A Government out of touch

 

THE GOVERNMENT is dangerously out of step with public opinion, as Fianna Fáil backbenchers told it yesterday. People want the Government to get on with it: to introduce a budget next week with €4 billion in real and measurable savings so that we can start believing in ourselves again. The idea that the public service could offer 12 unpaid leave days as their contribution towards economic recovery was rejected by the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party. These TDs live in the real world. They know that the promise of future productivity never materialised in the benchmarking days of Bertie Ahern; it has to be agreed now in 2010. The political conditioning has been done. The real world, apparently, a realistic world, miles away from Leinster House.

At a time when firmness and clarity were needed in reducing the State’s pay bill and establishing the foundations for economic recovery, Taoiseach Brian Cowen showed weakness and indecision. His behaviour has dismayed Fianna Fáil backbenchers; caused shock to the general public and set alarm bells ringing on financial markets.

Having insisted for months that €1.3 billion had to be cut from public pay and pensions in 2010 to stop the fiscal rot and to prevent any additional negative impact on welfare payments and other necessary services, the Taoiseach appeared to lose his nerve. Threatened by a one-day public sector strike, the Cabinet agreed to consider a system of unpaid leave days as an alternative to pay cuts, even though this approach had no prospect of delivering the necessary permanent savings.

The central fault that bedevils Government strategy – concentration on short-term political objectives in their own backyard – has struck again. All the focus has been on the savings that have to be made in 2010, when a four-year retrenchment programme should be prepared and published. But, having announced a cut of €4 billion in public spending for next year, the Cabinet must now deliver. And no matter how “creative” an idea of 12 unpaid leave days might be, it is ripe for challenge by frontline public sector workers. Once an exception is allowed, projected savings will disappear. That is why estimates of its impact range from €300 million to €800 million. The shortfall between what the Government needs and the trade unions have offered is considerable. And the gap may be unbridgeable in view of the Taoiseach’s recent assertion that any savings in pay must be “permanent”.

The difficulties facing the Taoiseach are immense. Relations with the social partners have been damaged and he has forfeited the confidence of members of his own party. Even now, as talks continue at Government Buildings, the budget task may be so formidable that the public service unions cannot sign up to it. The partnership model may not work at a time of crisis. It may be too much to ask the public service unions to agree to €1.3 billion in cuts involving pay, pensions, leave days and whatever else. It is a time for the Government to lead public opinion in the national interest: but that leadership, sadly, is lacking.