A temporary necessity
The picture of Cabinet government drawn by one Cabinet member, Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton suggests a sharp division between insiders and outsiders on economic issues. The insiders - Taoiseach, Tanaiste, Finance and Public Expenditure ministers - are the quartet that make up the Economic Management Council (EMC). And the outsiders are those who, like herself, run big-spending departments, but who say they have less influence in Cabinet on economic issues because of their exclusion from EMC membership. Ms Burton’s greater fear, she says, is the influence that senior civil servants and policy advisers - rather than ministers - may exercise over EMC decisions. A fear that would seem quite unwarranted, as the EMC group have shown few signs they have become captives of their officials.
In the Dail, a strong executive has long dominated a weak legislature - one of the weakest in the world. And there is little sign that this legislative model is set to change soon. The Coalition, which made political reform a key feature of its programme for government, has done little to achieve it. In government, the operation of the EMC, it has been suggested, means that four key ministers can, and do, dictate what Cabinet decides on key economic issues. Because the Taoiseach sets the Cabinet agenda and his fellow EMC members meet to discuss and agree major policy issues in advance of Cabinet meetings, therefore the role of other ministers is much diminished. Economic policy is made and decided in advance by a group of four, an inner cabinet, and later endorsed by all Government members. Cabinet’s role in this area is reduced to rubber-stamping policy, rather than making policy- by helping to influence and shape its content.
Would matters improve if the EMC quartet became a quintet - with Ms Burton’s inclusion - given the size (€20 billion) of her spending department? She is facing demands for €440 million in cuts in her departmental budget, which she is loathe to accept, as indicated by her frequent public statements of concern, which her Cabinet colleagues may well regard as unwelcome in advance of the October budget.
The need for the EMC, to ensure effective decision making by Government at a critical time, is clear-cut. Ireland is in a bailout programme, and the Government must meet the targets set by the international lenders, both to draw down the loans to finance the budget deficit, and to ensure a successful exit from the programme later this year. That requires strict budget discipline, which the Coalition has managed to achieve, greatly helped by an EMC structure. It is not an ideal arrangement, and would not be acceptable in normal economic times. And,in what have been extraordinary economic times, the EMC has become an exceptional. but temporary, necessity.