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Labour TD says Coalition has failed to reform its business.

By Michael McNamara, TD.

Though many might want to tell Paul Murphy to toddle off or stronger words to the same effect – and he deserves at least that – Murphy  wasn’t just an ordinary citizen who accidentally wandered into the Dáil chamber to ask a question out of turn this week. He was there as a public representative with a mandate to question Government and hold it to account on behalf of his constituents. And the disrespect shown to him by the Taoiseach when he told him to “toddle off” was a disrespect for those who elected him. Of course in some of his own dealings with Government, Murphy abjectly failed to respect the mandate entrusted to him, but that’s not an excuse for the leader of government to sink to his level.

This incident followed weeks after Michael Noonan’s failure to answer Catherine Murphy’s parliamentary  question on Siteserv. His answer conveyed a sense that there was something to cover up. Now he assures us  there’s nothing to cover up and a special liquidator, overseen by a High Court judge, will look into the books  to be sure. This is far cheaper and faster than a commission of inquiry but still expensive. Why not just answer the question?

I was recently  passed a briefing to a minister which stated: “Minister this is not information that would be provided in an answer to a PQ but…”. Why not? What’s so wrong with public servants freely providing information to the democratic representatives of the public they serve?

When Irish Water was established, it was deliberately placed outside the parliamentary questions process by two parties in government, including my own, that had spent years criticising the fact that the provision of vital health services was not susceptible to parliamentary questions. The minister who took the Irish Water legislation through all stages of the Dáil in one afternoon – despite a clear commitment in the programme for government that there would be two weeks between all stages – has had a change of mind since he lost ministerial office. What is it about the advice of civil servants that is so enchanting that their commitment to keeping information from the public they serve is always followed by their political “masters” who subsequently go into opposition and complain that they cannot get information from government on behalf of their constituents?

Returning to health, in a reform introduced by this government, TDs now get responses to parliamentary questions about the HSE but those responses rarely answer the question asked. If the TD is tenacious enough to follow up with a complaint to the Ceann Comhairle who agrees with him or her, it’ll be returned to the Department for what is frequently another response that studiously avoids answering the question.  If the TD is too pig-headed to walk and take his or her beating at this stage, another complaint can be made to the Ceann Comhairle and, should he agree that the question still has not been answered, he may select it for a Topical Issues debate.

At the start of this government’s term, Cabinet Ministers promised to come into the Dáil to participate such debates. However, now the aforementioned, intrepid TD – if lucky enough to be selected for debate – can expect to be met with a junior minister from a different department with a prepared script to read aloud but no information to impart. If they do this well enough and often enough and perfect the hangdog look of “it’s not me that avoiding your question, I’m just the messenger” they may be promoted to become the actual minister avoiding the question. This would be funny in a Monty Python kind of way if the questions asked weren’t about life or death  issues, like health services.

One of the first things this Government did after extending the Freedom of Information system was to close it down again when it came to the Refugee Appeals Tribunal – one of the shadiest areas of our justice system and it did so by ramming a motion through the Dáil with a limited debate on the last sitting day before a break

The Dáil was suspended for much of this week. An opposition spokesman went to a funeral and the couple of hundred amendments he was proposing could therefore not be debated. The debate was futile anyway. I can say with certainly that they amendments would not have been accepted no matter how much sense they made , how glaring the flaw in the draft legislation they sought to remedy because this government, like its predecessors, does not accept amendments from the opposition or even its own backbenchers.

At best, a Minister might concede that a valid point had been raised and give an assurance that will be addressed in a Ministerial amendment in the (yet to be reformed) Seanad. If the amendment makes sense, why not just accept it? Would it break the illusion that the Government is always right and the opposition is always wrong? The only problem with this is that those who are always wrong also have a mandate and refusing to accept that they may sometimes , even once , have a point, completely disregards the basic democratic right to representation of those who voted for them.

While the Dáil this week was suspended there were 22 Bills by individual TDs being put into a hat for the chance to be drawn out for discussion before an invariably-empty chamber every second Friday.  This was heralded as another landmark reform by this government.  Not one of those Bills has yet gone anywhere near passing through one House much less both, which it would have to do before being signed into law by the  President.  Are all of the authors of those Bills – TDs, individually elected to legislate by their constituents, adjudged too stupid to do so by the Government they’re also supposed to hold to account or by the civil servants who advise the Government ministers, all of whom are  drawn from the same pool of supposedly stupid TDs?

Yes, this government brought the economy back from the edge which was one of its main tasks. But it failed to address the underlying problems and causes of what went so badly wrong. This government could have tackled corporate culture here, changed how this country is governed and how those who provide public services are held accountable to the public. Instead, it spent too long just revelling in being in government. To date, it has comprehensively failed to carry out the task it set itself and for which it received a mandate – to reform how the business of government is done.

Though many might want to tell Paul Murphy to toddle off or stronger words to the same effect – and he deserves at least that – Murphy  wasn’t just an ordinary citizen who accidentally wandered into the Dáil chamber to ask a question out of turn this week. He was there as a public representative with a mandate to question Government and hold it to account on behalf of his constituents. And the disrespect shown to him by the Taoiseach when he told him to “toddle off” was a disrespect for those who elected him. Of course in some of his own dealings with Government, Murphy abjectly failed to respect the mandate entrusted to him, but that’s not an excuse for the leader of government to sink to his level.

This incident followed weeks after Michael Noonan’s failure to answer Catherine Murphy’s parliamentary  question on Siteserv. His answer conveyed a sense that there was something to cover up. Now he assures us  there’s nothing to cover up and a special liquidator, overseen by a High Court judge, will look into the books  to be sure. This is far cheaper and faster than a commission of inquiry but still expensive. Why not just answer the question?

I was recently  passed a briefing to a minister which stated: “Minister this is not information that would be provided in an answer to a PQ but…”. Why not? What’s so wrong with public servants freely providing information to the democratic representatives of the public they serve?

When Irish Water was established, it was deliberately placed outside the parliamentary questions process by two parties in government, including my own, that had spent years criticising the fact that the provision of vital health services was not susceptible to parliamentary questions. The minister who took the Irish Water legislation through all stages of the Dáil in one afternoon – despite a clear commitment in the programme for government that there would be two weeks between all stages – has had a change of mind since he lost ministerial office. What is it about the advice of civil servants that is so enchanting that their commitment to keeping information from the public they serve is always followed by their political ‘masters’ who subsequently go into opposition and complain that they cannot get information from government on behalf of their constituents.

Returning to health, in a reform introduced by this government, TDs now get responses to parliamentary questions about the HSE but those responses rarely answer the question asked. If the TD is tenacious enough to follow up with a complaint to the Ceann Comhairle who agrees with him or her, it’ll be returned to the Department for what is frequently another response that studiously avoids answering the question.  If the TD is too pig-headed to walk and take his or her beating at this stage, another complaint can be made to the Ceann Comhairle and, should he agree that the question still has not been answered, he may select it for a Topical Issues debate.

At the start of this government’s term, Cabinet Ministers promised to come into the Dáil to participate such debates. However, now the aforementioned, intrepid TD – if lucky enough to be selected for debate – can expect to be met with a junior minister from a different department with a prepared script to read aloud but no information to impart. If they do this well enough and often enough and perfect the hangdog look of “it’s not me that avoiding your question, I’m just the messenger” they may be promoted to become the actual minister avoiding the question. This would be funny in a Monty Python kind of way if the questions asked weren’t about life or death  issues, like health services.

One of the first things this Government did after extending the Freedom of Information system was to close it down again when it came to the Refugee Appeals Tribunal – one of the shadiest areas of our justice system and it did so by ramming a motion through the Dáil with a limited debate on the last sitting day before a break

The Dáil was suspended for much of this week. An opposition spokesman went to a funeral and the couple of hundred amendments he was proposing could therefore not be debated. The debate was futile anyway. I can say with certainly that they amendments would not have been accepted no matter how much sense they made , how glaring the flaw in the draft legislation they sought to remedy because this government, like its predecessors, does not accept amendments from the opposition or even its own backbenchers.

At best, a Minister might concede that a valid point had been raised and give an assurance that will be addressed in a Ministerial amendment in the (yet to be reformed) Seanad. If the amendment makes sense, why not just accept it? Would it break the illusion that the Government is always right and the opposition is always wrong? The only problem with this is that those who are always wrong also have a mandate and refusing to accept that they may sometimes , even once , have a point, completely disregards the basic democratic right to representation of those who voted for them.

While the Dáil this week was suspended there were 22 Bills by individual TDs being put into a hat for the chance to be drawn out for discussion before an invariably-empty chamber every second Friday.  This was heralded as another landmark reform by this government.  Not one of those Bills has yet gone anywhere near passing through one House much less both, which it would have to do before being signed into law by the  President.  Are all of the authors of those Bills – TDs, individually elected to legislate by their constituents, adjudged too stupid to do so by the Government they’re also supposed to hold to account or by the civil servants who advise the Government ministers, all of whom are  drawn from the same pool of supposedly stupid TDs?

Yes, this government brought the economy back from the edge which was one of its main tasks. But it failed to address the underlying problems and causes of what went so badly wrong. This government could have tackled corporate culture here, changed how this country is governed and how those who provide public services are held accountable to the public. Instead, it spent too long just revelling in being in government. To date, it has comprehensively failed to carry out the task it set itself and for which it received a mandate – to reform how the business of government is done.

 

Michael McNamara is Labour TD for Clare.

(Village online)