Bruce Arnold

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

Cowen's Dithering on Reform Does Rest of Us No Favours

Despite the fact that almost anything Brian Cowen is likely to do will adversely affect his future electoral prospects, there was one area where this was not the case, that of reforms in the public sector. Wide sections of the public would have approved. And his admission of defeat, last weekend, on this score, was a further sad dimension of his failure.

He took over from Bertie Ahern 18 months ago with reform of the public sector his main priority. Though he did not need it -- since many of the tasks were glaringly obvious -- he reinforced the way forward with the McCarthy 'road map'. All of this has produced nothing, and it was laughable to talk of not being able to do it "overnight" when we have been waiting for 18 months.

It was also a grave mistake to identify cutbacks as "a first step" when they are high on the list of the more controversial reforms. What he should have done is simply set in train a series of planned reforms on a monthly basis. Ticking them off would have been proof of progress.

The work would have involved making the decisions, undertaking the legislative changes, where they were necessary, and agreeing to a parliamentary check on progress, also on a monthly basis. By so doing, he would have established his programme, gained the support of the Opposition -- who have been urgently requiring this approach and have put forward the necessary ingredients until their voices were hoarse -- and earned public approval.

There would undoubtedly have been support across the country for such a demonstration of what Cowen had promised from the start. Its absence is a serious undermining of his position. Worse still, to address it now in the context of the doomed partnership deal, instead of operating on a series of issues that were not contentious, is to make more vulnerable the embarrassing admission that nothing has been done.

A year on from his false start when he took over, he was further reinforced in possible resolve by the content of the McCarthy Report. Had he put in place the programme of reform, making McCarthy a subsequent part of it, his credibility for planning and forward thinking would have been enhanced.

Instead, people saw McCarthy as little short of prevarication. The strength of McCarthy was that it depended on inside information. The weakness lay in the fact that the programme of reform had itself lost credibility. And this has been aggravated quite seriously by further fumbling that came to a sorry admission last weekend of further failure.

It seemed almost ludicrous by the second half of this week to read of a Cowen 'strategy' of 'smoking out' the opposition parties on the details of their alternative Budget cuts in a special 'no holds barred' debate next week when so much is missing from his own definition of Budget strategy and when his Programme for Government has been so weak.

In recent years, the original run-up to Budgets, in which the Government set forward broad areas of required action, set the tone. The detail was then the subject of pre-Budget debate, fair and balanced on the whole. This has been abandoned in favour of a limited and superficial presentation of information. This is not really the basis on which there can be any serious political debate, a fact fully recognised by politicians.

The Dail has an agenda: the banking crisis, the Budget deficit and how to tackle debt. But if Cowen thinks he will 'smoke out' the Opposition, he will be disappointed.

The main debate continues to be the vast issue of reform. The agencies set up by government have reached ludicrous proportions and are costing the State in the region of €13 bn. They are a licence to print and to waste money. They have also become areas of patronage liberated from the stricter circumstances that surround the public service. The duplication of expenditure and manpower reaches absurd proportions and examples exist under the umbrella of most departments of State.

Here are some examples. FAS was one. The HSE is another. Straight away, talking in billions takes on a logic that has been concealed in public breast- beating about cutting costs. And the notion of reform as a civilised straightening out of antiquated circumstances has to give way to a truly massive alteration of the State's way of running itself.

To take two other, smaller examples: the HEA (the Higher Education Authority) and the consumer organisations that the State has set up.

The HEA is a small but striking example of nonsense in duplication and expenditure; the authority has a staff of 50 echoed in a section within the Department of Education, where a further 50 monitor and control their opposite numbers within the HEA 'quango'.

As for consumer control, any shopper who keeps even modest tabs on UK-Ireland comparisons knows it is not working and knows also that McCarthy simply recommended an amalgamation of the relevant bodies. What possible sense is there in having this madness going on?

Given that there are 800 to 900 of these agencies, a majority of which emerged under Bertie Ahern's administration, the cost to the Irish taxpayer is enormous.

McCarthy made specific recommendations and nothing has been done in response. He wanted to cut duplication and he made out the road map for doing it.

It is an astonishing fact that the Dail has never debated the McCarthy Report. That is the importance given to it. Ignoring it is what Brian Cowen is apologising to us all for when he says he regrets not having achieved any reform.

To give Cowen his deserts in terms of the instinct for reform, he too wanted the same thing originally.

I suspect he was tapped on the shoulder many times about the ruffled feathers that might have political colouring to them among the people who could and should have been returned to private employment. In other words, he did not know the full picture when he promised reform and now that he does, he is looking for another way forward.

He is running out of options.