Pre-budget kite-flying is no rival for taking real action

Sat, Oct 13, 2012, 01:00

INSIDE POLITICS:THE COALITION hasn’t made things easy for itself with the premature spate of leaks and media speculation about what might or might not be in the budget in two months.

An already-anxious public is being driven to distraction worrying about cuts that are unlikely to happen as well as those that are inevitable.

Ultimate responsibility for the hype and misrepresentation rests with the politicians but the media plays its part in the process. Despite warnings from the top, some Ministers simply can’t resist kite-flying while the Opposition can’t resist scaremongering. It all provides fodder for a hungry media.

Former British Labour minister Chris Mullin suggested recently that politicians are often unfairly blamed for leaks and spin. “In my experience, political journalists are far greater spinners than politicians or their spokesmen. It is sometimes necessary to run one’s finger down several inches of interpretation before coming to the sliver of fact that justifies a sensational headline,” he wrote. There is some truth in Mullin’s claim but the fact remains that as long as some of those in Government feed the beast by engaging in leaks designed to protect their own departmental interests, the media will have a field day. All sorts of things from child benefit cuts to reducing the State subsidy for private schools will get such an airing that many people will believe they have been introduced, even if they don’t ultimately feature in the budget.

Some Ministers are already furious with their colleagues for setting up a repeat of last year’s pre-budget manoeuvring which obscured the actual content of the budget itself. Things might be better if the Coalition had acted on its own commitment to conduct the budget process in public so that the real choices facing the country could be put before the voters in a coherent fashion in advance of the budget.

Mind you that would require the Opposition to engage in genuine debate rather than the phoney one now in progress. Fianna Fáil’s conversion to the anti-property tax cause is just the latest example of cynical politics, considering that in government the party had agreed to introduce a property tax. Quibbling about the basis of the charge is simply a cover for evading responsibility.

One of the core problems with Irish politics, which flows directly from the Bertie Ahern era, is that the natural desire to remain popular has translated into a policy of appeasement towards almost every vocal interest group that comes along.

Governments have always desired popularity but, in the past, there was some understanding that the price of power entailed taking decisions for the common good that would inevitably antagonise particular interest groups.

Under the social partnership arrangements that became dominant in the Ahern era, government was emasculated and decisions emerged only when there was consensus across the relevant interest groups. That was ultimately one of the prime causes of the economic disaster with public spending soaring to unsustainable levels while taxes were cut simultaneously.

Now there is no choice but to get back to basics with the Government taking decisions in the long-term interests of the country, regardless of the short-term unpopularity that will inevitably ensue.

One welcome development during the week was that the Coalition appeared to get serious about making real savings under the terms of the Croke Park agreement. The Taoiseach’s injunction that cuts in the pay bill will have to be achieved in the short term finally appears to have injected some urgency.

In tandem, the decision by Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin to ratchet up the pressure and force changes in the costly and elaborate allowances system is another sign that the Government may actually be going to follow up its tough talk with some real action.

Howlin’s initial decision a few weeks ago to cut just one of the hundreds of outmoded and costly allowances prompted public dismay and a serious questioning of his commitment. It also prompted a mini-revolt among Fine Gael backbenchers which saw Dublin South East TD Eoghan Murphy bringing the allowances issue before the Dáil Public Accounts Committee of which he is a member.

There is also some exasperation on the Labour back benches about the whole issue of pay and conditions in the public service, particularly in the upper echelons. A number of TDs remarked after the fiscal treaty referendum on the flak they had taken on the doorsteps over the huge pension payoffs received by some prominent figures leaving the service. Whether they like it or not, TDs in both Coalition parties can understand the Government’s commitment not to touch basic public service pay because of the commitment made to honour the Croke Park agreement.

However, the initial failure to make real inroads into the allowances system baffled many because a very strong argument can be made that at least some of the allowances are not basic pay. It is undoubtedly the case that some of them have become regarded as pay and are pensionable, but what really pointed up the failure of Howlin’s initial approach was that while just one existing allowance out of 1,100 was scrapped for existing staff, some 180 were abolished for new entrants.

This targeting of young people again laid bare the deeply unfair thrust of Government policy of protecting the entitlements of serving public servants and those on pensions by making serious cuts in the salaries and pension entitlements of new entrants.

The creation of two tiers, with new entrants coming in on different pay and conditions has made many existing public servants uneasy. It would clearly be much more equitable if the pain was spread across the generations. Hopefully that penny is beginning to drop.

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