Thursday, 11 November 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Appointments to State Boards
I would like to use my time this morning to raise the manner in which the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is making appointments to the Climate Change Advisory Council. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Climate Action. We engaged in extensive prelegislative scrutiny of the climate Bill, where we heard from leading experts on international best practice for climate law and carbon budgets. During that prelegislative scrutiny, the make-up of the Climate Change Advisory Council was discussed at length. It was accepted that the previous council was disproportionately made up of economists and that any new council must have a broader range of expertise. It was also pointed out that Ireland was an outlier in having ex officiomembers as full members of the council and that representatives of State bodies should only serve in an advisory capacity.
We then heard about the importance of a public appointments process. We were told that the members of the Climate Change Advisory Council must be independent and they must be in a position to hold whatever Government it may be to account if it fails to meet its legally binding targets. We were advised that the hallmark of independence is the appointments process. We were told of the need for positions to be publicly advertised and filled by open competition. The Joint Committee on Climate Action agreed with this advice and included that recommendation in its prelegislative report to the Minister, Deputy Ryan.
In February, before the climate Bill passed, the Minister, Deputy Ryan, made a number of appointments to the council. I questioned the process of those appointments and was informed they were made under the provisions of the 2015 Act and that future appointments would be made when the new Bill passed. Sinn Féin put forward detailed amendments to the new Bill calling for a similar appointments process to that for the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. Other members of the Opposition supported our amendments calling for a public appointments process. None of those amendments were accepted. In fact, we were assured there was no need for the amendments because a protocol has been in place for appointments since 2014. Therefore, the House can imagine our surprise and disappointment when the Minister, Deputy Ryan, proceeded to appoint more members to the Climate Change Advisory Council in October with no process at all. It was simply that the Minister said that he knows best and that the people appointed were qualified.If that does not sound exactly like Zappone and the arrogance that we heard from the Minister, Deputy Coveney, on the Zappone appointment, then I do not know what does. Nobody is saying that the people appointed are not qualified. Nobody is calling into question their expertise but it appears that this Government has learned nothing from Zapponegate. Ministers cannot and should not go around appointing their friends to publicly paid positions just because they think they are the best person for the job. If they are the best person for the job, then they have nothing to fear from a competitive process.
Appointments to boards cannot be about rewarding friends who canvassed for you or who took to social media to support your leadership challenge or who argued strongly for the Green Party to go into government during those talks. That is not the appropriate way to do business. It does not matter if the people are qualified. They should have nothing to fear from a public appointments process. What has happened here is not about the individuals in question. It is not calling into question their expertise. Just like the Zappone appointment, this is cronyism through and through. I look forward to hearing the Minister's explanation for why the Government did not follow the protocol that is in place with regard to public appointments.
I thank the Chair for inviting me to address this Commencement matter. The Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021 sets out the process for appointing members to the Climate Change Advisory Council and the qualifications and experience that members must have. The four appointments made in October followed these requirements scrupulously, and I am fully confident that the council has an excellent set of members who have the knowledge and experience needed to fulfil their crucial role. The Act allowed the Climate Change Advisory Council to expand to 13 ordinary members. Three members are ex officio, including the director general of the Environmental Protection Agency; the director of Teagasc - the Agriculture and Food Development Authority, and the director of the Irish National Meteorological Service, Met Éireann. The remaining members are to be nominated by the Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications and are appointed by the Government.
Section 10(4)(a) of the Act requires that each member of the Climate Change Advisory Council has knowledge of or expertise in at least one of the following areas: climate science; adaptation policy; transport policy; energy policy; agricultural policy; behavioural and communication science; biodiversity and ecosystem services; economics; finance; or political sociology or ethics in relation to climate. In October, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, recommended four additional members for the council to the Government and the Government decided to appoint these nominees. The new members are Dr. Cara Augustenborg, a distinguished climate scientist; Dr. Morgan Bazilian, a distinguished climate and energy scientist; Ms Sinead O'Brien, a prominent environmentalist and water specialist; and Ms Jillian Mahon, a highly experienced financial executive and director with expertise in climate finance. Commenting on the appointments at the time, the Minister, Deputy Ryan said:
A critical part of our transition to a low carbon society is the provision of accurate and timely advice. The Climate Change Advisory Council needs to have a broad and diverse balance of skills and experience that will advise Government on both carbon budgets and progress on implementation of the Climate Action Plan.
I am sure any objective observer would agree that these appointments achieved that aim.
I find it astounding that the justification echoes exactly what Deputy Simon Coveney said about Katherine Zappone's appointment, when he asked if anyone was seriously questioning the person's expertise or ability. Nobody is questioning that. At no point am I questioning any expertise or ability of the people who are on the Climate Change Advisory Council but these people have to be able to hold the Government to account. They have to say whether a Minister is doing the job or not. I am sorry, there is no process, paper trail or anything. The Minister basically went out and said he thinks that these are the best people, with no process. It just so happens that some of those people were members of the Green Party, canvassed for the Green Party and took to social media to defend the Minister, Deputy Ryan, in the leadership battle. Can the Minister of State see why a member of the public might look on and say that it does not matter that that person was the best one for the job because there was no process and the person is in receipt of public money? Will they be able to hold the Minister, Deputy Ryan, to account if he does not fulfil the legally binding emission targets?
I thank the Senator. As I have explained, the proper process was followed in making these appointments. This has ensured that an exceptional group of members has been appointed to the council to allow it to fulfil its crucial functions. That process is outlined in the climate legislation passed by the Houses of the Oireachtas earlier this year. I believe it was the most important legislation to have passed in many years. It was passed with consensus, including support from every party, apart from some Independents, with only ten people voting against it. That Act details how people would be appointed to the Climate Change Advisory Council. The steps of that process were followed exactly and scrupulously. Dr. Cara Augustenborg is probably the best-known woman in climate science in Ireland. She has extensive experience and academic qualifications. She is a senior fellow in environmental policy at University College Dublin. She has an MSc in environmental health sciences; a PhD in environmental sciences from University of California, Los Angeles; she is one of seven people appointed to the Council of State under President Higgins; and, I am happy that she is one of the four people who was appointed. Dr. Morgan Bazilian is equally somebody of great repute, as are Ms Sinead O'Brien and Ms Jillian Mahon. We have a Climate Change Advisory Council which will be well capable to deliver on this extremely important challenge that is facing Ireland and the world.