Martina Devlin: No social justice when politicians' paltry pay cuts reveal little reform
Published 08/12/2010 | 05:00
We must rid ourselves of this debased administration quickly, democratically and conclusively
BRIAN Lenihan executed a high dive into the pool of absurdity yesterday. He delivered a stirring sound bite -- "everybody pays and those who can pay most will pay most" -- but it had no substance. Did he really expect that cuts to ministerial salaries of just €10,000, and a €14,000 reduction in the Taoiseach's wages, could be passed off as fair?
This was neither proportionate nor equitable because our political leaders remain ludicrously overpaid. Even with his diminished pay packet, the Taoiseach will earn a basic €214,000, while ministers will take home more than €180,000 a year, plus perks including those notorious unvouched expenses.
Ministerial 'adjustment', to use the buzzword of Budget 2011, amounted to a tweak -- not a correction. Compare it with the significant decrease introduced in the British Parliament as David Cameron took over earlier this year: his salary was sliced from £194,000 to £150,000 (€177,000).
But Brian Cowen continues to collect tens of thousands of euro more than his UK counterpart. And members of his Cabinet are deemed to be worth almost double what Stormont ministers, who make just under €95,000, are paid.
Relative to their income, their pay cuts were peanuts. Now that's what I call a bailout from Brian Lenihan. But it only applies to the gilded few.
His Budget was a paper tiger masquerading as the roar of reform. It was a sop tricked out as leadership. And it was an insult to every man and woman who has lost their job, and to every minimum wage worker whose pay packet has been rifled.
Parity of pain? Not a chance.
The pity of the outgoing Finance Minister's fourth and last Budget was that he had a real opportunity to show some initiative -- to be daring in his efforts to transform Irish society. What we were served up was dismal.
Lenny's Last Stand could have been a sky rocket. Instead it was a damp squib.
Oh, it did what it said on the tin: it raised taxes and slashed spending. But it also demonstrated how the interests of the political class, and those of senior civil servants working alongside politicians, continue to be prioritised above the public wellbeing.
Watching the minister in action, I was reminded of a remark made by a character in the Somerville and Ross novel 'Mount Music': "The Irish are the finest people, and the worst governed." That book was published in 1919 -- a new leaf has been a long time turning over.
Cuts as deep as the ones announced contain built-in inequality. Few people deserve the degree of austerity lying ahead, but that's beside the point now, unfortunately. What they do deserve and are entitled to expect is reform.
It's not happening in the banks, where the bonus culture remains; no sign of atonement there. It's not happening in the junior ranks of the public service, where fingerprinting machines to guard the State against benefit fraud have been lying idle for four years. And it's not happening in the senior echelons of the public service either, where even the IMF has failed to absorb quite how extravagant is the scale of their pay and conditions. But they are fast learners in the IMF. Unlike in the Government.
Don Fisher, founder of The Gap clothing chain, said his formula for success was as easy as one-two-three: luck, common sense and a small ego. The small ego is the key factor. We are a small country run by people with big egos (although not as large as the rewards they give themselves). Only a big ego could believe that ministers were entitled to such lavish bounty. Only a big ego could believe these cuts would make the grade.
In this, we see a parliament more interested in the trappings of power than the exercise of it. But we must not allow ourselves to become resigned to such abuses. We must raise a clamour against their fundamental injustice. We must insist that any incoming government prioritises genuine pay and pension reform.
And we must rid ourselves of this debased administration quickly, democratically and conclusively. We have been saddled with a leadership distinguished by hypocrisy when Ireland needs a leadership that is inspired, untarnished and respected.
Speaking of hypocrisy, how surreal to see Bertie on the government benches -- showing no emotion, probably feeling no responsibility -- as Mr Lenihan rehearsed some of the mistakes which led to the economic crisis.
No specific mention of him was made, but Bertie was the elephant in the room.
At least Michael Noonan -- an asset to Fine Gael -- referred to him in his response to the Budget speech. Otherwise, you might think Bertie was just a hapless bystander to it all.
Mr Noonan also spoke of moral hazard -- the displacement of risk, whereby those making decisions (say, bankers) are insulated against the consequences of their mistakes. But moral hazard could just as easily be applied to that phalanx of ministers sitting there in Dail Eireann.
In their Ireland, no penalties for failure exist. But in our Ireland, the penalties are fearsome -- as we discovered yesterday. In their Ireland, reform is feared and avoided, even as they pay lip service to it. But in our Ireland, it is essential.
Governments cannot take without giving something in return. What is this Government giving us? It would claim stability and the chance to borrow money to keep our State functioning. But it is not giving us social justice.
John Lennon, who was shot 30 years ago today, sang: "Imagine no possessions." After yesterday's Budget, it doesn't stretch the imagination.