Bruce Arnold

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

We Are Drowning in a Sea of Figures That Don't Add Up

Brian Cowen has surrounded himself with excessive advice on almost every possible issue facing the State. By the end of today -- after the 180 high-flying expatriate Irish gurus have thrown in their collective advice at the Farmleigh seminar -- he will no longer be waving at us but drowning.

He has set up a Commission on Taxation whose advice includes matters from which he is already running away. These include property tax and the recasting of income tax. He did not need the commission to tell him to include the simple removal of stamp duty.

But in the broader sense we did not need a commission. The Government had the package of proposals. They are permanently part of the Department of Finance's overall agenda.

Taxation is about mathematics -- you work out what you need and you decide where to get it. It is called adding up. Fianna Fail, including Cowen, lost the art of it during the Celtic Tiger -- a situation seriously aggravated by the fact they could not get their sums right. They failed at primary level.

But the real problem is the absence of the courage needed to take action. As of yesterday, for those who read Brian Lenihan's lips, there are to be no tax hikes. How cowardly is that? Cowen gave Colm McCarthy the widest possible brief, resulting in Bord Snip's mass of recommendations. McCarthy belongs to the Doheny and Nesbitt school of economic advisers: whatever you recommend yourself, we'll add it in.

Most of what he recommended was well known to Brian Cowen, his ministers and the heads of their departments. Necessary decisions could have been made by middle-grade civil servants. Most of them could be achieved without any report or any filtering of those decisions. They could have gone swiftly through Government but for the layers of obstruction and fear that have silted up the system. As for proposals to reduce Dail and Senate seats and local authorities by two-fifths, such changes are irrelevant at the present time as well as being controversial and complicated in the future.

So this huge programme is largely made up of soluble matters that could be addressed by good governance and the use of the large manpower of the civil service. That is how we did it once. Decision is all.

However, this misses the real point not just of McCarthy but also of the Commission on Taxation. They are deliberate barriers to the actions, provoking debate but delaying decision-making. This has been shirked already for well over a year. Real decisions are proving too terrifying for Brian Cowen and his party. Commissioning such reports has been a political device in all the time I have written on politics.

My cuttings library was stuffed with such reports until I realised, some years ago, they were worthless so I threw them all away.

Good governance has eluded Cowen since he took over from Bertie Ahern, who eluded it all the time he was in office. The difference was that Ahern was no reformist. Cowen says he is.

Yet, in nearly 18 months, he has failed to introduce any legislative measure of serious reform in any area including ethics and political expenses.

He has done nothing to abandon and dismantle the huge array of costly agencies for carrying out trivial tasks, such as regulating taxis, which a higher executive officer in the civil service could have done with time left over to regulate other things as well.

Instead, in all of these organisations, costing hundreds of millions of euros, we have hired office space, secretarial staff, appointed paid boards, printed stationery, and furnished handsomely the life for those involved. It is useless paraphernalia waiting to be dismembered. We did not need Colm McCarthy to advise us and we needed no one to tell us how to do it. We did need a measure of courage to carry it through. None is evident in Fianna Fail.

On the biggest initiative of them all, NAMA, Cowen and Lenihan did the opposite -- they sought no advice and consulted with no one.

The State possesses two fine organisations equipped for property valuation.

The first is the Valuation Office, the second the Office of Public Works. Together they have more experience, combined with balance and integrity, than the whole private property sector.

Did we give them charge? Did we hell!

We appointed someone from the commercial world whose views on development recovery are, in my view, infused with wishful thinking.

The regulation of NAMA, as far as can be gauged from the legislation as it stands, is largely in the minister's hands.

Brian Lenihan is an over-enthusiastic gambler. NAMA should be under strict Central Bank surveillance in its corporate regulatory governance role.

That it is not raises serious doubts about the effectiveness, transparency, and legitimacy of control. The chance of it all going wrong is greater.

These are but two examples of error.

If the nation can't stop NAMA it can stop Fianna Fail. In the process it can destroy for ever the shameful, dithering Green Party. Contrary to a misrepresentation of what I wrote some weeks ago, it was said on RTE that I had advocated a 'No' vote on the Lisbon Treaty as revenge or punishment for Fianna Fail. I did no such thing. But I do so now. Their ineptitude deserves nothing short of electoral punishment.

Declan Ganley would support the Lisbon Treaty if all the office holders in the EU were elected by the people and if the Lisbon Treaty was put to the vote in all member countries and won agreement.

I would be the same. Until it happens, we will not be governed democratically. And if the EU was turned on its head, and was used to designate what happens "democratically" in member states, then we would have Fianna Fail in power forever. To avoid this, vote 'No' against them on everything.