Saturday, December 04, 2010

We need new butterflies

Right, we've hit the iceberg, Maybe we'll soon stop taking water. Maybe we won't. But somewhere along the way - and I'll listen to arguments that while bailing out the boat is not necessarily the best time to restructure the crew - we're going to have to put in place some of the lessons we've learned from this fiasco.

I think the first one is how we govern, and are governed. Because one thing is sure, we haven't been doing either very well.

I'm not advocating going radical, like a socialist or communist state. That system has been proved wanting too. Besides, having a democracy does mean at least that we do have the power to change things.

But here are a couple of ideas for the mob who will succeed the one that brought us to this particular shipwreck. An apt metaphor, actually, because the Titanic was built on this island, and just as it was billed as 'unsinkable', our Celtic Tiger was hailed as 'unstoppable'. Both were hostages to hubris.

Enda Kenny is promising a leaner crew to take the ship of state through the current shark-infested and stormy waters. A cut in the number of TDs by 30, the elimination of the Seanad. I don't think that's enough, but I acknowledge that there are constitutional issues to be sorted. And I have concerns about the Seanad plan.

But let's suggest a target. One to be achieved within, say, two years of the next Government taking up office.

First, by all means slim down the Dail. But with rather more radical surgery. Do we need more than two TDs per constituency? I don't believe so. Especially if they actually are required to work in the Dail for a full five days every week. Which they can do if they aren't allowed this business of going to the local funerals and dealing with potholes. They are the jobs for their councillor colleagues.

And why shouldn't we elect the councillors on the same day as the TDs? It would save the state money on extra elections, as well as clearing the way politically for a full term instead of the halfway business which disrupts the focus of Government in the middle of more important national work.

Maybe everybody on the voting paper could be in the running for TD, but those who don't reach the first or second slot then become councillors for the duration? Then they could be doing the funerals and potholes and planning and the work of overseeing local authority decisions. And if a vacancy occurs during the life of the Dail, the replacement could be selected from the relevant panel of councillors, of the same party as the vacancy. No need for by-elections, no unnecessary shifts in the balance of power.

Now, the Seanad. I don't believe it should be abolished. We need a second house of parliament, but one with teeth, to keep the Dail guys honest. The Seanad could be half the number of TDs, and each member should be elected also by the public. But they shouldn't be sponsored by a political party. And perhaps candidates should be required to have a qualification, either a decade in a profession or business or with a university degree.

So now we have, say, 86 TDs and 43 senators. All full-time people at the job they are elected to. What about remuneration?

Not to put a tooth in it, our current elected representatives are grossly overpaid. Not one of them is worth a hundred grand and expenses, plus the level of pension they get. That figure was snuck up on us during the three FF-led Governments. Thing is, none of the other parties batted an eye at it either.

So it probably isn't surprising that the opposition prospectuses, nor the Four Year Plan, don't mention a significant cut in pay for elected national representatives. Turkeys and Christmas come to mind.

But, at least for the duration of this new 'Emergency', let them all live on closer to what the rest of us have to do. It would concentrate minds enormously. Say, €60,000 a year, which is about twice the median family income. Plus vouched expenses only and limited to what any of the rest of us can claim when filling out our own tax returns. And no extra remuneration for being a minister, or taoiseach. The honour of serving should be enough. No ministerial cars either. Using public transport or their private cars and bicycles would also concentrate minds on how we all have to cope. Ryanair and Aer Lingus would benefit from the Brussels travel business once the Government jets are disposed of. And it is a given that there are no 'signing in' payments or the like. The rate for the job is the rate for the job.

But such small remuneration wouldn't attract the best of the best, I hear you cry. We'd be paying peanuts and electing monkeys. Well, we've been paying golden coconuts and getting very little in return so far. Can't get any worse.

Besides, smaller political salaries would more likely attract those who actually have a wish to do the national community some service. It used to be like that, but in the last couple of decades, politics has gone from public service to self service. It has become a lucrative living, with a clearly defined career path. The system has gerrymandered itself to cater for this. And we have seen the results.

My final element is designed to deal with the problem of 'in too long'. Clearly, a full working life in government is simply not good either for the electorate or for the elected. The first gets deteriorating value and diminishing innovation, the second get lazy and comfortable. So there should be a fixed limit of service, say two terms of four years each. This would also head off the ones interested only in a financially rich political career.

But what would they do after the eight years? Well, they could return to their former jobs, which would by law have been held open for them, complete with any seniority and pension rights. Or they could move on to new employment. Having served at national representative level would make them seriously attractive candidates to work with many firms. Though there would have to be some mechanism to make it impossible for them to lobby politically.

Oh, and trade union bosses, who seem to be currently paid at rates similar to our ministers, would also be restricted to the political wage limits. Ditto for the judiciary, and public servants right up to departmental secretary and ambassador level. and of course the heads of the banks which we now, as a nation, own.

None of the foregoing would save enormous money in terms of national finances. But the general shift would bring 'them' and 'us' closer. And perhaps we'd respect each other more.

As for the rest of us, whatever our employment we should also work to the same general guidelines. The rate for the job, no 'perk' payments, vouched genuine expenses, and a wish to work not just for ourselves, but for helping to get our country and our people out of the hole which we have all helped to dig. For businesses, excess profits could be highly taxed unless used in an employee profit-sharing scheme.

That's my, admittedly simplistic, look at how we might do things. It isn't perfect. A lot of it mightn't be doable very quickly. But the ship is holed badly, and any different ideas are a place to travel from. Hopefully to somewhere better than we are.

All your ideas are welcome. Especially the ones that disagree.

(The title of this piece is from an article I wrote in The Bridge in the 80s about Kilcullen's future. Some of you might remember it. It turned out to be more controversial than I expected.)