Why is the Economic Management Council so shady?

comment1Fintan O’Toole’s article in the Irish Times on Tuesday brought to my attention, for the first time, the concerns around the constitutionality and potentially undemocratic nature of the Government’s Economic Management Council [EMC]. Set up following the establishment of the Coalition in 2011, the Council consists of a group of four: An Taoiseach Enda Kenny; An Tánaiste Joan Burton; Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin, Minister for Finance Michael Noonan.

The aim of the council was initially to… Forgive me, what does it to do again? Why don’t we take a look at the official website of An Taoiseach, here, and see what he so kindly offers as justification for the establishment of the council. Unfortunately, the site offers no more than a list of its members. And forgive me but I can’t seem to find anything, here, on the Citizens Information website either. It was understandable, then, that Micheál Martin called on the government to clarify the role of the EMC in 2013.

An Tánaiste Joan Burton commented that the role of the EMC was to “look at budgetary matters”. Noel Whelan has suggested that its role is to “oversee the work” of government. An Taoiseach Enda Kenny kindly clears things up, here, by saying that the role of the council is to “get to grips with important economic issues.” I must be frank and say that I haven’t a bloody clue what exactly the role of this council is, and that’s not for want of trying.

Micheál Martin, in calling for clarification as to the role of the EMC, was responding to comments from Joan Burton. Burton, who now sits on the council, raised concerns that the council was potentially dominated by civil servants and policy advisers. Indeed, Minister Burton’s concerns about the democratic nature of the council seem legitimate. As Whelan rightly pointed out, the Council has “enhanced the role of unelected officials and advisers at the expense of those elected to govern. While no political advisers or officials, other than the Secretary to the Government and the Attorney General, attend Cabinet, several political advisers and officials attend and it seems actively participate in the deliberations of the EMC.” O’Toole points out the arbitrariness of the list of political advisers who attend by commenting that, “in principle, the resident conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra or the head chef in the Dáil restaurant or the head of a multinational corporation or the winner of Celebrity Bainisteoir,” may attend the meetings.

One certainty is that the scope of the council appears to extend beyond budgetary measures. During the month of November, the council was a key forum for discussion on the environmental issue of water charges. The Minister for Environment was invited to meet with the council to discuss possible ways of modifying the charge. When Minister for Health Leo Varadkar was asked about Joan Burton’s suggestion that a family of four would pay less than €200 for water, he replied by saying he had “not been party to any such discussions.”

But the shady nature of the council is beside the point. If key issues of policy are indeed decided, or all-but-decided, in advance of cabinet discussions, then the question of constitutionality must be asked. Article 28.4.2 of the Constitution of Ireland states: “The Government shall meet and act as a collective unit.” There are no sub-provisions providing for the formation of sub-committees which can make decisions with regard to government policy in advance of cabinet discussions. When you consider Varadkar’s comments demonstrating his ignorance towards government policy on water charges, things seem rather clear: The EMC is indeed deciding on government policy in advance of cabinet discussions. The government is not meeting and acting as a collective unit; the EMC is unconstitutional.

Unconstitutional, undemocratic, elite, and very shady. Surely none of these words should be associated with public representatives?