An outdated process - Change the system not the Cabinet

THE idea of a Cabinet reshuffle seems to be gaining momentum, but whether Taoiseach Brian Cowen will be swept along in the excitement remains to be seen.

If Mr Cowen’s natural conservatism prevents him from making substantial changes, then the relatively limited alternatives may convince him that caution is again the better part of valour. Dipping into a relatively shallow gene pool and constrained by the fact that anyone to whom he offers a Cabinet post must be a member of the Oireachtas, Mr Cowen does not seem to have too many game-changers waiting on the subs’ bench. If he, as he certainly would, factors in party interests by recognising geographical expectations his options are even less alluring. This is one of the consequences of our electoral system where the cut-throat turf wars and overriding local demands produces, by and large, under-qualified and overstretched politicians who are not natural catalysts for change.

This may be why we were among the very last of the last century’s new democracies to adopt it.

The 1937 Constitution insists that ministers are members of the Oireachtas. This contradicts the practice in most other democracies where powers are held separately. In those countries parliamentarians are usually barred from simultaneously holding ministerial office, either by law or by precedence.

The benefits are obvious – ministers concentrate on being ministers. In Ireland most spend as much time trying to ensure that they are re-elected as they do running their departments. This has obvious but negative implications for formulating and executing policy. We expect our ministers to work with one hand tied behind their back. They do but we pick up the tab.

If there was a clear division between parliamentarians and cabinet members it would also allow Mr Cowen to recruit beyond the tiny pool of professional Irish politicians. What a relief that might be for him and for the rest of us too.

In very many democracies experts utterly divorced from politics, but with management skills and a record of real achievement, make up the cabinet. The objective is to get things done.

We have adopted, or have been duped into adopting, the wrong idea that appointing unelected experts is somehow undemocratic. Anyone who imagines this to be so should look at how politics work in comparable countries where ministers are never parliamentary deputies: Austria, Holland, Sweden, Norway, and Switzerland for instance.

We can struggle along, blindly convincing ourselves that the skills needed to get to the top of politics’ greasy pole – and stay there – and the skills needed to properly run a department of health, education or finance. This is so obviously not the case that it is hard to imagine why we even entertain the idea.

We, however, get the politicians we deserve and, if we do not insist that structures are changed for the benefit of the country, we deserve what we get.

Mr Cowen may be considering changing his Cabinet, but changing the architecture of our political system would be much more beneficial.


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