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Should TDs be allowed to hire family members? Yes, of course!

Hiring a family member can be advantageous to accomplishing the work that voters demand of our TDs.

Aaron McKenna

IN THE “things politicians do regularly, causing great consternation” section of every public relations officer manual in Leinster House is the line item, “Hire spouse/sibling/offspring to €38k a year parliamentary assistant gig.” It just doesn’t look good in a news headline. Given the nature of the demands placed on politicians, however, it isn’t something that ought to be outlawed.

The job of a TD is a very unusual one, and it is unusual because of the demands that are placed on TDs by voters. A successful TD is not one who operates like a 9-5 civil servant. Rather, it is a near totally consuming job that involves a massive investment into one’s constituency matters all of the time.

TDs spend extraordinary amounts of time between local meetings and events, constituent clinics and dealing with the matters that arise from them, engaging in correspondence and travelling to and fro. On top of all of this, of course, they’re also national legislators who have to show up in the Dáil; put down parliamentary questions; attend committees and engage in the absorbing political matters of the day. It’s not a job a person could do alone, which is why TDs get assistants.

Politicians are constituency animals by necessity 

You might scoff at this description, but the fact of the matter is that when the Irish people go to the polls they vote quite partially on the basis of who has put in the legwork in their constituency. I don’t think that we should have as locally a focused politics as we do, but that’s what we’ve got thanks to voters and that’s the basis on which most politicians get elected and re-elected. It’s a case of democracy being the worst form of government, except for all the other ones we’ve tried.

I’ve seen the most aloof and nationally-focused big ideas candidates swept into the Dáil in the last election become constituency animals like the best of them, once they copped on to what voters are looking for. They’re out organising protests over Garda station closures or chasing ministers over potholes rather than the tax reforms and education overhauls they came in looking for. They still work on that big picture stuff, but they also know that if you want influence you’ve got to stay in the game; and that involves getting re-elected.

Being a parliamentary assistant is no walk in the park

What, you ask, does this have to do with hiring family members or friends or political acquaintances? Just as being a successful TD is no 9-5 job, neither is working for one – or it shouldn’t be. The reason why so many politicians hire from a relatively close circle, rarely further than their local political organisation, is because they need folks who are as committed to the crazy, quixotic cause of winning in politics as they are.

You will find that most parliamentary assistants are people who climb lampposts in the driving rain during elections. They are committed political soldiers who will do what it takes to get their man or woman elected and they tend to be knowledgeable of the local political scene themselves. Quite a few run for, and are successful in, local election in their own right.

It’s difficult to hire for these qualities from a pool of random strangers, and it is nigh on impossible to get it from an alternative system like civil service appointed permanent secretaries.

A good advisor has the minister’s back 

The practise of hiring from a close circle extends beyond ordinary TDs. Ministerial special advisors attract flak as a matter of course, with their background and salaries raked over for regular, evergreen controversy. As one minister put it to me, however, these people are essential when you go into a department full of potential Sir Humphrey civil servants. A good advisor has the minister’s back when they’re trying to fight the innate conservatism in much of the civil service – and the advisor also loses his or her job when the minister does. It’s quite an incentive.

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I believe that a TD hiring a family member from public money does that politician damage. At the same time, I can see why hiring a family member can be advantageous to accomplishing the work that voters demand of our TDs in counterbalance to that damage.

If we barred or regulated the practice of hiring assistants, we would be hampering the ability of TDs to do the job that we know voters want them to do, and whether we think that’s the right job or not is another matter for a different debate.

Dynastic politics is regularly sneered at, but so too we know that voters are very loyal to family brands when they get to the privacy of the booth with their pencil and paper. The same could be said of hiring relations. It’s a flawed system but it’s the one we have and it’s the one that is most successful at delivering what voters say they want, election after election.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman on columnist for TheJournal.ie. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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