At last some realism is entering the public debate on the economy. The prospect of not being able to borrow the cash to pay the day-to-day bills is concentrating the minds of the chattering classes. But we still have some way to go before we make meaningful inroads on the errors and bad habits of the past decade.
In that infamous Morning Ireland interview with our nasally challenged Taoiseach, I found myself just as frustrated with the interviewer, Cathal Mac Coille, as with Brian Cowen. The RTE man kept banging on about the proposed €3bn saving in the upcoming Budget, whereas I wanted to hear Cowen tell us his plans for dealing with the other €17bn budget deficit gap.
Since then the question of the gaping Budget deficit has moved centre stage, but I feel that the country is still not addressing the culture of waste and excess salaries and perks in the public service. Cutbacks are being made in crucial frontline services to the vulnerable people in our society, while the fat cats remain almost untouched.
Our priorities for spending the expensive borrowed cash remain askew. Reading Wasters, written by Shane Ross and Nick Webb, has reinforced the image of an Irish economy run on an orgy of greed without accountability.
Two of the issues that stick out are the roles of consultants to Government departments and of special advisers to politicians and public body bosses.
Instead of getting down and being honest with each other, we are still being fed a diet of spin. Why do we need such a high spend on outside consultancy? Why do politicians need extra special advisers? What are the highly paid civil servants in the departments doing if they cannot offer economic guidelines and advice to their minister? Is there nobody around in our public institutions that can do sums and make a decision?
These issues are at the heart of our national malaise.
My take on consultants is that they are brought in either as a means of postponing a decision or of passing the responsibility of making a decision away from the minister or a public servant. Often the consultant is informed of the conclusion that is expected of them, even before the exercise gets under way.
The common feature of Irish consultants is their astronomical fees. Most consultancies are either legal or financial. When they are brought into a State body (or a private firm), junior recruits do the work but fees charged are based on the senior partner rates.
The recession has not dampened the State's appetite for employing expensive consultants. Over the past two years our Department of Finance has spent almost €11m, the Financial Regulator €8m and the National Treasury Management Agency almost €12m on outside consultants. Even NAMA has become the newest rich pick for consultants.
Contrast this with the top private sector firms. The consultancy gurus would not survive if they had to live off private companies. Kerry plc, one of Ireland's trailblazers, and now the world leader in food ingredients, does not simply employ outside consultants.
Instead, it has its internal brainstorming sessions. It will use a facilitator who will help identify the company mission statements and goals and then plan a strategy to attain these goals. Issues are addressed and clear targets are set. The company moves onwards and upwards with every employee gainfully busy and top management clear as to their responsibilities.
Irish farmers should also identify with the Kerry model, ie work out your goal for five years. Then proceed towards that goal with a regular review of progress on the way. Most of the answers can come from within.
Back to the special advisers and spin doctors behind each minister. These were initially brought in by the Labour Party in Government in Dick Spring's time, but now they are ubiquitous. The Taoiseach is reported to have five special advisers, all on exorbitant salaries. Again I ask, do the civil servants in his department not have the expertise to advise him?
When the HSE was set up to run the health service, the Department of Health continued regardless. Alongside Mary Harney are three junior ministers in the Department of Health, all with their own special advisers. Also, the HSE has paid out enormous sums on consultants.
Once I was an admirer of Health Minister Harney. But, after reading Ross and Webb on the goings on in her department (and earlier when she was in charge of FAS), that admiration has gone. She, too, has been sucked into the culture of waste.
Regrettably it looks as if those who were in charge of our economy in the disastrous past few years are not capable of changing their ways.
The Opposition does not inspire confidence either, but maybe fresh faces will have less baggage aboard. The new crowd in the UK seem to be tackling their problems.