It’s Time Leinster House Meant Business

6th January, 2009

Imagine a world where orchestras were conducted by farmers, where department stores were managed by doctors and where solicitors were in charge of predicting the weather.

A recipe for chaos, you’d agree.

Now consider this:- very few members of the current Oireachtas have ever worked, at length, in a multinational company or an Irish business competing abroad. No member of the current cabinet has this kind of experience. They have never known the risk of losing their job because someone in India or Macedonia can do it at a fraction of the cost. No cabinet minister has ever seen a colleague’s job lost because a change in Euro exchange rates wipes away the profit their company sends back to Wall Street.

A recipe for chaos also?

Since I entered politics, first as a councillor in Dublin city and subsequently as a member of the Seanad, I have been struck by how startlingly out of kilter our ruling classes are with those they govern. They (or should I say we) are good, hardworking and in the main ideals-driven individuals who want the best for Ireland. Unfortunately, because of our occupational profile, we’re often not quite sure what that is.

Much has been written about the lack of gender-equality in the Oireachtas. So too there has been comment on the dearth of elected representatives from the traveller community, from the gay community or from ethnic minorities. These are worthy areas of study and issues that need to be tackled.

But little attention has, unfortunately, been paid to the lack of those with real professional life experience. This isn’t unique to Ireland- forty per cent of the House of Commons are either barristers, solicitors, teachers, doctors or civil servants. We need these professions represented in politics, but we need other voices too.

At a time of great economic uncertainty in this country, the absence of that experience is writ large in the economic fault lines that criss-cross this country. Or in the case of broadband, don’t.

During the recent Dail debate on the bank guarantee scheme, the overwhelming focus of contributions was on the state of the banking sector. That, perhaps, is as it should be. But a quick word check shows that of 14,500 words spoken during Second Stage, the word ‘competitiveness’ was mentioned only twice.

The banks, like the public finances, are a mess. But that mess in the public finances is a symptom of our economic problems, not a cause. The cause is anti-competitiveness, terrible tax decisions, a lack of focus on research and development, poor infrastructure and bad communications and transport links.

Similar problems can be found in the breakdown of Social Partnership, the absence of a rail link to Dublin Airport and the absence of adequate one hundred per cent broadband penetration. Does anybody think that if the Taoiseach had previously risen through the ranks of major multinational company before entering politics that lack of broadband would be such an issue?

Nobody can instruct the people how to vote. But the system can at least give them the choice to elect those who have real experience in the real economy. Those people may have some answers to the problems the current elite has failed to answer.

Just as the system needs to adapt to ensure that more women get elected, so too it needs to ensure a greater occupational mix for candidates.

That involves thinking what might have been thought unthinkable before. Let us not shy away from ideas like shortlists in certain winnable constituencies that include at least one person with a background in business.

Neither should political parties shun the idea of a reach out programme to business leaders and company personnel with the tried but tested message that ‘their country needs them’. To the best of my knowledge, no party has ever actively sought members in any way other than on the basis of where they live.

We have had voter registration drives and voter education programmes. How about a bit of activist registration for a change? Previously untapped sources of talent, knowledge and experience are there to be explored. Imagine the rewards if even a handful of the brightest brains working on trading floors, in marketing teams and in logistics divisions were to be used for the befit of us all, through the political system.

Only by reaching out to them directly can they brought into the political fold.

This doesn’t involve a single penny of State money being spent. It is a message to the parties themselves- and that includes those on the right, centre and left. I worked as Sales and Marketing Director in a multinational company for 10 years. I gave up my job there to run for the Dail in 2007 and although I didn’t make it, I was elected to the Seanad. I am delighted that I did this and do not regret it for a moment.

But I’d like to think that the Oireachtas would be better placed to tackle the great economic challenges that face Ireland if more candidates with a business background were vying for a place there. Only by living in that economy can answers really be found.