Paul Hunt (a regular commentator on PE) has written a lengthy analysis in the Dublin Review of Book linking the dysfunction of the Oireachtas with the woes of the Irish economy.
There is a lot to agree with in the article, such as his assertion that “open, transparent, adversarial disputation of public policy proposals based on facts, evidence and analysis is the most effective means of ensuring good governance”. However, some aspects of the analysis are tenuous.
The article ranges from a discussion of the economic history of the twentieth century to a comparison of the influence of different European powers over their respective governments. As result, the treatment is inevitably somewhat simplified in places but gives a relatively clear overall narrative from the author's perspective.
In the closing pages, the analysis veers dangerously close to cynicism, if not outright conspiracy theory. There is a lack of evidence supplied to justify writing off the entire policy making system as a monolithic industry using propaganda and spin to provide post hoc justifications for decisions that benefit vested interests and harm the public interest. It can feel like that sometimes, but it is an oversimplification and exaggeration.
While the essay is surprisingly tolerant of failures of investigative journalism, on the basis that the media is “probably insufficiently resourced and lacks the incentive”, there is a need for more nuances about why policy-making can be dysfunctional in Ireland. Failure by successive governments to invest in social scientific policy research is one component, as is a failure to develop career structures and human resources policies that would incentivise the kind of numerate, analytical skills required in a modern civil service.
There are a few specific points that I find particularly contentious.
The assertion that neo-liberalism was “theoretically sound” whereas Keynesianism was “naïve” and “beguiling” shows a certain bias. Different aspects of these theories have been both bolstered and undermined by a range of evidence at this stage, and both have major flaws.
Likewise, I cannot agree that the early Irish state “placed a premium on governance without effective scrutiny, restraint or accountability”. On the contrary, the stability of parliamentary democracy in Ireland – probably due to our geographical and cultural connections to stable regimes in the UK and USA – provided a forum where civil war enemies could hold each other to account for their use of state power and limit the abuse of national resources. Arguably, the Dáil worked much better to achieve these aims eighty years ago than it does today and I endorse the article's conclusion that it is now dominated by the Government.
Finally, I reject the assertion that “most voters are broadly content” with a weak Oireachtas. I do not believe that people are apathetic either. I think there is a great anger and frustration with the political system and the PR-driven nature of political communication in recent years. Participatory experiments like those done by Claiming Our Future and We The Citizens provide evidence to suggest that people are able to get their heads around tricky issues and would welcome much more frank, detailed and nuanced policy discussions by politicians.
There is one contradiction in the article, between the idealised – perhaps even naïve – depiction of the role of governments and parliament near the end, where it is claimed that they should always act in the public interest, versus the earlier analysis that interest groups “are behaving rationally” by each “pursuing their interests” using whatever “power and influence they can exercise”.
Much as I agree with the article that a much stronger and independent research and analytic capability should be made available to the Oireachtas, in reality democratic politics is largely an agreement to replace violent conflict with competition between different vested interests, with parties in Government constrained to spread just enough benefits around to satisfy their diverse voter bases or lose the next election.
Is this cynical in turn? I don't think so, because alongside the reality that politics is inevitably partisan, I believe that there are public servants and politicians on all sides who sincerely care about the public interest or 'common good' and try to arrive at balanced policy solutions. But there is a risk that even the best of them are lulled into a sense that the Oireachtas and Government are doing the best they can, in a technocratic way. Parliamentary activity - and policy making more generally - should not be seen as a merely technical activity, where the optimal solutions can arise from dispassionate analysis of facts and figures. On the contrary, values matter too and what policy is considered 'optimal' almost certainly depends on one's moral perspective.
I welcome the article's contribution to the public debate on political reform, but I believe that any drive for deep reform of the Oireachtas, including heightened scrutiny and holding of governments to account, must be fuelled by the knowledge that the costs and benefits of public policy decisions are not distributed equally. This sense of urgency and unfairness should remind those politicians who care about the public interest that their duty is to question and oppose bad policy, even if that means losing their salaries and their careers.