Alex on NAMA

October 29, 2009 § Leave a comment

Today, the Seanad got an opportunity to speak on the business plan for NAMA in advance on the Bill coming before the House late next week. Minister Martin Mansergh was in the chamber to listen to the contributions from Senators on all sides. Above is my own contribution.

Appointments to Public Bodies should be based on merit, not political connections

October 29, 2009 § Leave a comment

Last night in the Seanad, Senator Shane Ross put forward his Appointments to Public Bodies Bill 2009 for discussion. The Bill is the same Bill that was introduced by Senator Dan Boyle in the Dail in 2007, when the Green Party were in Opposition but Senator Boyle said that he could not vote for the Bill without the support of Fianna Fáil – something he failed to get. I spoke on the issue and below is my contribution:

As I listened to Senator Dan Boyle speaking on this topic, it occurred to me that greater love for, or adherence to, a Government hath no man than to vote against a Bill he authored. That is the position the Senator finds himself in this evening. I have previously heard him try to spread the blame for this problem by saying that everybody has engaged in these practices since time immemorial. While I do not accept that is true, for the sake of argument I will accept for the moment that abuses of this nature have been perpetrated by parties other than the Fianna Fáil Party. Even if that were the case, Senator Boyle must admit he is in a position to address it. He has told us this evening, in a roundabout sort of way, that he cannot get the Fianna Fáil Party to agree to support the Bill proposed by Senator Shane Ross. That is manifest. Senator Boyle has told us that he continues to agree with the contents of the legislation, but cannot persuade his colleagues to agree to it. That is precisely what has occurred. The Senator has pointed to the marginal references to this issue in the programme for Government, but unfortunately that does not meet the point he made when he correctly advocated this legislation some years ago. Senator Ross and others have quoted liberally from what Senator Boyle said on that occasion.

I agree with and welcome this Bill. I congratulate Senator Ross on pursuing this important initiative. He is right when he says there needs to be far greater accountability at the heart of our system. I distinguish to some extent between accountability and transparency. We certainly need much more of the former. It would probably be more difficult for us to achieve accountability although we should strive for it, but transparency can be achieved much more quickly and very easily. Even if there is no measure requiring an appointee to a public body to account for himself to an Oireachtas committee, although this should be an objective, there should at least be some transparency so as to find out who are the candidates. We should find out their qualifications and the basis on which they are appointed to any given public body.

I do not believe political participation or involvement in a political party, irrespective of which party, should operate as a bar to selfless and honourable service on a public body in the public interest. It clearly does not do so. The problem, suspicion and, in many cases, the reality is that people are appointed to public bodies not because of their merit, which may exist, but because of their political connections. That is the difficulty that arises. If Members on the opposite side of the House believe this is more a perception than a reality, they are incorrect because there are so many examples of patronage in public appointments. I have witnessed many cases personally, as have colleagues.

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Taoiseach’s ‘my way or the highway’ approach to budget cuts

October 28, 2009 § Leave a comment

I never received an answer to my question to the Leader of the Seanad some weeks ago as to when and why the decision was made to move from a policy of securing savings of €4 billion in public spending through a combination of €2.5 billion in spending cuts and €1.5 billion in taxation measures to a position where the entire €4 billion is apparently to be achieved by way of cuts alone. Reports in today’s newspapers say the Taoiseach has put forward another version of his “my way or the highway” approach to the debate on the forthcoming budget with an indication that what he envisages will occur come hell or high water.

Will the Leader facilitate a debate on the fundamental issues associated with the desirability and advisability of instituting such radical spending cuts? The question is whether our economy will be able to withstand such deep cuts in public services and the associated impact for the entire economy. No other country in the OECD is engaging in these types of radical cuts as a matter of policy in the midst of a severe recession. The conventional wisdom has always been that governments should wait until the economy shows some signs of improvement before engaging in such draconian reductions in public spending. The Government apparently shared this view earlier in the year but it seems there has been a change of mind in the interim. No explanation has been given in this House or elsewhere as to whether such a decision was made and, if so, why or when it was taken. When I put this question to the Leader on a previous occasion he replied that we must wait to see what is done in the budget.

There must be a debate on how increases in taxation can contribute to making up the required saving of €4 billion in public expenditure. Why was the Commission on Taxation tasked with setting out the various options in this regard if its findings were to be jettisoned?

I am not saying that anybody in the Labour Party or elsewhere would feel particularly comfortable standing up and advocating tax increases. Nobody likes to do that, but it is part of the picture and we have to deal with the balance between cuts and taxation measures. It is simply not good enough to spend money and effort on these reports during a serious recession and do nothing. There is a need for serious public debate in places like this House. I second the proposal on the Order of Business that we have a debate here in advance of the budget on what ought to occur.

On Seanad Abolition Proposals…

October 22, 2009 § Leave a comment

Yesterday, the Seanad met for the first time since Fine Gael Leader Enda Kenny proposed the abolition of the Upper House. Unfortunately, due to a prior commitment, I only got to put forward my view at this morning’s Order of Business. Below is a transcript of my contribution:

Senator Alex White: I wish to comment briefly on the issues which exercised Members yesterday. I listened to the proceedings on the radio in my car and what I heard was quite bleak. It pains me to say it.

Senator David Norris: We missed the Senator.

Senator Alex White: Over and over again, Members were exploding with indignation. I include in that the Senator who has just—–

Senator Paschal Donohoe: Exploded.

Senator Alex White: Yes.

Senator David Norris: If that was an explosion—–

An Cathaoirleach: Members should cease interrupting. There should not be a repeat of what occurred yesterday.

Senator Alex White: There is a serious point to be made in respect of this matter. It was stated on the radio a few moments ago that in the eyes of many members of the public, the show was over for the Seanad.
It may seem I am adopting a holier-than-thou attitude. However, I accept that I am sometimes not behind the door in interrupting other Members.

Senator Terry Leyden: Why was the Senator not present yesterday?

Senator Alex White: Members of Parliament should have a better sense of what—–

Senator Terry Leyden: The Senator should have been here.

Senator Alex White: This is another example of that to which I am referring.

An Cathaoirleach: Senator Leyden should not interrupt. This type of behaviour marked yesterday’s proceedings.

Senator Alex White: People who have been Members of Parliament for 20 years or more do not appear to be able to act with a basic level of decorum.

Senator Paschal Donohoe: At least we were here.

Senator Frances Fitzgerald: Yes, we were.

A Senator: Please allow the Senator to finish.

Senator Alex White: During yesterday’s proceedings Senator Regan took the opportunity to misquote me. I never stated this House served no useful purpose. I am not a supporter or member of the Fine Gael Party. However, for Senator O’Toole to describe what seems to be a genuine proposal that we consider the concept of institutional reform – including as it relates to this House – as harking back to the 1930s is so absurd as to draw the level of debate so far down that said debate is almost not worth having.

More :: Read the full transcript of yesterday’s Order of Business by clicking here
More :: See RTE’s report on the proceedings

Is ‘Social Partnership’ a misnomer?

October 22, 2009 § Leave a comment

I am extremely disappointed that the Government appears to have lost out on the opportunity afforded to it when its representatives met the social partners – I believe they are still referred to in this way but the title may now be something of a misnomer – to engage in any real or meaningful discussion, particularly with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. The Government’s current line is, “We have to do what we have to do.” Such an approach does not provide a basis for seeking consensus across society in respect of the difficult situation we face and the undoubtedly serious measures that must be taken.

It is simply not good enough that the Government puts out three figures as comprising the €4 billion in savings that need to be made and then announces that this is the way it must be. There will be no consensus in respect of, buy-in to or support across society for this type of dictatorial approach with regard to what is going to happen in the next couple of months. I have appealed to the Leader of the Seanad to do what he can, however minimal that might be, to persuade the Government and the Minister for Finance not to take this kind of approach or attitude towards the former social partners. I also urged the Leader to convince the Minister for Finance to use the opportunity that will present itself in the coming weeks to enter discussions with the trade union movement and put it up to its members to contemplate those areas – be they in the public service or elsewhere – where radical change must occur and invite them to come forward with proposals. I do not know if that is the basis on which the Government wishes to have the discussion on this matter. However, simply announcing a position at this stage will not work.

People in public office need to exercise judgment over public money

October 6, 2009 § 1 Comment

The level of trust and confidence in politicians is at an all-time low. That is absolutely true. Any Member who is in contact with people – I am sure that is the case with all of my colleagues – must know that there is an unprecedented level of anger and frustration evident across all levels of society. The question of expenses is but one flashpoint. It is, however, a serious flashpoint. This matter arose earlier in the year in Britain and a debate on the fundamental issues involved came about as a result. That debate went to the very heart of the constitution, no less, of that country.

There is a serious issue with which we must deal. There is no substitute for people in public life exercising their own judgement in respect of both their actions and what they do with public money. If every single person in public life is not prepared to exercise judgment over what he or she is doing in respect of the use of public money, there is no hope with regard to the restoration of public trust and confidence in politics or the political system.

I asked the Leader of the Seanad a question in respect of that matter. The question to which I refer relates to the trust and confidence of the public in the debate in which we will be obliged to engage in the coming months with regard to the overall budgetary situation and the serious difficulties we face. I wish to ask a single, tight question. Has a Government decision been made in respect of the figure of €4 billion required to be obtained in savings in December’s budget? Has the Government decided to change the balance which it indicated would apply in respect of that €4 billion, namely, that there would be €2.5 billion in expenditure cuts and €1.5 billion in taxation measures? When was it decided that the entire €4 billion in savings would be obtained through public expenditure cuts? Was a decision made and when was it made?

Everyone has a view on the correct balance that should apply and we could engage in a debate on the matter. However, in the first instance I wish to know the answer to the question I have posed. As stated last week, during the summer the McCarthy report and the report of the Commission on Taxation were published. In my naivety, I had understood that these reports would form the basis for the debate in which we were going to engage this autumn. The McCarthy report contains much that I do not like but it sets out in stark terms where expenditure is being made and where there may be opportunities for savings. There is much with which I agree and much with which I disagree in the report. However, at least it is a written document. The Commission on Taxation’s report sets out the basis on which we might reform the tax system in the future.

We were, therefore, presented with the McCarthy report on expenditure and the commission report on taxation. I accept that matters are not that simple but at least these reports could provide us with some assistance. However, we have been informed that the report of the Commission on Taxation has been abandoned. In addition, and if we are to believe the newspapers, it appears that rather than going through the detail of the McCarthy report and engaging in the requisite debate, the Government intends to have one or two major whacks, as it were. In other words, it will have a go at either public service pay or social welfare payments. That is just not good enough because it contributes to the lack of trust. If the Government wants the Opposition to put forward proposals for discussion, why then is it not possible to engage in a debate on these reports, which were commissioned in our name, rather than merely jettisoning them?

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