Is it time to make things voter-proof?

The Times ScreenshotPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition on 8th August 2016.

It seems that it has become one of the latest causes of the Permanently Indignant Left to call for a referendum on TTIP. TTIP? That’s that trade thing, right? Yes, and that’s your first test. Tell me what TTIP means. I ask, by the way, having guessed myself, gotten it wrong, and having to look it up. TTIP is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the vast trade deal currently being negotiated between the EU and the US. Depending on whom you listen to, it’ll either boost trade and jobs on both sides of the Atlantic, or it’s a secret plot to hand over vast power to giant corporations who can then go about privatizing everything.

I’ll admit, I knew next to nothing about TTIP, and so went off and found both pro and anti TTIP information, and the more one reads the more you realise how complicated modern international relationships are. Indeed TTIP shows how modern society is a vast collection of moving parts and TTIP and the EU and WTO are an attempt to put some sort of order on them.

Which leads to a bigger question. Are voters actually capable of making a rational decision about these issues?

I’ll be honest: if I were to vote in a referendum on TTIP, I would have to do a few hours study before I knew even vaguely myself whether I thought it’s a good or bad thing. Will other voters do that? Many will, but I suspect most won’t. They’ll be influenced by the opinions of public figures they trust, or, and this is where it gets worrying, by vague nuggets of information they half hear.

What would a TTIP referendum look like, in any EU country? Nearly half the voters would allege its all part of some conspiracy, with everything from the Lizards of Davos to The Rothschilds lobbed in for good measure. Some voters would vote against anything because the government proposed it. In Ireland, some councillor would almost certainly demand local people vote against it unless St. Jude’s gets a new roof for its changing rooms.

I’ve no doubt there are smart people who know TTIP inside out who have serious issues with it. Good. Let them fight it out with other smart people who support it because the rest of us really haven’t a clue.

The truth is that asking the public to vote on TTIP is like asking the public to decide over new techniques in brain surgery. These issues are becoming too technical for the public (myself included) to give anything other than a vague opinion, often based on hearsay information directly contradictory to reality. I’d wager that a large proportion of people who want to stop TTIP can’t tell you what it stands for. If anything, we’ll be voting for who is on what side. So let’s just cut out the middleman and let them decide in parliament.

Is this elitist? Yes. We’re now living in an elitist world. Elite surgeons operate on our loved ones. Elite engineers design and run the nuclear power plants than stop our grannies freezing to death in the winter. Elite chemists design the medicines that cure diseases that killed our ancestors. So why wouldn’t we expect to have elite leaders to run our countries and negotiate our laws and treaties? The alternative is ending up with presidential candidates asking why nuclear weapons can’t be used more often.

But what about us, the voters? Who aren’t experts in nuclear proliferation or labour mobility or life expectancy management? What’s our role? Are we just not intelligent enough to play a role anymore?

Here’s the truth: we don’t need to be experts. But we do need to be able to ask the right questions of experts. We need elite legislatures and voters who know that yes, we do need legislators who know more than we do.

That means we need to take voter education as seriously we require drivers know how to drive.

The programme for government talks of setting up an Electoral Commission to run elections independently. I’d argue that its remit should also include the aggressive year-round education of voters, additionally funded perhaps by a small tax on election posters? Not just on the hows of the political system, but actual facts about our society that voters should know before voting. Is it wrong to educate voters that the government jet and TDs salaries and pensions are a tiny part of the budget? Or that most Irish people get more from the state than they pay in? Or that the rich actually pay the most tax? It’s time for the state to ram political, fiscal and economic reality down the throats of voters, for their own good. Informed voters are as important to a society as qualified surgeons.

We’ve see the alternative in the US, which on the verge of electing a fool as president, on the backs of voters whose ignorance (“Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya!”) is bordering on a belief in a political version of witchcraft.

Democracy isn’t a guarantee of good government, but the last line of defence against tyranny. But in order for it to work, voters have to be able to tell when they’re actually under attack.

Give Greece a wire brush write-off?

Sunday business post logoPublished in The Sunday Business Post

15th March 2015

When it comes down to it, if they’re honest, the Germans will probably admit in private that there isn’t a hope in hell of Greece paying back its debt. They’ll also admit that the debt isn’t really the problem.

The real problem is that Angela’s hard line is beginning to take on the same golden calf standing in German politics as the commitment to restoring the national language is here. Except unlike us, the Germans tend to mean it.

We forget that for every Greek worker waving a sign saying “We are not a German colony” there’s a German worker happy to hold aloft a sign saying “Not a cent of my taxes, Angie!”, and unlike the Greeks, the Germans actually can remove her from office.

But what really matters to the Germans is the fear that firstly, the Greeks will immediately go back to their old ways of regarding taxation as being an interesting philosophical concept, and secondly, the Spanish, Irish, Portuguese and Italians will all suddenly stop self-flagellating, look at our trousers bunched around our ankles, and pull a collective “Now, hold on a minute!”

The trick then, is to find a way of cutting the Greeks some slack but doing it in such a way that the other problem countries do a Meatloaf: “I’ll do anything . . . but I won’t do THAT!”

A bit of imagination will be required. It’s all well and good signing memorandums of understanding, but nobody really believes them. You have to make them do something so humiliating that other countries baulk at the idea of requesting the same deal. For example, letting Brussels nominate the head of Greece’s tax collection authorities, and the head of its public service, and maybe even its finance, labour and justice ministers.

Extreme? Yes. Humiliating? Definitely. Worth a hundred billion of a write-off? Hmmm.

Would the Irish, Spanish or Italians concede the same? I doubt it. Sure, the wags say that Greece and Italy did actually let Brussels nominate their prime ministers, but this is much bigger. This is actual direct control.

Would we allow Olli Rehn be appointed to the Seanad and then made Minister for Taxation and Public Sector Reform for a €30 billion write-off? Sure, we announce, until he tries to bring in, say, Swedish tax transparency where everybody’s salary and tax is published online. Or tries to get us to pay for, God forbid, the actual amount of water we use?

How would our political class react if Brussels demanded that all our junior ministers not be members of the Oireachtas, but people technically knowledgeable of the portfolios they are covering?

How would learned colleagues in the Kings Inns react to a Dutch justice minister announcing that he was abolishing the difference between Irish barristers and solicitors? Good God man, an affront to democracy! There’d be wigs flying everywhere in indignation.

Suddenly €30 billion would become a mere metaphysical construct, something that pales into insignificance when your real live water bill arrives and the minister thinks nothing of turning off the water supply if you don’t pay, and doesn’t know or care who Joe Duffy is.

Yeah, the demonstrations will be all “national sovereignty now!” but the truth is that we wouldn’t want that nosy bloke from down the road looking up how much you actually earn and pay in tax, or that you don’t declare to the Revenue that mobile home you rent out every summer.

This would be the troika on speed with a SWAT team. We’d actually harp back nostalgically to Ajai Chopra and the way he’d look at you, peering over his half-moon glasses and saying “these ministerial pensions are a bit Liberace, aren’t they?”

And that’s the problem: the Greek compromise by its very nature, whilst relieving the actual pain of the Greek people, has to humiliate them to ensure that the rest of us don’t ask for a portion. We’ve got to wheel a lovely big wooden horse up to the gates of Athens, and everybody has to know what it means.

It’s like those old stories about how so many sexually transmitted diseases were solved with a bottle of Dettol and a wire brush. Has to be done, good in the long run, but still makes onlookers look on and exhale with a grimace thinking, “Thank Christ that’s not me.”

Thought I’d repost a Sunday Business Post column I wrote on the Irish attitude to freedom of speech. No reason.

Sunday business post logoLet’s vote on the Freedom to Offend

10 May 2015 by Jason O’Mahony

In a few weeks we’ll be voting on the age of presidential candidates, quite possibly the most moronically pointless referendum we’ve ever been asked to vote on.

All the political reform issues we could be voting on, and Fine Gael and Labour give us this thing they found crumpled up in a bin at the Constitutional Convention. Why are we voting on this? Because FG and Labour, having failed to do any political reform, are now trying to find something to point to and call reform. We should be thankful: knowing this crowd, we could just as easily be asked to vote on adding an exclamation mark to the country’s name to make it sound more dynamic. Ireland!

If we’re going to have a referendum for the craic, then let’s have one on an issue that actually matters and will shape Irish society for generations. Let’s vote on freedom of speech.

Don’t we already have that? Actually, we don’t. In fact, you can tell the Irish attitude to freedom of speech in one simple way. Is there a get-out clause? The US constitution says that Congress may not abridge the freedom of speech. That’s it. No ifs or buts.

Our constitution says something similar, except there’s a very Irish “however”, which then gives the state all sorts of excuses to tell people to shut the hell up.

Having sat through the Marriage Equality debate, it’s fair to say that the concept of what freedom of speech means is up for national discussion. The level of intolerance, of people ripping down posters because they don’t like what they say, or demanding that X or Y should not be allowed on telly shows that to many Irish people there isn’t a respect for freedom of speech as much as a respect for my freedom of speech but not yours.

It used to be simple. The Catholic right took a “you can’t see/read that filth!” approach to everything from Playboy to The Life of Brian. Those of us on the liberal side believed that people should make their own minds up about things. Yeah, I did support Section 31 back then, keeping the Shinners off the telly but guess what? I was wrong. But broadly speaking, it was freedom versus censorship.

Yet today, many of the most intolerant people I meet tend to be among my fellow liberals, and they’re hawking around a new concept imported from British and US universities where people seem to be claiming a right not to be exposed to opinions they don’t like.

It’s the Fox Newsification of liberalism, where you only start seeking news and information from sources you agree with.

Where the self-policing of rational thought, by reading what the other side is saying, is now regarded as some sort of dangerous contamination.

That’s why we need a debate on freedom of speech: because it is two sided, not just saying your piece but hearing what the other guy says too. That’s how we keep ourselves honest, and it’s under threat.

It’s a funny thing: as a country, we’ve never been that bothered by freedom of speech. Is it because we’re not a nation given to open public discourse? Is it because whether it’s the Dáil or the AGM of the Feckerstown Tidy Towns committee, the real debate and decision making is done elsewhere?

Would we vote for a US freedom of speech right? I suspect not, because we wouldn’t think “Finally, I can now say whatever I want!” No, we’d vote No in our thousands because we’d be terrified that absolute freedom of speech would allow people to say anything about us.

It’s one of those bizarre areas where the hard-left liberals and the hard-right parish pump conservatives could agree. Both like the concept of the approved public opinion, whether it’s only one acceptable opinion on Marriage Equality or keeping quiet about that county councillor sending his secretary to England for her “special medicine” while he was in Lourdes.

There’s no need for other opinions to be flying around, confusing folk and giving them the wrong ideas.

Think I’m being over-dramatic? Last year in Oxford University a debate on abortion was called off after a protest. The protesters objected to two men debating the issue, which is fair enough. But why not raise that in the actual debate? Instead, the protest group decided that its opinion was superior to the people who wished to hear the arguments, and demanded the thing be shut down.

We’ve been here before. There’s a line in Father Ted about fellas dressed in black going around telling people what to do …