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Column: TD expenses controversy misses the point

If TDs are found to be misusing travel allowances but didn’t know about it, writes Eoin O’Malley, maybe the rules are the problem…

Eoin O'Malley

THE CONTROVERSY THAT has erupted because of the alleged misuse of expenses by Socialist Party TDs, Joe Higgins and Clare Daly, probably says more about the expenses system and the level of debate on political reform in Ireland than it does about the TDs in question.

They freely admitted to claiming expenses, such as mileage, for their travel to protests against the household charge. It has emerged that there may be a rule in the Oireachtas expenses system that the travel one is entitled to claim for as a TD is to do with constituency duties, so travel to and from the Dáil to a TD’s constituency is alright, as is travel within one’s own constituency, but apparently if you venture outside you cannot claim your expenses.

Now this is not all that clear and the Oireachtas is getting legal advice. But even if they are breaking the letter of the rules, surely the rules are the problem, not their actions. Some may object that what they were doing in their travel is to encourage people to break the law, ie, not to pay the
Household Charge, and it seems perverse that the state should subsidise them in their endeavours.

But the bigger point is whether TDs are encouraged only to do constituency work or to campaign nationally. I suspect many TDs were surprised when this issue arose, as some, such as Brian Hayes admitted that as a front bench spokesman he claimed expenses for travel to engagements related to his policy area.

At a time when we are crying out for politicians to deal with national issues and get away from parish pump politics, it seems ridiculous to leave in place and enforce rules that encourage them to stick to their own constituencies. TDs are elected by constituents in a certain geographic location, but they legislate for all of us, so their votes in the Dáil don’t just relate to their constituency. As citizens we presumably want access to frontbench spokesmen from the opposition parties, but how can they do this if their expenses are not covered?

A populist response to this is that TDs are well paid and that they should cover this travel from their own salary. The rest of us don’t get travel expenses to cover our bus fare to work, so why should they? But equally if any of us lucky enough to have work are asked to travel somewhere for our work we wouldn’t expect to be out of pocket for it – so why should TDs? TDs work harder and longer hours than most people, and while much of what they do may not be that useful, that is to some extent our fault for rewarding certain types of behaviour with re-election. Look at Joe Higgins and Michael McDowell, some of the best nationally-focused parliamentarians we had, yet they were both dumped out of the Dáil in 2007.

“The main problem is the fact that expenses are unvouched”

If there is a problem with the Oireachtas expenses system, this is not it. The main problem is the fact that expenses are unvouched, so TDs can buy a standard class train ticket but charge us for a first-class one. In this way expenses can be used to supplement their salary. The daily allowance they get for signing in to work in Leinster House is also difficult to justify, especially when the Dáil restaurant is so highly subsidised.

The minor expenses controversy also says something about the debate on political reform in Ireland. We have a tendency to focus on the wrong things. We focus on populist stuff, such as expenses, that makes no appreciable difference to how well the political system works. The reform agenda is focused on abolishing the Seanad, when it is clear this would fix nothing, and may even make it harder for the committee system to do its job. We’re going to have a smaller number of TDs, but this will make little or no difference.

Bizarrely the imminent Constitutional Convention won’t be allowed to consider these issues, but will look at removing the article on the role of women – an article so out of date that it could be removed without controversy in a tidying up exercise. The Convention will consider a small number of issues of political reform, but not in a complete or holistic way; they’ll be allowed to look at bits and pieces to encourage women’s participation and the electoral system. But it’s not starting out with an analysis of what is wrong with the political system.

The make-up of the Constitutional Convention is just as odd. There was a call to have ordinary citizens involved, but rather than allow them make decisions to put to the people, the citizens will probably be dominated by the 33 Oireachtas members who’ll form part of it. And the Convention
won’t be able to make recommendations that can automatically be put to the people; instead the government can pick the bits it likes and discard what doesn’t suit it. A basic principle should be that politicians are not the best people to design a political system – they have their own special
interests. While they certainly do have something to offer the debate, they should not have the final say.

Even though we’ve put in place a new government to replace Fianna Fáil, the political system that allowed such huge policy errors to happen is still in place. And to judge by the quality of the debate on Clare Daly’s expenses, we haven’t learned much from our mistakes either.

Eoin O’Malley teaches Irish politics and other stuff in Dublin City University.

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Eoin O'Malley

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