireann, the lower house of the Irish Parliament has been in session for the past month and there are about six weeks to go before our over-worked parliamentarians will head off for a six-week break.

Apart from the row in early October, that ensued following an Irish Times report that the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern availed of the financial help from some business friends when Minister for Finance in the early 1990's, the Dáil could still be on a recess given the impact it has been having in recent weeks.

Groucho Marx remarked after attending a cricket game in the UK, "if you suffer from insomnia after this, you really need to see your analyst."

Proceedings are often so boring because there simply are so few good parliamentary performers. Beyond, Pat Rabbitte and Joe Higgins, who comes to mind?

The late Fine Gael TD John Kelly was unmatched and it's rare generally to find people like Tony Blair and David Cameron who can speak impressively without notes for more than 15 minutes.

A politician does not have to be a Cicero and anyone worth their salt should only depend on notes in a debate. The only exceptions should be in relation to technical issues.

In the old days, apart from the emphasis on debating in school, politicians were also able to hone their skills on the stump with the help of hecklers.

In the 1950 election, the Republican governor of California Earl Warren began a speech:

I'm very happy to welcome such a dense crowd here tonight...

A heckler interrupted:

You ain't that lucky Governor. We're not all dense.

A T.D. or aspiring one, should be expected to put forward challenging ideas, defying conventional wisdom where appropriate and addressing issues of public policy beyond a forthcoming election. However, it is a rarity to behold such evidence.

The limited talent on the backbenches can also be seen when up to 30 senior and junior ministers are selected.

How many of the current crop would be selected in an open competition to run a significant business?

This is an important issue because when ministers are expected to sign-of on big public sector projects for example, it's pretty blatant that even some of the more obvious questions are not asked.

The typical existing or aspiring T.D. who cannot articulate a challenging idea, finds refuge in an expression of support for party policy but ask what will likely follow the ending of the current CAP system for farmers in 2013 or when the foreign manufacturing sector or construction industry will contract, there is nothing to be said.

Then there are the one-issue independent candidates who are vacuous beyond their pet local hospital or whatever got them elected.

Politicians have a varying mix of self interest and common interest. Self interest is undoubtedly the principal issue and that in itself is not a bad thing. Given that each T.D costs the taxpayer directly about €250,000, we should expect a higher standard from them.

HIGHER PAY - BETTER REPRESENTATIVES??

The pay of members of the Australian Federal Parliament - the House of Representatives - is €72,000 per annum compared with our typical backbencher who is on €96,000.

The pay of TDs could even be trebled from the current level, and the quality of representatives would hardly change.

Overpaid Legislators: 30% Special Pay Awards including Sham Benchmarking and Pay up 119% since 1997 - Average Weekly Industrial Earnings up 60%

Ireland has 166 members (TDs) in the lower parliament chamber Dáil Éireann who represent some 4.2 million people. With one TD for every 25,000 persons, the people are over-represented in parliament, and their representatives are, by international comparison, overpaid as national legislators.

However, following the latest census of population, Ireland may even get more.

Joseph O'Malley, Political Correspondent of the Sunday Independent recently wrote that IreIand has far more TDs than Britain has MPs: four times as many in proportional terms. The TD in Leinster House is now better paid than his or her counterpart at Westminster.

The TD also enjoys superior pension benefits, and for a much lower pension contribution: 6 per cent of a TD's salary, while the MP pays 10 per cent.

O'Malley says that for the TD, the transformation from being underpaid to being overpaid represents a remarkable turnaround in a short time. The TDs, however, are not complaining. Within a decade, few sectors of society have done better in pay terms than the political class at Leinster House.

In 1997, the Westminster member was paid a quarter more than the TD, who then earned €44,067. Nine years later the TD/MP pay gap has not just been closed, it has been reversed.

Today, the Dáil deputy earns €96,650 and the MP earns 11 per cent less, at €87,132.

O'Malley writes: Few can seriously dispute that the TD has less onerous national responsibilities than his British counterpart. The Dail sits less often than the Commons, and parliamentary life is much less demanding in Leinster House than at Westminster. Never mind that Britain's population is 15 times larger. And its economy is 11 times the size of the Irish economy. The TD represents fewer people in a much smaller country. Nevertheless, Dail deputies are now paid more than MPs to do a less challenging job.

The key to the current high salary status of TDs has been the conjunction of some remarkable series of developments on the pay front.

First, in 1999 the Buckley pay review awarded TDs a special pay increase of some 18 per cent. Buckley also recommended that Dáil deputies' pay should be linked to that of a principal officer in the civil service. Second, in 2002 the benchmarking review recommended a 12 per cent pay rise for principal officers. And because TDs were linked to principal officers, they also benefited from that award.

Since 1997, the 30 per cent from the special pay awards, when added to the normal partnership pay rises, has meant that the pay of Dail deputies has more than doubled. It is up 119 per cent, or twice as rapidly as the average industrial wage.

Stephen Collins in The Irish Times reported last July that politicians received their fourth pay rise in a year at the beginning of June, bringing the basic salary of a TD to €96,560 before special allowances and expenses are taken into account.For the Taoiseach and his Ministers, it was the sixth pay rise over the past 12 months. Mr Ahern's salary is now €258,730 a year, including his TD's salary, while the Tánaiste earns €222,256 and other members of the Cabinet get €204,020.

Each Government minister has got 2 benchmarking awards, even though everyone knows that the system has been an absolute scam.

A comparable country to Ireland, such as New Zealand, which is similar in population size (4.1m) and economic scale and performance to Ireland, manages with 120 MPs, one chamber, and no upper house. Indeed in 1999, in a non-binding referendum, the New Zealand people voted to reduce the number of MPs to 99: some 84 per cent voted in favour. Even more remarkable: the Kiwi MP is paid just €56,730, under two thirds the Irish rate.

Joseph O'Malley in The Sunday Independent, says that a contribution of only 6 per cent of salary entitles TDs to a full pension after just 20 years, based on half their final salary, and with a lump sum payment of one and a half times that salary. But what the TD pays for his pension bears no relation to the real economic cost of providing his retirement benefits. The taxpayer pays that extra, unquantified, cost.

In a damning indictment of the current wide gap between many of the governed and their legislators, O'Malley writes: Many private sector companies are closing their defined benefit (final salary) schemes to new entrants, while others raise contributions to close the funding deficit, which the law passed by the Oireachtas requires. Remarkably, however, little echo of this great debate on pensions can be heard in the national parliament.

To cap it all, part-time local councillors are seeking public occupational pensions even though most private sector workers beyond the foreign-owned sector and large Irish-owned companies, such as banks and public companies, have none!!

The Sunday Independent has reported that thirteen Government ministers have benefited from tax breaks, averaging almost €5,000 each on second homes in the capital, just weeks after the Taoiseach's brother Noel Ahern, said property speculators should be "taxed out of existence".

The break designed exclusively for members of the Government, allows ministers to claim relief on second homes and for overnight accommodation in Dublin. Latest figures reveal that 13 ministers availed of the perk, claiming €63,477 between them.

Messenger Boys and Girls

In a paper presented at a Central Bank conference last September, Dr. Frank Barry of University College Dublin, highlighted issues such as the "structural flaws that give zoned land an artificial scarcity value and that continue to offer strong incentives for corruption. The failure to tackle these issues seems ascribable, in part at least, to the failure to introduce international best-practice measures with respect to the financing of the political process. The failure to address cost and time overruns in infrastructural provision over the boom period represents a further weakness in Irish governance."

On the latter, Dr. Barry said that Ireland’s single transferable vote (STV) electoral system is usually blamed for the brokerage style of politics practiced in Ireland. Political scientists have accorded it a key role in generating “…the heavy emphasis on constituency casework, faction-fighting between candidates from the same party (and) a focus on constituency and localist matters in election campaigns and parliamentary work”.

"The current system certainly appears frequently to lock Irish politicians, competing against each other within the same constituency, into a type of prisoners’ dilemma," Barry said.

A number of countries, and not just those new to parliamentary democracy, have changed their electoral systems in recent times. Most – including Italy, Japan and New Zealand for example – have switched to “mixed systems” of the German type, which combine national lists (where political parties offer lists of the most capable people willing to serve) alongside constituency representation. This would dilute the stranglehold of localism on the system and allow governments to devote more attention to difficult longer-term issues.

The final report of the Constitution Review Group (1996) chaired by Dr T.K. Whitaker cautioned that the present PR-STV has had popular support and should not be changed without careful advance assessment of the possible effects. If a change were to be made, it went on however, “…the introduction of a PR-list or AMS (the additional member system, referred to above as the mixed system) would satisfy more of the relevant criteria than a move to a non-PR system” such as that of the UK, an option already rejected by the Irish electorate in the referendums of 1959 and 1968.

When will conservative Ireland be ready to embrace change?

Where are the leaders with a vision to set the foundations and structures for an Ireland that has changed radically from the one that existed when our current system of governance evolved?