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Analysis/Comment Last Updated: Aug 23, 2010 - 8:24:15 PM

Comment: Irish Government declares free lunch has not been invented but freeloading continues for ministers
By Finfacts Team
Mar 13, 2008 - 4:58:11 AM

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The sign "The Buck Stops Here" was on President Harry Truman's desk in the White House Oval Office (1945-1953). On the reverse side, i.e. the side that Truman saw, it was inscribed, "I'm from Missouri". That's a short form of "I'm from Missouri. Show me". Natives of that state (a.k.a. the Show Me State), which included Truman, were known for their skeptical nature. As President Truman said, "The President – whoever he is – has to decide. He can’t pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That’s his job."

The saying "the buck stops here" derives from the slang expression "pass the buck" which means passing the responsibility on to someone else. The latter expression is said to have originated with the game of poker, in which a marker or counter, frequently in frontier days a knife with a buckhorn handle, was used to indicate the person whose turn it was to deal. If the player did not wish to deal he could pass the responsibility by passing the "buck," as the counter came to be called, to the next player.

In Ireland's 1920's era system of public governance, the buck stops nowhere. It is extremely rare for ministers and well-paid public officials to take responsibility for bad news. In the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment for example, there are 4 ministers plus advisers and other staff. Their principal work is making announcements on new jobs and speaking at conferences.

The 35 Cabinet and Ministers of State have nearly 130 civil servants and privately-recruited staff working solely on constituency queries - checking for newspaper death notices, claiming credit for the allocation of a local authority house etc. - costing the Exchequer at least €4 million annually. Green Party leader John Gormley has seven staff working in his private office on ministerial duties and four more in his constituency office. Once a person becomes a minister, self-interest dictates that the existing system is preserved.

The 30-nation Government think-tank, the Paris-based OECD - Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development - was requested by the Irish Government in January 2007, to review the Irish public service and make proposals for reform. It is believed that the report has not yet been submitted by the OECD and as the economy begins to list in the face of buffeting from a contracting housing market and the global credit crisis, there is a scramble on at government level to find areas of public spending to cut. There are plenty, but political jellyfish lack absolute credibility when belatedly trying to exhibit backbone. Besides, asking others to don the hairshirt while feathering your own nest, implies that people are fools. Beyond the public service, there is an alphabet soup of groups dependent on public handouts and in recent weeks, farmers and pharmacists had the cap-in-hand pleading for public funds and protections. While old style socialism is dead, there is no shortage of socialists!

RTE's Morning Ireland radio programme has revealed that last year trips abroad by Irish Ministers cost taxpayers in excess of €560,000. The most expensive trip was Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey's trip to California and Texas which cost the exchequer €75,000. Travel alone cost €42,000 for the minister, his wife, Bernadette, his press adviser and two officials.


The next most costly trip was to Malaysia and Singapore, where Junior Minister Michael Ahern ran up a huge bill of over €52,000.

An apartment in the Hassler Roma hotel booked for Minister for Tourism Séamus Brennan's two-day trip to Italy last year cost €1,650 per night. According to the Irish Times, Brennan said the accommodation had been a matter for the Department of Foreign Affairs - a well worn ritual in Irish public governance: Pass the Buck!

It's fine for those who can get away with it and that is the Irish system. Double-digit pay levels for 35 ministers - 20 Ministers of State and most of them have nothing of substance to do and so on.

In December 2005, 30 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) flew to Hong Kong to "monitor" progress in the Doha trade talks, where they demanded almost daily updates from Peter Mandelson, EU Trade Commissioner, despite the fact that as parliamentarians they had no role in the negotiations.

It's easy to be generous to yourself, with business class travel and top-notch hotels, when someone else is paying.

Three Irish Ministers brought an entourage of 21 civil servants to the same meeting - - Freeloaders to reduce Air Travel in interests of Planet! Like hell they will!

What should the staff in many Irish SMEs think, where even the receptionist keeps track of news of monthly orders received?

 The Health Service Executive should adopt "a bold and innovative" redundancy programme, the Minister for Health and Children, Mary Harney said on Wednesday.

Speaking during a Dáil debate on cancer services, the Minister said: "If people in areas of administration or management are superfluous to requirements and there are shortages elsewhere, we should take a bold and innovative approach and consider introducing a redundancy programme".

Harney said redundancy packages should have been offered when the HSE was first formed. "However, this approach was not supported politically or by the trade unions."

Redundancy programmes had not generally been offered within the public service, and "may not have been successful" in the organisations where they had. While she acknowledged that staff shortages exist in some quarters, she said the 130,000-strong health service is well-staffed. "Our acute hospitals have one of the highest ratios of staff to beds in the world," she said.

Harney is the acting leader of the Progressive Democrats Party (PDs), which is currently on a respirator.

The PDs had provided hope that it would push for reform of governance structures where the messenger boy system of local politics produces second raters who are clueless when assuming ministerial responsibility.

The PDs flunked it and now is on the road to oblivion.

In the 1997 general election campaign, a botched proposal on public sector reform, involving the loss of 25,000 jobs, threw the PDs on the defensive as it struggled with its cocktail of soundbites to respond to charges about cutting benefits for lone parents. In the intervening eleven years, job numbers in the public service have risen by more than 80,000 and the PDs who supported benchmarking, had nothing to say on significant public sector reform other than the back-of-an-envelope decentralisation policy. Former PD President Tom Parlon, had responsibility for implementing the politically inspired measure, that has become a national joke.

In the Dáil debate on the appointment of the Cabinet in 1997, Fine Gael's Alan Dukes said: 

The Tánaiste said something very interesting to me on the last day of the previous Dáil. She commented: “I know Minister Dukes does not like soundbites, but if it can't be said in a soundbite it is not worth saying”. She should reflect on that because the electorate told her that in spades during the election. She was clobbered by soundbites and she is now a very junior partner in Government because of soundbites. People decided they did not want to fire 25,000 public servants, or oppress single mothers whose families are too numerous for them to live at home with their parents with another baby they did not expect, and so on. I hope for the sake of good government, if not for the sake of the parties in government, and for the kind of politics the Progressive Democrats is supposed to stand for — the party is supposed to be policy driven — that the Tánaiste has learned the lesson that soundbites are inimical to good politics. Life is more complicated than a soundbite and I hope she has found that out.

It would have been possible to articulate a credible position on public service reform in 1997 without any jobs being threatened because the number of additional jobs since 1997, has been three times the proposed number of job cuts. 

The Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said in October 2006 that problems in health and other public services cannot be solved unless working practices change.

Ahern said change and modernisation in the public service could be achieved only if staff extended their working day. He said it would not be possible to face challenges in the future if public sector workers wanted to work only six hours a day and take a half-day on a Friday.

Public service workers are no different to their private sector counterparts. When they work in a 1920's era system with limited or no accountability, what should anyone expect?

Bertie Ahern warned in July 2007 that “stark messages” may arise from the OECD review into the Irish public service, but said the Government had to be ready for them and be prepared to make any necessary reforms.

Addressing the Irish Congress of Trade Union’s Biennial Conference in Donegal this week, the Taoiseach explained it was no longer sufficient to offer the public a service that only suits the provider.

“The private sector stands or falls on the goods and services it delivers and the way it delivers them,” he said. “The public service faces a similar test because, if it fails to deliver, the taxpayer - the electorate - will simply look elsewhere for service; and there is no shortage of people willing to take up the slack.”

There is no articulation of significant reform on both sides of the Dáil.

The best that can be expected, now that the PDs are almost dead, is to hope that Ireland's luck holds out and that the "top economist" to borrow from the Irish Independent, who said that the foreign-owned sector was not important in the Irish economy nor was housing the engine of Irish growth, may have some insight on the invention of the free lunch, that some of us have missed. SEE: Irish Economy: Housing market not the engine of growth; Exports contribute minimal impact to growth because of high import level - Demographics are the key

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