Sunday 21 December 2014

Fionnan Sheahan: Reilly and Burton can't avoid hard spending choices for much longer

Published 10/09/2012 | 17:00

A minister seemingly willing to cut spending who doesn't know how to go about it and a minister apparently unwilling to cut spending who knows how to avoid it.

James Reilly and Joan Burton will remain centre stage for the remainder of the year as their departments will provide the bulk of the €2.25bn in spending cuts in Budget 2013.

But their contrasting styles mean while the Health Minister is currently a pariah, the Social Welfare Minister maintains a charmed existence.

Last year, both were guilty of engaging in scaremongering ahead of the Budget. This time around, the horror stories might actually be on the table.

Before the preparations proper even begin for the Budget, Dr Reilly continues to be in the eye of the storm.

The botched handling of last week's health cuts, prompting protests by wheelchair-bound campaigners outside Government Buildings, will be on the minds of coalition backbenchers gathering for their pre-Dail think-ins.

The €10m disability assistance hours cuts are viewed by many TDs as symptomatic of the failure of senior ministers to effectively implement budgetary policy.

Fine Gael and Labour Party TDs alike are angered by the affair and the needless incitement of fears among vulnerable sections of society.

The Government's habit of engaging in what one minister described as "customary half U-turns" will continue unless these ministers are exceptionally careful.

Reilly wasn't criticised by any cabinet colleagues in the private confines at their first meeting back after the summer last week. Many felt sympathetic towards his plight.

But his political judgment and internal and external communications problems are obvious.

The willingness he displayed in the HSE's €130m of cuts to target frontline services does not auger well for December.

He has adopted a defeatist attitude on the Croke Park Agreement, arguing the way to avoid cuts to services is to reduce pay.

The third option coming out of government -- and Brendan Howlin in particular -- is to use Croke Park to its maximum effect to deliver savings by changing rosters, work practices and make the system more efficient.

Howlin has also been critical of Reilly's slow pace on issues such as the drugs bill, consultants' contracts and private beds in public hospitals. A weakness identified by colleagues is an unwillingness to bring people along with him.

"He knows it inside out. He thinks everyone else knows it. He can often suffer from a lack of explanation. When he is actually explaining, he's brilliant at it," a cabinet colleague said.

"He has a profound sense of arrogance and can never be wrong," another minister remarked less sympathetically.

And while Dr Reilly is lacking in political savvy, Joan Burton has it in abundance. "She's a politician," a Labour Party member said in praise of Burton -- but disparagingly of Reilly.

"She'll fight tooth and nail to avoid any welfare cuts. Joan knows anything that isn't saved from health is going to come from social welfare. She won that battle last year," a Fine Gael minister said.

Her luck is going to run out in this Budget as the protection afforded her, largely by Howlin, last year simply won't be repeated.

Her habit of flying kites -- and pulling them down just as fast -- means she's constantly talking about reform to her area, just not implementing.

Her critics within the Government say she has a penchant for hiding behind the system, claiming she'd like to do something, but is being blocked from doing so.

Halting the payment of child benefit for high earners is one such example where Burton says she'd like cut it off above certain income threshold -- but can't.

The reasons for not doing it -- potentially constitutional, the exceptions to the non-traditional family unit and the difficulty with means-testing are well documented.

But in government circles there are those who say she should stop looking for excuses and just pick an income bracket above which child benefit would not be paid.

Bringing it in would be troublesome and might take more than a year to bed down, but the savings would flow gradually.

The areas where Ms Burton does appear willing to make headway are on multiple payments and new entrants to schemes.

But the IMF continues to have child benefit in its sights.

Opinion is divided over whether Ms Burton has the bottle to genuinely make the cuts to the social welfare system.

"All she wants is to be popular. She's not stupid. She will fly kites between now and December and try to use backbenchers and the public as back-up for not to cut and to bully her way," one minister noted.

"She's a tough politician. She knows she has to do it. She is certainly less vocal than last year though," another minister said.

The dynamic within Fine Gael and the Labour Party means both Reilly and Burton can garner substantial support within the Coalition if they go about their jobs properly.

Choosing the easy options or ducking the decisions won't cut it.

Irish Independent

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