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If we can't solve long-running problems, maybe we need a Minister for the Future


Flooding in Carrigaline, Co Cork (Photo: Denise Calnan)

Flooding in Carrigaline, Co Cork (Photo: Denise Calnan)

Flooding in Carrigaline, Co Cork (Photo: Denise Calnan)

Do we need a Minister for the Future? Our current set-up doesn't seem fit to either plan for it or implement those plans. Let's look at three instances of long-term planning failure.

We have an unsustainable pension system where a very large portion of the population doesn't have a retirement plan; we have an emerging situation where increased flooding over time is not compensated for by increased investment in flood protection systems; and we have several cities and many communities that can be left without treated water for weeks at a time.

Warren Buffett once wrote: "Citizens and public officials typically under-appreciated the gigantic financial tapeworm that was born when promises were made that conflicted with a willingness to fund them." Former Taoiseach John Bruton echoed Buffett in a speech, in New York in 2013, predicting European governments would inevitably default on the pensions and health benefits of their citizens.

Life expectancy in Ireland is increasing. In fact, it has risen from the age of 65, in 1950, to 80 by 2013. In Ireland, today, private pension structures have been decimated by the crisis. Contribution rates have decreased, going from 54pc coverage in 1995 to 42pc coverage in 2013. Meanwhile, the pensioner support ratio is decreasing from 5.9 employees in 1995, falling to two employees by 2050.

A financial tapeworm, indeed.

The only reaction to the facts of increased longevity and decreased pension coverage by government has been to raise the retirement rate. Ireland's policy makers increased the state retirement age to 66, beginning in 2014, and this will increase to 67 from 2021 and 68 from 2028. Bottom line: If you're 25 today, you should expect to work until you are 70.

Plans abound on how to reform Ireland's broken pension system - including the unfunded system for public sector workers - but no serious discussion of reforming pensions is taking place across Irish society. Why not?

Let's turn to flooding.

It has cost us more than €750m to repair flood damage in Ireland since 2000. The remedial works really do work. Taking one example - Clonmel experienced flooding in 1995, 1996, 1997 and 2000, 2004, 2008 and twice in 2009, until flood defences were built up. Since 1995, 25 flood defences have been built, with another nine still in construction since May 2013.

Flood plans, flood defences, and efficient flood relief schemes are all too slow in coming, and a comprehensive roll-out isn't on the cards. The European Commission's Joint Research Centre estimated that winter river flooding would only increase as climate change added more rainwater to the system, so the 10 ongoing projects will only solve problem situations for today, not those likely to become problems in the future. Because the problems are getting steadily worse, we need to invest more in these areas to cope with the problems.

All of which boils down to a line minister asking for money at budget time. Ireland's finances will be constrained for the foreseeable future. As a politician, what would you rather fight for - a school extension, a new road, or a new flood defence?

The answer is obvious. What is urgent is driving out what is important.

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Now to our water problems. Beyond the cacophony of cock-ups involved in the set-up of the semi-state, the fact remains that our water system is not fit for purpose.

In 2010, the EPA calculated that 1.3 million people were at risk of drinking poor quality water because of decades of under investment in the water network. It is very telling that most people in Ireland know what cryptosporidium is.

You can argue the pros and cons of charging households for the water they consume. You can't argue with the fact the system needs more investment, and splitting this implementation into 34 regional offices probably makes no sense. Investment in water, and indeed investment in broadband, is something we just know we should be doing, as a society, and yet it isn't happening. We just can't solve the long-running problems.

Perhaps there should be a Minister for the Future. This idea isn't as stupid as it seems on first look. He, or she, would be tasked with keeping the long run in mind, with putting the case for a longer term perspective to other ministerial colleagues at the cabinet table. They wouldn't win every fight for government funds, but remember that every time they did - because of the 'stitch in time saves nine' nature of the investment processes we're talking about - the minister would be helping for he future in a really cheap way.

Korea has a ministry of future planning, Brazil and other developing economies have ministries of planning and development. The functions of the ministry are to work across the functions of the government to stitch all the plans together.

A system-wide view makes sense, and allows a rational calculation about trade-offs between alternative policies. We might actually get some joined-up thinking. Who knows?

Boyle Roche (1736-1807) was an interesting man. A parliamentarian in the Irish House of Commons in 1775, Roche famously said: "Why should we put ourselves out of our way to do anything for posterity, for what has posterity ever done for us?"

I worry our politicians are cut from the same cloth as Roche, but I'm hopeful a bit of rational planning and a system-wide perspective could change our outlook a bit.