Labour plans a clear-out

Although it’s not something they’ve come up with on their own, to be fair the party is embracing the zeitgeist of an electorate bitter and bruised by Fianna Fáil activities and the recession. The key points of Labour’s agenda for “a merit society, where those in public life take responsibility for their actions; where transparency is the norm, not the exception; and where the public interest is at the heart of decision-making” are:

  • Cleaning out the boards of the banks
  • Controlling land and property speculation
  • Ending the link between big money and politics
  • Legislating to regulate the practice of political lobbying
  • Introducing Whistleblowers Protection legislation
  • Extending Oireachtas powers of oversight and investigation
  • Restoring the Freedom of Information Act

The party has actually managed to skip a whole point from its summary: making good corporate governance a requirement, not an option. *sigh* Purely looking at the point list above, one and two are extremely vague and very much children of our times. Point three has been around as long as big business and shouldn’t surprise anyone, given Labour’s socialist origins (even if it would be great for Irish politicis). The last point should be supported as widely as possible.

Digging in to the document itself, I found the plan for cleaning out the bank boards to be short on substance. It’s basically fire everyone on the boards of banks covered by the Government’s savings guarantee. Not original, and not necessarily right either as it would gut the banks of expertise and punish people who may not have had a guiding role in the bad practice of recent years. Following the indiscriminant firings, the party wants a banking commission to “oversee the rebuilding of the banking sector according to much stricter criteria”. The body would have to approve banks’ business plans and oversee all board and executive appointments.

And that’s it as far as cleaning up the banks is concerned. Some might say it’s enough, but I’d like to know a lot more about who appoints the commission and what its precise legal standing and powers would be. There’s no mention of what sanctions it can take against a bank it sees as stepping out of line.

When it comes to making good corporate governance the law, I think it’s hard to dispute that that might be necessary. However, I take issue with the plan to prevent non-executive directors to sit on a board for more than seven consecutive years. Where would it end? The precedent could quite easily trail out into other sectors (I am aware that there is already a limit to presidential terms, but that’s a public office voted for and supported by taxpayer money). I don’t know how many people would like to be told they can only do a job for seven years at a go (unless they hate it).

Some slight alarm bells when it comes to property:

“To ensure that Ireland is never again devastated by a property bubble, Labour in government would:

  • Legislate for the purchase of land by the State at current use value plus 25 per cent.
  • Immediately end all tax incentives and shelters related to property development, with immediate effect. For example, Section 23-type reliefs which allow individuals to write off their investment against all other income.”

While ending tax incentives is fine, I was slightly alarmed at the first point. Does the strategy mean “current” as in 2009, or will it be applied to land values whenever the purchase (this only applies for buying land for public works such as schools, etc) takes place? Bear in mind that the report it cites was written in 1973 — unless Labour wants 1970s land prices to apply.

Okay, I’m being flippant with the last sentence. But who will determine “current use value”? And why would the State be willing to add a 25% premium? Certainly, it would encourage people to sell land to the State over private developers, but at what cost to the exchequer? Ireland is already swimming in debt and the school building programme is being knifed. Also, there is nothing in that point that would stop land prices from spiralling out of control in the future. Nixing tax incentives will help, but considering that Labour wants to prevent a property bubble from happening again the party doesn’t seem to have addressed all the issues.

I can happily state that I’m in favour of the party’s aim that “no one individual should be able to use his or her personal wealth to decide the content of our Constitution”. However, while I accept that limiting political donations and introducing spending limits on elections from local to European and general is a good way to go, there’s nothing in the document about what actions can or might be taken in the event that the law is abused. Limiting a donation does not necessarily limit access, even if point five, regulation of political lobbying, makes some strides in this regard. Hopefully the party will make a concrete definition of “a lobbyist” if it gets into power and can bring the legislation forward. Generally speaking though, the party’s attitude toward political funding and lobbying is a good way of levelling the playing field and contributing toward transparency.

The plan to extend Oireachtas oversight of the Government is weak. Yes, ministers would be obliged to give full answers. But that doesn’t change the fact that the Dáil is responsible for monitoring the government. A majority of TDs in favour of one party isn’t going to vote in favour of that government’s decisions being scrutinised. Why should politicians be watching over themselves, if Labour wants to ensure that banks and business can’t regulate themselves?

The Freedom of Information Act needs an absolute overhaul and Labour’s strategy on this is worth reproducing in full:

  • Restore the Freedom of Information Act so that it is as comprehensive as was originally intended.
  • Reform the fee structure for Freedom of Information requests so that cost does not discourage individuals and organisations from seeking information.
  • Extend the remit of the Freedom of Information Act, and the remit of the Ombudsman Act, to the Garda Síochána, the Central Bank and many other statutory bodies, and bodies significantly funded from the public purse, that are currently excluded.

The high charges for information are an affront to transparency (I accept that a certain level is necessary for merely handling the requests, getting the information, and dissuading time wasters) and the fact that many State agencies are exempt from the Act is absurd. Do I speak here with a journalist’s bias in favour of information? Possibly. But it is difficult to argue that the Act as it stands is crippled and limits access to the material necessary for transparency.

Overall, it’s a mediocre but sincere effort from the Labour Party. As a broad plan it’s decent enough, and some of the plans are well enough advanced that they might even come to something. However, and while I appreciate that the document was likely written with clarity in mind, because that would just switch off readers, it has a long way to go.

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