Optimism-bias has a lot to answer for – the flawed logic of “it’ll never happen to me”. The Law of Averages states that most of us will at some point be caught doing something we shouldn’t or not doing something we shouldn’t. But people have a default belief in events that come their way.
Which brings me to Fianna Fáil’s Robert Troy, who should have known better than to be sloppy about his obligations under the ethics legislation, but didn’t. Also to Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar who should have known better than to keep defending him when questions about his mistakes arose but didn’t.
Public officials have a duty to comply with all legal obligations, not just because it is the law, but because they have a leadership role and their failure to do so undermines public trust.
That Mr. Troy argues that his sins are omissions rather than acts and therefore more venial misses the point. Sound ethics legislation is essential to democracy and holders of public office must fully comply with its requirements. In fact, the legislation could be more powerful than its current incarnation, and the Commission on Standards in Public Offices (Sipo) has been advocating additional powers for almost 20 years – mostly without success.
Mr Troy has paid a heavy but reasonable price in losing his junior post at the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. There is nothing wrong with being a landlord and TD.
But it is worth noting that he was able to use Dáil’s right to speak to argue repeatedly on behalf of landlords when it was revealed he was involved in rental property and skin. It was strange that the opposition didn’t ask him about it – but after all, a high percentage of Oireachtas members are landowners. It was strange that his party leadership ignored it; strange that the media paid little attention to it at the time – that too is a failure of the media.
Other lessons can be learned here, the most important of which is that the mechanism for monitoring politicians and regulating political activity is overdue for an overhaul – as the Robert Troy episode highlights. So many warning signs have flashed over the years but been ignored. The problem is that there needs to be widespread political will to strengthen ethical requirements, and it seems to be lacking.
Earlier this summer, Sipo highlighted a list of 54 — yes, 54 — recommended actions for change in its annual report. Next to the litany, a box labeled “progress to date” contained the depressing word “none.” Time and time again, as the eye runs over the recommendations made over a period of almost two decades, it is evident that little progress has been made.
Many are sensible suggestions for improving accountability in public life. Politicians, however, seem reluctant to increase the powers of a body that keeps tabs on politicians. TDs and Senators have the right to have business interests – indeed, a business background is a useful asset in the Oireachtas – but political parties must hold their members accountable.
The recommendations in the Sipo’s annual reports from 2003 onwards fall into different categories, from ethics to tax returns to disclosures of commitments to codes of conduct for public employees. Only four of the 54 recommendations have had any action taken, and in one case it says: “The Minister has agreed to the recommendation (from the 2018 Annual Report); no new regulations since recommendation.” So not really action.
Among the recommendations Sipo is pushing for is that the commission should have the power to appoint an investigator and conduct a preliminary inquiry into an ethical matter in the absence of a formal complaint. Currently they cannot proceed unless a complaint is filed.
She also wants a code of conduct for state officials and members of state bodies; express provision to allow complaints against members of the Oireachtas if the matter comes to light after the member has left office; stricter rules on funding sources for third parties and political parties; for failure to open political donation accounts to be a criminal offense; and the definition of corporate donor has been changed to include corporations linked by common ownership.
It proposes that referenda and elections should have spending limits; Provisions are made for transparency in referendum campaign funding and spending; and for requiring third parties and political parties to disclose referendum campaign spending details.
Among the few areas where progress has been made is the electoral reform law published last March, which provides for the establishment of an electoral commission and the regulation of online political advertising – at the urging of the Sipo. In November 2021, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform launched a formal review of ethics legislation, with Michael McGrath due to come up with final proposals this year.
But do politicians understand the importance of building public trust in the political class? Some understand it, some don’t. The Taoiseach and Tánaiste’s spirited defense of Mr Troy’s skills and pace of work misses the point where he has discredited the policy.
Mr. Martin called him hardworking – he could be a workaholic with exceptional skills, but that doesn’t absolve him from complying with ethics laws. Failure to comply looks like negligence and negligent ministers are no asset to government. Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael leaders have shown miscalculation, being so slow to recognize the seriousness of the problems engulfing Mr Troy. Eamon Ryan’s intervention was the turning point.
Almost to the end, Mr Martin defended his junior minister, saying his statement had “cleared the air”, although Mr Troy’s lack of clarity on business and property interests clouded the air in the first place.
Of course, if a member of the government is thrown off course as soon as a problem arises, this discourages people from getting involved in politics. But while Mr Troy may have viewed his omissions as a misdemeanor, in the face of a housing crisis his mistakes were politically unsustainable – and others should have recognized that sooner.
Too much optimism, too little realism, among too many people.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/blinded-by-optimism-bias-robert-troy-wrongly-believed-that-it-will-never-happen-to-me-41937890.html Blinded by optimism, Robert Troy mistakenly believed “it’ll never happen to me”