Backbenchers see pay fiasco as unforgivable

Sat, Dec 15, 2007, 00:00

The reconfigured Ahern-led Government has made a number of significant political mistakes in the first six months of its term but nothing compares to the mess they have made of the Ministers' pay rise controversy.

Since the election, the Taoiseach and some of his Ministers have adopted an attitude which is almost completely dismissive of the media and even of the electorate. Such an attitude, sustained over a prolonged period, was always destined to lead to a debacle on this scale.

When it was announced several weeks ago, the proposal substantially to increase Ministers' pay came as a surprise not only to the media but also to most of Ahern's own party colleagues. The proposal was not worked through the political and communication machinery (such as it is) which surrounds the Taoiseach and his Ministers and there even appears to have been little discussion on the matter at the Cabinet itself. Ministers could not have been blind to the likelihood that the proposal would generate a media and public backlash so they either underestimated its scale or were indifferent to it.

In the eyes of many of his backbenchers, the Taoiseach's handling of this issue has been unforgivable. They talk of how the calculated cautiousness for which he is famed appears to have abandoned him since the election. For one so renowned for an ability to assess the public mood, they are horrified at how he has proved so reckless and so wrong on this issue.

There is a sense that buoyed by his third election victory, personally immune from further electoral contests and under pressure from other sources, he has begun to make significant political mistakes. They also wonder why, having made the decision to accept these pay awards, the Ministers were not more strategic about dealing with the inevitable negative reaction.

The full extent of the public annoyance on the issue, which had been apparent to backbenchers from the outset, seems only to have dawned on the Taoiseach and some of the Ministers when opinion polls showed a sharp drop in support for Fianna Fáil.

In the weeks which followed, the notions of collective Cabinet responsibility and Ahern's authority as Taoiseach were undermined when a series of Ministers let it be known both on and off the record in media interviews that they favoured revisiting the decision on the pay rises. Ahern's response to such suggestions was initially dismissive and at times even angry. Then, all of a sudden, last weekend stories began to appear in the media that the ministerial pay rises were to be postponed at the insistence of Ahern himself, no less.

The difficulty which arises for the Government from this controversy about the ministerial pay rises is that it has served to tarnish two key elements of the Bertie Ahern political brand. The notion of Bertie Ahern getting an additional €38,000 per year runs contrary to the well-cultivated image of a man dedicated solely to public service with no interest in the trappings of personal wealth.

This particular image of him had taken a hit anyway following the spate of revelations about his personal finances. However, there were many voters who had given him the benefit of the doubt in autumn last year when stories first broke about dig-outs and again last May when more stories emerged about the funding of his house. Even for them, the notion of a pay rise on this scale was just too much to swallow.

It may seem like a technical defence but actually Ahern himself was not set to benefit as much from this pay increase as most people believed. The fact that it was to be staggered meant that the full increase of €38,000 per year would not have been reflected in his pay packet until the middle of 2009 by which time Ahern, assuming he was still Taoiseach, would probably only be in the job for another few months.

This latter point really makes the lengths to which he has gone to defend the pay rise seem quite strange. His belligerent tone on the issue has been viewed as untypical or at least would once have been seen as untypical. His complaint that his income is being unfairly compared with other world leaders because they enjoy other trappings of power, including official residences, was particularly bizarre.

It is also strange that the statutory instrument giving effect to the pay increase for Ministers, instead of being signed when the decision was first made, went unsigned for several weeks and has now been used as the basis for postponing the pay rises.

The other aspect of the Ahern brand which has been damaged by the pay increase controversy is his hard-earned and well-deserved reputation as a social partnership negotiator. When deciding to accept this pay hike, Ahern and his Ministers would have known that the next round of national pay negotiations was on the horizon. Ahern understands more than most the ritual public exchanges between unions, employers and government which are played out before the serious negotiations commence.

He must have realised that calls for pay restraint from him and other Ministers would sound hollow in the circumstances. It was inevitable that union leaders would point to the hypocrisy of Government members asking ordinary workers to make no more than moderate pay demands when they had just awarded themselves a massive pay hike.

A government's authority should be at its strongest over the first six months of a new term. A renewed mandate often presents an opportunity to address more challenging and controversial initiatives or difficult decisions.

There are many unpopular but necessary policy areas on which the Government, with its renewed mandate, should have been able to focus in the last few months. It is a pity that instead so much political capital has been wasted defending a ministerial pay increase over which the Government itself has now decided it cannot stand.