'We need more of the confidence fairy here'
Fiscal consolidation cannot be about just cutting and nothing else, social protection minister Joan Burton tells John Drennan
IT is the final week of one of the most dramatic Dail terms in Irish politics. The Government, having oscillated between triumph and disaster over the Haddington Road deal, the drama over the promissory notes and abortion legislation, is now preparing to head for the hills before the battle lines are drawn again ahead of Budget 2014.
But when we caught up with Joan Burton, the minister was in typically feisty form as she vented on a series of diverse subjects such as social welfare reform, Big Phil Hogan's "feminist side", and why she would like to be amongst more women in Enda Kenny's Cabinet.
JOHN DRENNAN: Was this one of your most dramatic Dail sessions?
JOAN BURTON: Well, they are all dramatic and lengthy, but this was the year of the EU Presidency, and for me, negotiating the youth guarantee was the highlight. And lo and behold, this became the idea du jour from Mr Barroso. It signalled a return to a social Europe that is prepared to resolve the issue of youth unemployment. Ever since the crisis broke, it's been about bankers and institutions. It is interesting, the week after the Presidency, the Taoiseach and I were guests of Ms Merkel and there was a lot of unanimity about. Prime ministers are politicians, they recognise there is not much of a future with mass youth unemployment.
JD: So are we're seeing the beginnings of a new Social Contract?
JB: That's what I would hope; we've had the endless emphasis on fiscal consolidation. We have a deflationary cycle that is utterly destructive. It is a point IMF people like Ashoka Mody make, fiscal consolidation, where reform accompanies it, has a valuable role to play but if it is about cutting and cutting and nothing else, it turns an economic crisis into an economic disaster.
JD: Can we put you down then as a Mody supporter?
JB: I think Ashoka Mody is being very logical about it all. People need employment that allows them a future, allows their children a future. The IMF has a sufficiently strong collective memory to know their programmes have had disastrous outcomes in certain circumstances and to learn from that.
JD: So unlike those who suffer from groupthink, the IMF at least can change?
JB: One feature of the economy is that private firms think nothing of doing that; if something is not working, they change, governments need to be robust enough to act with flexibility, and whether we are at this point remains to be seen.
JD: So the limits of austerity have been reached and new priorities are arising?
JB: Certainly government discussions of recent weeks and today have been all about getting people back to work, that is the best solution to austerity. I've been pushing the issue of clauses where in the cases of big contracts, local workers and apprenticeships will be offered. When it comes to unemployment – like the economy – we have stabilised but we now need to start to recover; unemployment has dropped from 15 per cent to 13.6 per cent. It is a significant drop but it is only a beginning.
JD: Outside of austerity, one of the other key issues of recent weeks has been abortion. What is your reaction to the abortion furore, particularly within Fianna Fail?
JB: Well, one of the key aspects of the debate which has emerged is that if Fianna Fail has one major stand-out feature: it is that its parliamentary party is distinctly lacking in the participation of women. It has no TDs and two excellent senators, Averil Power and Mary White, but the voice of women in that parliamentary party is, by modern standards, extra-ordinarily weak. Within both Labour and Fine Gael, in contrast, both parties have a critical mass of women, they saw it from a woman's perspective.
JD: And has that been influential in any other sphere?
JB: The manner in which the Taoiseach spoke and expressed himself in the Magdalene apology, how women in Government expressed to him the need for empathy, played a critical role, the discussions with women in Government – someone like Kathleen Lynch had a very clear view, myself and Frances Fitzgerald – had a key role in how the Cabinet responded. In contrast, in Fianna Fail, listening to Jim Walsh, it appeared that some of America's cultural wars are being fought out on Irish soil. I found the language disturbing and offensive as were the references by Fianna Fail's Brian O Domhnaill that there would be no more Special Olympians if this law was passed. I'm not sure there was much insight or thought, what he described is something that may happen in America, but it is not applicable to Irish experiences.
JD: So is it the case that this issue shows the revival of Fianna Fail is skin deep?
JB: I expect Micheal Martin would have thought that most of the party would follow his lead, but the numbers were very small. I think there is a big question mark about the notion that Fianna Fail under Micheal Martin is really dedicated to a new form of politics.
JD: But, isn't there a problem across all parties in terms of the role and participation of women?
JB: It is extraordinarily low. I meet many European ministers and you don't have to be a beancounter to see by and large that there are women and men in significant numbers. You are not saying I am the only woman here. The great problem in Irish politics is the lack of a critical mass of women in Irish parties; women understand child-care, the mingling of work and family, fathers who want to participate in their children's lives, fathers are parents as much as mothers.
JD: So how important in that regard is Phil Hogan's move on gender quotas?
JB: I not only complimented Phil, I and Frances encouraged him all along the way. You would, after all, find a Dail to be very odd if there were very few men there, so why not women?
JD: Are you concerned that a culture of misogyny exists in Leinster House?
JB: I will show you an excellent photograph from the House of the Oireachtas Commission [The minister shows a photograph which consists of 10 men and just one woman] but I am not a shrinking violet on this matter.
JD: You would have started in politics when Liam Lawlor was in his prime?
JB: I was a member of the old Dublin County Council, that was a time of frank and furious exchanges, the occasional headlock. The toughness of women is not in doubt, the real question is, do you do your business best without respect and decorum and consideration?
JD: What are the key issues now in Social Protection?
JB: Our key task is to continue the process where we change the culture of social welfare from being passive to active. But what that requires is a whole form of government of co-operation. That's why we've set up a roadshow for employers where Social Protection actively show-cases the talent that is on the live register. The launch of jobs-plus a week before, where if you take someone off the live register, employers get three to four hundred euro a month, is a significant move. I've been contacted by hundreds of employers. Ultimately, the best way to reform social welfare, though, is the availability of work. There are a couple of critical things Germany can do on sovereign and bad debt but the biggest thing we can do now is get the European economy going again. In that regard, we would be asking Ms Merkel after the election to increase the earning power in the German economy.
JD: Outside of child benefit, where else are your major concerns in terms of holding the line with cuts?
JB: It is important to note that most people now accept the importance of the social welfare spend in the domestic economy.
JD: Do social welfare cuts hurt the shopkeeper and the small entrepreneur?
JB: Yes, and in that regard the single biggest spend in that area now comes from those who are retired and who are pensioners on fixed incomes. Pensioners, being on fixed incomes, are very conscious of the property tax, of how much it will cost in a full year, they have concerns about issues such as drug charges, so it is important we realise pensioners are paying their way. The most important feature of the consumer economy is what Paul Krugman calls 'the confidence fairy' and what the Irish economy needs is some more of that confidence fairy and in that regard it is important pensioners know their incomes are secure.