ONE OF the reasons the Seanad is on the chopping block is that far too many senators have simply toed their respective party lines over the years and appeared incapable of anything approaching independent thought.
Labour senator John Whelan is a departure from that less than illustrious tradition. Although loyal to his party, he’s not afraid to state his own views when they clash with those of colleagues.
Take the forthcoming budget, for example. Whelan feels there wasn’t anything near enough internal consultation between the Labour leadership and parliamentary party members — TDs and senators — last year. He wants that to change this time round.
“On the last occasion, I can absolutely, categorically, say we had zero input, zero knowledge, zero advance notice and, in fact, as the budget was being announced in the House, we were being wheeled out and expected to defend announcements and policies and cuts and decisions — into which we had no input.
“Now the budget is a tricky business and there’s a confidentiality element to the whole thing that has to be protected because of the obvious commercial implications and otherwise. However, it doesn’t make sense that you elect people and then pay no heed to what they have to say.
“So we have asked on this occasion that some considerable time within the [weekly] parliamentary meeting process be afforded for us to discuss and feed into the formulation of policy and budgetary processes.”
He believes it wise that Labour chose its veteran politicians for senior ministries, saying they have the “experience and the political nous and savvy not to panic and not to flinch and not to be bullied”.
However, that’s not to say that he is in agreement with every proposal made by a Labour minister.
His views on Joan Burton’s proposals on sick leave and PRSI, as outlined on p1, are a case in point. In summary, he fears that small businesses cannot take any more burdens.
“I’m talking here, about the man who opens the key in the door that morning, trying to provide employment.”
He hopes the issues can be teased out and debated in the coming weeks and sensible compromises arrived at. The good thing about Labour, he says, is that the party does not try to censor internal debate on such issues.
The budget itself, he says, will be the “toughest” of the Government’s five-year term. “I do think that if we get over this year and over this budget and over this hump, the work that is being done in a range of other areas will start to filter through and feed down into the real economy. And that hasn’t happened yet.”
However, issues such as the property tax will, he warns, have to be handled better than the household charge, which degenerated into a fiasco. The levy was necessary, he argues, saying local services never recovered from the decision by Jack Lynch’s Fianna Fáil government of the 1970s to abolish domestic rates as well as road tax for all but the largest cars.
“Those decisions crippled this country. An entirely legitimate and just revenue stream for government to provide local services and to sustain local services at a proper level was wiped out at the stroke of a pen to give Fianna Fáil power, and we still haven’t recovered from that.”
However, Whelan feels the Government failed to make that case sufficiently when introducing the household charge, and also allowed other problems develop.
In his constituency of Laois-Offaly, he witnesses the anger when local services, such as the fire brigade or library hours, are reduced.
A reasoned political argument could have been made for the levy on the basis that it was necessary to fund local services, he says. “But what did we do at the height of a recession? We introduced a new household charge; we tried to blame it on the IMF even though we should have done it anyway, and then as our opening position, we said: ‘If you don’t pay it, you’ll go to jail’. Sure, that’s absurd.”
Although he doesn’t spell it out, he’s clearly pointing the blame at Fine Gael and specifically Environment Minister Phil Hogan for this. Whelan points out that numerous Labour TDs and senators had argued for changes to the household charge system before the payment deadline passed.
Another Fine Gael minister under fire recently is James Reilly. Whelan says he has sympathy for the health minister — “it seems to me to be a department that has beaten every minister for the last 30 years” — and supports in principle the decision to dismantle the HSE and replace it with more accountable structures. How-ever, he says there is a “a genuine fear [in Labour], and not without some foundation, that James Reilly has a soft spot for the privatisation model”.
He feels Reilly could have done more to support one of Labour’s junior health ministers, Roisin Shortall, in her bid to curb alcohol availability, advertising, and sponsorship.
“I don’t believe… [he] is the ogre that some people in Labour make him out to be. I just think that he’s in a department that lends itself to daily problems. I do, however, say that, like myself, he is a political novice and while he might know his way around health and health issues coming from his own professional background, I think he also has to maybe learn in the area of communication and co-operation with his colleagues.”
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