Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

'Brians' just tinker with fire extinguishers while we burn

THE reaction of Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan to the current economic crisis has been that of elderly janitors tinkering with out-of-date fire extinguishers while the building burns down around them. Both men have had several months to adjust to the downturn.

Brian Cowen's more comprehensive knowledge dates back to his appointment to Finance.

They brought forward the date of the Budget on grounds of urgency, then revealed that their plan was a marginal and ill-conceived dithering with the welfare and prospects of elderly people and children, which they then reversed.

The single most shocking image to come out of this is the much-photographed spectacle of the private conspiracy between themselves, the employers and the unions -- the so-called social partnership -- as they complacently made an undemocratic and outrageous deal on wages. The Government's highest priority should have been to abandon the social partnership and take direct charge of public service pay, freezing it, with a view to scaling down the size of this monstrous and expensive burden on the taxpayer.

The task is a huge one. But it cannot even be started while we continue to pretend that there is some kind of merit in pursuing an expensive and inflationary agreement while unemployment rises steadily, sales of goods fall, the private sector adjusts to this and the Dail is powerless to intervene.

The good times are over and the social partnership was a product of those good times. It was never democratic. The will of the people did not govern the private deals. It was one or two ministers and a clutch of unelected civil servants negotiating with employer and union representatives, neither of which groupings was interested in the common good. Since the summer, as we watched the whole flimsy structure of economic strength and vitality fall apart, any social partnership deal, other than one in line with retrenchment and reduction, has not only been rendered redundant, it has become an obscene mockery of the real requirements of the economy. We needed to set aside any thought of the social partnership awarding itself anything. Then, next year, we could move to reduce pay and scale down superfluous employment.

That simple reality is the cornerstone of future action; Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan seem oblivious of their duty to us all. Social partnership only works one way. No 'partners' are going to walk into a room and negotiate reduced pay and redundancies. The only way is for those in power to do the job they are paid to do, resume control and act with stern and unflinching courage. It is not a question of saying: Can it be done? It is a question of saying: It has to be done.

The Government should also have confronted the terrible mess they have made by hiving off everything in sight, through the process of 'agentisation'. We have transferred the running of a whole range of activities, once sensibly managed by the civil service, into the hands of agencies. The biggest and most disastrous is the HSE. But the HSE is only one of some 800 such agencies costing thousands of millions of public money.

Agentisation has taken control. Because of this the monitoring of public expenditure is outside Dail surveillance. Ministers and their secretary-generals do not control it. And the cost in efficiency and hard cash has been enormous. The reform of this, Brian Cowen led us to believe, was a high priority when he took over. It was not a job that could be undertaken lightly, nor one that might have been achieved speedily. But it did need some preliminary acts of courage. It got none.

The hived-off nature and economic flatulence of these agencies may have worked when we were rich. It won't work now. But no effective steps have been taken to rectify the problem.

There were also more immediate decisions related to this central one. The two Brians should have requested from the Cabinet the authority to impose a tax on all unoccupied buildings in the State. Many of them are the product of surplus private wealth. Taxing them would have been made their owners responsible for part of our huge debt.

The two Brians should also have begun the long overdue restoration of domestic rates, at the same time cutting the expensive agencies that burden taxpayers.

There is a narrative to this. Since the late 1960s, with interruptions during the oil crisis of the 1970s, the setbacks during the 1980s, we have been on an upward curve of growing self-confidence and of legitimate and valuable wealth creation. We over-indulged this, were prodigal and must pay the price. We do not account to ourselves any more. We have lost the meaning of reform and restraint. And what does Brian Cowen do? He spends his time and energy on creating yet another plan, requiring yet another agency, trying to build the future economy on top of the wreckage outlined above. May the Lord Save Us!