Tuesday, 15 March 2011
Programme for Government: Motion
Brendan Howlin (Minister, Department of Public Expenditure and Reform; Wexford, Labour)
I shall start by addressing the very last words uttered by Deputy Ó Cuív, while acknowledging his classical scholarship. It certainly was not this Government that cast any doubt on the view of Ireland's corporation tax rate. That was, as he knows, put on the table by others. I am not absolutely certain of Sinn Féin's position, but I believe that all parties in this House hold that the 12.5% negotiated by a Government of which I was a member is and will remain the official position. There should be no doubt in anybody's mind at home or abroad that this position is not only robust, but permanent.
It is my honour to support the endorsement by Dáil Éireann of the programme for a national Government that was negotiated between my party and Fine Gael. As others have said, it is the product of the amalgamated platforms that each of the two parties put to the people over recent months. We are two distinct parties. Each would have like to have had an overall majority to implement our full policy platforms, but the people determined something else. The people wanted a much more broadly based Government than could be constructed by any individual party. For that reason our two parties engaged over a relatively short period to amalgamate on an agreed basis a strategic programme to address the country's economic difficulties and lead us on a path to recovery.
There are things in it which indicate compromise, and Deputies can rightly point to these. However, what is not compromised is the determination of both parties in government to adhere to the wish of the people. Others have said that 56% of the Irish electorate have supported the two parties, the largest and the second largest in the State now, respectively, to form this Government. I honestly believe from all that I have heard subsequent to the election of this Government that the people of Ireland, even those who did not support the two parties that comprise it, wish it well because our national well-being and future as a country depend on the success of this Administration.
I respect the mandate demanded of every individual Member of this House and the Members opposite have rightly made much of this. I hope we will have a transformed Dáil, where the mandate afforded to every individual of the House is respected, with time being provided for that voice to be heard, on both sides of the Chamber. Equally, we therefore have a right to demand that the decision of the electorate to elect this Government by such a clear majority should be respected and given fair wind, not uncritically, but in the interests of the country.
The opening statement of common purpose is important, that is, the actual structure of the document in terms of policies. An inordinate amount of time was taken up in the negotiations towards addressing the economic difficulties, which goes without saying. Perhaps in the four or five days we had, a more comprehensive view could have been taken as regards the sectoral policies, had we had the time. The bulk of our focus was concentrated on economic recovery, however, for obvious and very good reasons. That is why they represent the clearest parts of this document. We crafted the statement of common purpose because that underpins the reasoning of the document and the reasoning behind the two parties coming together:
Our country deserves a fresh start from the failed politics of the years past. It also deserves a new hope that a new Government guided by the needs of the many rather than the greed of the few can make a real, positive difference in their lives.
That is not intended as a piece of rhetoric. It is meant to be an underpinning principle that will guide our decision-making and policy platforms we have.
I wish we had the flexibility of coming in without the burden of indebtedness the previous Administration has placed upon this nation. I wish we had but we have no magic wand to make the indebtedness go away or to make the awful decisions that must be made go away but we will take those with the new sense of urgency and fairness encapsulated in those sentences.
My party contested the general election with three main themes - jobs, reform and fairness. The programme the Government before this House reflects these objectives throughout its 64 pages. The prime focus of this Government is economic recovery and the prime element of that recovery is jobs - the retention and creation of jobs. That is why our first commitment is to a jobs programme, a jobs budget within 100 days. We have set out much of the content of the programme but not all. If the Opposition has ideas, it should submit them. They will not be rejected if they are of merit. That applies to all policy platforms. The view on this side of the House is that good ideas from any Member or party in the House will be welcomed and entertained as far as practicable. Without jobs and growth, our economic difficulties cannot be overcome. As a Government, we are determined to provide the basis for that economic growth and recovery.
The reform agenda, the second pillar of my party's platform, is seldom one that becomes a major election issue but this election was different. Our political system and our system of public administration was found to be woefully wanting. It is broken and needs to be reconstructed. It is in urgent need of fundamental change and reform. This Government commits itself to the radical overhaul of the way we do politics in this country, the way Government works and the way the agents of Government in public services and its agencies work. It will be a major body of work, involving constitutional and legislative change, and we will make a start at the top.
Among the constitutional changes we will promulgate is the abolition of Seanad Éireann. We have undertaken careful analysis, not in a knee-jerk way but because we believe there is not a compelling case for its retention. That is the yardstick we must apply to every agency in the State. Is there a compelling reason for it to exist or can its work be done more effectively and efficiently elsewhere? We will have a referendum to amend the Constitution to reverse the effects of the Abbeylara judgment. Members of the previous Oireachtas know how restrictive it was on the work of proper inquiry, which is normal to Parliaments. I have been arguing for this amendment for some time.
Even closer to my agenda is a referendum to protect the right of citizens to communicate in confidence with Deputies. It was a principle I was forced to defend in the High Court and Supreme Court. I regret that the principle was breached and it should be restored so that people who think they can identify wrongdoing, malpractice or something that needs investigation should be able to reach out to their elected representatives in this House without fear of putting themselves on a hazard.
We will promulgate a referendum to allow the pay of judges to be reduced in line with others in society. No privileges are afforded to any class of people to make them unique. We are all citizens in an equal republic. There will be a referendum to ensure children's rights are strengthened. Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin worked very hard on that process and we are determined to bring the work to fruition and present it to the people.
There will be a full constitutional convention on a range of other important issues. There will be a range of important legislation to continue, as the Tánaiste said, the work started by the Labour Party the last time it was in Government. I was privileged to introduce the Electoral Act at that time, which required a declaration by Members and officeholders so that we know what influences may be brought to bear on them. The Act introduced a limit on election spending and a limit on what can be donated. We must go much further and we will continue that work. We will restore freedom of information provisions, protect whistleblowers, limit political donations, abolish corporate donations, regulate lobbyists, establish a petitions committee and much more.
I refer to the new Department I am privileged to run. It must yet be constituted and that will be done by law as a new Department of public expenditure and reform. My primary role will be to manage public expenditure and reform the public service. I started that worked immediately, even without the legislative framework. It is understood that the work must be done immediately. It starts on the basis of respect. This Government respects public service and public servants. We start with the view that the status quo will not do. We must have change and we must buy into change. It will be my job to convince, not to bully, that we can provide the best public services in the world if we make the changes and open ourselves to the changes required.
I have much more to say but ten minutes is too little time to do justice to this matter. There will be other times to map out what the new Department, which I have the privilege of being in charge of, will do. I commend the motion to endorse this programme to get on with the work set before us by the people.