Brian Lenihan is quoted in the Irish Times today that “the abolition of expenses will not resolve the economic crisis”. He then went on to say that people need to focus on the “real issues facing the country“. There is something in this statement that is quite revealing about how the government is approaching the current economic crisis. The public are constantly being told to “get real“, as though they do not understand the gravity of our problems. The public’s concern about how their money is being spent by senior politicians is brushed aside as emotional rhetoric. Their concern about employment and job losses is seen as secondary to the “real issues”. Yes, we have a serious hole in our public finances and it requires tough decisions. But, these tough decisions can only be taken by a government that is perceived to have the political legitimacy to make them. Thus, when asking the public to take a cut in the standard of public services, to pay more taxes and to take a reduction in pay, the government must be seen to respect the fact that it is public money they are spending.
It is baffling that the current government cannot join up the dot’s as to why the public are so outraged about the waste, and indulgence of their money. If Brian Lenihan wants to reduce industrial action and convince the public that cuts in public expenditure are necessary then these cuts must start at the top. At the moment there is zero trust in government. This is a crucial platform upon which to build public support for policy decisions. Presently there is no communion amongst unions, employers and government, and no union amongst citizens and government. Thus, radically reforming the extravagant public expenses & salaries that our politicians enjoy is the first fundamental step toward solving the economic crisis. It is central to building the capacity to make decisions in the first place. The government (or more precisely, the department of finance) seem hell bent on going it alone, without any awareness of the consequences this will bring.
The public will not accept cuts in public expenditure until there is reform of how their money is being spent by those making the decisions in first place. This is the bedrock of political legitimacy. Brian Lenihan is, therefore, totally wrong that these issues are unconnected to the “real issues”. Such comments, and the tactical approach by government at the moment, is undermining the civic trust required to solve our economic crisis. Wage moderation, wage cuts and reductions in public expenditure become legitimated through political exchange. If the public (and trade unions) agree to negotiate a new ‘programme for recovery’ they must get something in return. This can take the form of job redistribution or concrete policies on job creation (admittedly, it is difficult to see what the government can offer). But, if the government want to make this exchange possible (and I am beginning to think they don’t) then they must, at the minimum, stamp out the practices that waste or abuse public money. Unneccessary expenses are the pinnacle of this.