In search of political accountability

The first political election campaign that I observed and can remember took place in Germany in 1969. It came at an interesting time, politically. In 1966 the then governing coalition of Christian Democrats and Free Democrats (Liberals) had fallen apart due to disagreement about budget cuts, at a time when West Germany had experienced its first major recession. In order to avoid an election, the Christian Democrats entered into a coalition with the Social Democrats, creating the so-called ‘Große Koalition‘ (‘grand coalition’). This lasted quite successfully up to the next scheduled elections in 1969. During the election campaign, the opposition Free Democrats produced a number of election broadcasts in which the main criticism of coalition ministers was that they hadn’t resigned when some mistake or other had happened under their watch. ‘Was macht die Große Koalition?’ they asked (‘what does the grand coalition do?’). And they answered: ‘Einfach weiterregieren’ (‘just continue governing’).

I was 15 years old at the time, and this particular political idea struck me as odd. It suggested that if something in government went wrong, the honourable thing to do would be to resign. The examples the liberals gave were not of ministerial wrong-doing, but really of events: things that went wrong, because in life things do go wrong. This seemed to me to be not about political honour, but almost a form of superstition, that when things go badly we must appease the gods with a sacrifice. I’ve never seen the sense in that.

It’s not that I don’t believe in accountability, and indeed I agree that in Ireland we need to remind ourselves more often about it. But what does that mean?

A fairly typical assessment of accountability in politics was outlined in Saturday’s Irish Times by strategy consultant Eddie Molloy, in which he voices disquiet (and more) at the fact that in the wake of our economic emergency those who presided over the political decision-making in the years running up to it are still in power. I should stress that I have the highest regard for Eddie, whom I know well and whose advice I have used in the past. But I am highly sceptical about at least part of his message here. Perhaps I might quote what for me is the key passage in the article:

‘In the spheres of morality, the legal system, corporate governance and performance management accountability without consequences is meaningless. The Taoiseach clearly appreciates this fundamental principle of any functioning institution since he repeatedly cites the clear-out of irresponsible bankers as evidence of his determination to hold people to account. Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan reassures us that we can expect lots more resignations, adding grimly that not only should such people be fired, they should be investigated by the Garda and jailed if they are found guilty of wrongdoing. They are asserting the principle that accountability must carry consequences. We all agree, and Brian Dobson asks the question on everyone’s lips: “What are the consequences for calamitous political failure, the failure of Ministers and senior public servants?”’

At one level Eddie Molloy seems to me to be forgetting, or deliberately overlooking, the key principle of democratic accountability: that judgement is passed by the electorate at the ballot box. Every politician is accountable at that level, without exception, and sentence is often passed ruthlessly. Ask Gordon Brown. But Eddie seems to be suggesting that this doesn’t matter, or isn’t enough. The moment that something goes wrong a politician should be ‘accountable’ in the sense of turning himself in on the spot, or maybe stepping out from Leinster House to be lynched by the mob. It is the rule of instant gratification for the commentariat, and to me at least – even if I am the only one in Ireland to think so – it is bizarre. Governments are elected to govern, not to resign, and every few years the electorate is invited to pass judgement. That’s how it works. It’s a different matter of course if the issue is unlawful or corrupt behaviour – that requires a more urgent response. But political misjudgement is not in that category, not least because it’s not always something that lends itself to instant judgement.

In the meantime, this kind of thinking has infected public discourse, and has had a direct impact on the level of confidence with which we are seen or perceived abroad. Take the health service, for example. Every time some consultant misdiagnoses cancer, or some hospital computer goes wrong, or a hospital trolley is mislaid, someone will pop up on radio or television and demand that the Minister for Health should resign. Really? Why? How would that help anyone? What it would mean is that every Minister will have caution as their watchword, and will spend all their time ensuring that no reform is contemplated, never mind implemented, because attempting it will create problems that will produce at least one disaster somewhere, and before you can say ‘consultants’ salary’ the Minister’s head will be on the block. So far better never to attempt anything. And in any case, the Archangel Gabriel with unlimited powers would be unable to run the health service without constant disasters, because no health service can run successfully until the costs are properly carried through health insurance; that’s the reality.

Honest to God, as a people we need to grow up. We claim to want to be entrepreneurial, and yet we set the dogs on anyone who tries something and fails. Don’t get me wrong, I am not defending the decisions that were taken over the past decade or so, some of them were crazy. But they were part of the spirit of the age, and to some extent most of us were complicit. We had to wake up. It’s a painful business, but absolutely none of it gets any better because we have stuck a knife into people we now dislike because they have shown up how stupid we got as a country.

So, picking up Eddie Molloy’s theme, what are the consequences of political failure? The answer is, we move on. We learn from what went wrong. And if we think we have made an appropriate judgement about the capacity of politicians to deal with this, we can express that at the ballot box at the next election.

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3 Comments on “In search of political accountability”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    It seems to me that Molloy wants to set the dogs on people who were at, best, manifestly incompetant and some of whom were probably corrupt. Many clearly have their snouts in the trough. I don’t have a problem with Molloy on that. Incompetance is rewarded in Ireland, particulary in the public sector. When does someone there have to live with the negative consequences of their idiocy? They are given another well paid job or given generous retirement packages. There are numerous examples.
    So it isn’t a matter of putting the knife into “people we now dislike because they have shown how stupid we got as a country”.
    I don’t dislike Brian Cowen, he seems a decent enough guy. I just think he has done and is continuing to do an appaling job which has done untold damage to the country. Saying well “its a democracy so lets sort it all out at the ballot box” strikes me as showing a rather superficial understanding of the unprecedented crisis that we find ourselves in. In many democracies politicians resign when their position has been shown to be untenable and likewise governments do fall mid-term.

    • Kevin, leaving aside for a moment whether you are right in your judgement on the present government (and I am not arguing the case the other way), what would be the purpose of their resigning. Are you saying that another government would, at this stage, be manifestly better? And if so, on what evidence are you basing that?

  2. Vincent Says:

    In politics, rather with politicians, it is better to follow a variation on Occam’s razor. When you hear hooves don’t think Zebras or even Horses, think Asses.

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