Friday, July 11, 2008

Summer Holidays

Check this out also at The Irish Times site

It must be terribly hard for TDs and Senators. Being bundled like that out of the public eye for the whole summer. We all felt so sorry for them yesterday, to see them look so obviously glum and heavy-hearted as they nosed their BMWs out of the gates of Leinster House and headed off for ten weeks of idleness. They will be deprived of work and will have nothing to do to occupy thier time between now and September 24. It’s a hard station, we know. But (deep mournful intake of breath) it’s the life they have chosen.

My own first week working as a specialist political journalist was in August 2003. Arriving to work in Leinster House was like a GAA correspondent being assigned to Croke Park the Tuesday after an All Ireland football final. The political atmosphere was as spent as the PDs. We still had a paper to fill. It was thankless. Scrounging around for stories. Hoping that the odd TD playing golf at Playa de Nouveau Riche or at their Atlantic-hugging holiday home might have bothered to leave their mobiles on.

That autumn and the following spring a couple of the parties produced very impressive policy papers calling for Oireachtas reform. In the Senate, Mary O’Rourke was driving an all-party initiative to refrom that often entertaining, hugely interesting, but ultimately next-to-useless talking shop, the Seanad. It was great. And they kept on coming, the reform papers, throughout the period of the 29th Dáil. And how lovely they looked on the shelves. The same shelves already piled high with reform proposals for the 28th and the 27th and 26th Dáil…. ad infinitum.

Look at the Programme for Government. Look at the promises (included, the Greens say, at their insistence) to reform the Seanad and the Dáil. Note that a year has passed. Note that four years remain. Note that almost the exactly same promises will be contained in the next Programme for Government, for the 32st Dail whenever that might be.

This is not cynicism. It’s just stating a reality. A long time ago a Fine Gael TD Alice Glenn said that getting political parties to reduce the number of TDs and Senators would be like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas. The first instinct of the political class is self-preservation. It is undeniable that the life is precarious. But the buffer zone they have created for itself is breath-takingly impressive. The Dáil sat for a total of 94 days in the 2007-2008 period. That total of sitting days has stayed unforgibably low (93 days in 2005; 96 in 2006 and 74 in the election year of 2007) despite promises each year to increase them. The House of Commons sits an average of 130 days each year. The US Congress is in session 160 days a year, almost twice as much as the Dáil. By the way, the Seanad sat on only 86 days in this political year.

The Oireachtas is also the legislature. A paltry total of 25 Bills have been passed since the Government returned a year ago. And some of these were standard bills that crop up every year like the Finance Bill, the Social Welfare Bill and the Motor Vehicle Duties Bill, all which give effect to budgetary changes. Some were necessary to give statutory effect in Ireland to European directives. Two of the bills corrected legal flaws in earlier bills. So we had the law-makers come up with a desolatory handfull of bills this year - the Immigration Bill, the Dublin Transportation Authority Bill, the Intoxicating Liquer Bill.

We don’t need to go into pay and expenses but the average basic salary for a TD is now well over €100,000. We have a total of 35 minister, 166 TDs and 60 Senators, pro rata way way more than any of our EU counterarts. And there are only two established Government backbenchers (Ned O’Keeffe and Jim McDaid) who don’t get some extra stipend for chairing or whipping committees.

Oh sorry, the committees sit during the summer, we are told. Erm, most of them will sit once, if that. That means that members (and they don’t all show up) have to come in one or two days during the summer just to show Joe Punter out there that it’s still ticking over, that the show is on the road.

Recession? What recession?

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