Pat Leahy: Coalition will need to relearn art of saying no as pandemic recedes

A more ‘normal’ sort of politics and Government business will return as focus moves away from Covid-19

As the farcical spectacle that is the disintegration of British prime minister Boris Johnson’s administration reminds us, the skills of campaigning and electioneering are very different from those required for effective government.

Campaign in poetry, said Mario Cuomo, long-time governor of the State of New York; govern in prose.

One of the things you need to do quickly in government is learn how to say no, because you’ll be saying no a lot more often than you’ll be saying yes. After an election campaign in which the idea is to say yes to everyone so they will say yes to you, this can be quite a difficult transition to make.

After two years of almost limitless spending, the present Government is rather out of practice at the saying-no business

As the pandemic recedes – and it is with some nervousness that I write those words, but that is what is happening – a more “normal” sort of politics and Government business will return. That will change the national conversation about politics. It will also require the Government to manage its business in a different way. Sure, the pandemic will change some things permanently; but not everything. The basic tenets of good government – of which one is to manage the State’s finances sustainably so that it can afford to do the things it most needs to do – will not change.

After two years of almost limitless spending, the present Government is rather out of practice at the saying-no business. During the pandemic, for the first time in most people’s memory, there were few if any financial constraints on whatever policy levers Ministers wished to pull. Of course this meant that large ammounts of money were wasted; but that was probably inevitable with a fiscal response of the size and scope undertaken by the Government (and most other governments who were in the fortunate position to be able to do so). In any event, even with all the waste, the huge spending programmes were a reasonable price to pay to ensure social and economic stability (assuming you think social stability is a good thing).

But this will not continue, because it can’t. We have learned during the pandemic that the resources of the State can be ramped up hugely in response to a crisis. Eurostat data show that spending by the Irish State rose at a quicker pace than anywhere else in the European Union during the pandemic. In future, we will be living in a larger – and therefore more expensive – State. But while the State will be larger, and its budget therefore bigger, it will not be infinite. The free-spending phase will end. And as it comes to an end, the Government will have to relearn the political art of saying no without getting monstered for it.

There was an illustration of just how tricky that will be this week. About a year-and-a-half after the idea was mooted by the Fine Gael minority government during the first wave of Covid-19, and six months or so after the current Government committed to it, this week the Cabinet finally decided to award a €1,000 bonus for frontline healthcare workers.

Arguments have raged within Government for months about the scope of the bonus scheme. Remember Tánaiste and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar talking last year about how civil servants and retail workers should also get it? That maximalist view was pushed back by realists in the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure – a sign of things to come as Government adjusts to a new reality in which the laws of fiscal gravity reassert themselves.

The reaction was predictable: those who were left out hit the airwaves demanding inclusion; the Government backpedalled. Taoiseach Micheál Martin told Morning Ireland that those left out would not necessarily in fact be left out – there would be, he said, in a classic Martinism, “a panel created to examine categories that there could be issues around”. In other words: our door is open.

In fairness, you’d wonder about a scheme to reward frontline healthcare workers that excludes GPs. When you put this to people in Government, they point to the vast amounts of additional payments made to GPs by the HSE during the pandemic. The total increase in fees paid to GPs in 2021 over 2019 was about €250 million – that’s an average of about €100,000 per doctor. No wonder Ministers and officials were disinclined to bung them another grand. But at the same time, you’re either a frontline healthcare worker or you’re not.

The limited nature of the bonus announcement suggests the Government has the will to reimpose fiscal discipline on itself. But everything else – announcing the move without a definitive list, retreating in the face of demands to be included – makes me doubt whether the Government has the capacity to impose its will. We’ll know more when the time comes in a few weeks to wind down the pandemic supports.

Members of the Government should enjoy this weekend's bacchanalia while they can. Their jobs are not going to get any easier in the months ahead

Like everyone else, many people in Government are now breathing a sigh of relief, and hoping for some respite for while. They can probably forget it. Aside from the re-establishment of fiscal discipline, there is the need to, yes, prepare for another possible wave – both in the health service and outside it. There is the incredibly threatening international situation, with Russia seemingly poised for an invasion of Ukraine. Ireland cannot influence what happens there, but it will be required to respond to the direct Russian threats to the EU’s eastern and Baltic members. And there is the small matter of preparing for the Government’s mid-term musical chairs act.

Members of the Government should enjoy this weekend’s bacchanalia while they can. Their jobs are not going to get any easier in the months ahead.

Saying no will be an inevitable part of that.