Last Wednesday I appeared on RTÉ Radio One’s Today Show with Claire Byrne. I had been invited on to discuss TD’s pay and the cabinet decision to give 10 junior ministers their own special advisers.
You’d have thought that this was something better discussed, if not defended, by a loyal Fianna Fáil backbencher. Oddly there didn’t seem to be too many of them around on Wednesday to take the call. So, yours truly made a coffee, sat by my phone and waited to head bravely into the breach and make the case for special advisers.
Joining me To debate the issue were Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty, TD and the former Independent TD and junior minister, John Halligan.
Not surprisingly, Sinn Féin had taken an ultra populist line, arguing against both pay increases and appointments. After all, no one ever lost votes bashing politicians on pay and perks. To be fair, on the show Doherty toned the rhetoric down a notch, though he stuck to some of the script saying he opposed the pay increase and would be handing his back, something that ministers and several other TDs were also doing.
With the basic political points, not to mention the obligatory cuts at Fianna Fáil, out of the way Doherty moved on to advance the far stronger case that the government was showing itself to be tone deaf announcing the appointment of 10 extra special advisors on the same day that people were seeing their pandemic unemployment payments cut.
Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t defend the government on this. Luckily I didn’t want to. I was happy to make the case for advisers (which I will repeat here shortly) but not to defend announcing it on the day you cut payments for many. This was not just about poor political communications. It was about bad politics. This was not just a problem with timing, cutting the PUP rates now was a bad decision. It was unfair and unjust. Yes, the deficit matters, but so does getting us all through this pandemic together.
As for the advisers… while nobody should expect to be showered with praise for saying that ministers, even junior ministers, need advisers, the simple fact is if we want government to work, and to work well, we must put the support structures and resources in place to enable ministers to deliver their program for government – even when it is one with which you disagree.
You don’t have to take my word for it there is a fair amount of research material on this topic showing the value of ministers having advisers who are clearly on their side and have their back. One such piece was done about a decade ago by Dr Bernadette Conaughton UL.
It is important that the relationship between the special advisor and their minister is 100% based on trust. The special advisor needs to have complete confidence in their minister and be comfortable working to their agenda. It also has to work both ways.
The minister must have complete confidence and trust in their adviser, which is why ministers must ultimately have the final say in who they pick. This is important as, at some point, the adviser will have to be the bearer of bad news or be the one to tell the minister they think he or she is about to get it wrong. When this moment comes the adviser must recognise that they are not there to make decisions, they are there purely to advise, if a minister opts not to take their advice, then so be it.
But the argument on Wednesday was not about really about the merits of having advisers. Sinn Féin knows from its own experience in Stormont that advisers are necessary, though they did seem less convinced about the case for having an Executive, ministers and an Assembly for a long while, but let’s not go there just now.
Meanwhile, back on the Claire Byrne Show, the conversation correctly focused on the PUP cuts.The Taoiseach had attempted to explain the decision the day before in a very heated and testy Dáil exchange with Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald.
There are times when the Taoiseach needs to calm himself and not to rise to the bait. This was one of them. His explanation was starting to sound a lot like a justification. A justification that people were seeing and hearing alongside a justification for the extra advisers. Two issues that should not have had any relationship to one another were now being played out side by side and in stark contrast.
Martin’s twin abiding needs to always show that he is on top of the detail while gainsaying the latest OTT accusations from Mary Lou McDonald drove him to a negligent defence of one decision where he should have sought to give himself some room to reconsider.
By adopting that attitude Taoiseach Micheál Martin was leading people to the wrong conclusion that the only parties who were concerned by the cuts were on the opposition benches. This is simply not true.
I made this point on Wednesday, recalling that a number of prominent Fianna Fáil TD had already gone public calling for the cuts to be stopped and the payments reinstated, while more were expressing their concerns to ministers, in private.
The Sunday newspapers yesterday were again full of comments from various Fianna Fáil TDs hoping to pressure the government to do something about it, perhaps in the budget.
I have no doubt that the government will be compelled to back down on these unfair cuts, but thanks to the Taoiseach’s political tone deafness, it may be Sinn Féin – who shouted about wanting change – that gets the credit, rather than those Fianna Fáil TDs who applied the pressure to deliver it.
If I am wrong and this government does not revisit these cuts, then Fianna Fáil may find itself looking back on yesterday’s 14% Ireland Thinks/Mail on Sunday poll rating as its halcyon day.
There is one other point on PUP which I briefly made on Claire Byrne show which I would like to expand a bit on here, before I close.
It is difficult not to surmise that this government’s difficulty with PUP payments stems from Fine Gael’s perception that PUP is just a form of welfare. Many on the Fine Gael side of this government see the payment through that prism. We saw this when it came to the people on PUP going on a holiday.
Fine Gael’s growing centre-right wing sees PUP as just an unemployment payment, and thus thinks it should only be short term, otherwise it risks encouraging people not to return to work. This entirely misses why there is a PUP… the clue surely is in the first P, it’s because of the pandemic. No pandemic and PUP recipients are happily back to work.
While PUP may fall under the auspices of the Department of social protection, it should more correctly be seen as a fledgling form of universal basic income. This is not something about which this government should be apologetic, it should be championing it. It should be screaming it from the rooftops and using it to signal a major change in how we will approach welfare in the post covid years ahead.
Indeed the pandemic has become the catalyst for the introduction of some form of universal basic income in many countries.
The United Nations Assistant Secretary General, Kanni Wignaraja has written powerfully on the opportunity we now have to change how we deal with inequality, saying:
“A new social contract needs to emerge from this crisis that rebalances deep inequalities that are prevalent across societies. To put it bluntly: The question should no longer be whether resources for effective social protection can be found – but how they can be found. UBI promises to be a useful element of such a framework.”
One of the many lessons we can already take from how our own government, and many other ones across the globe, have dealt with Covid-19 is that all governments have the capacity to make things happen quickly when they really need and want things to change.
Yes, it differs from country to country and is limited, or accelerated, by political history, culture etc., but in broad terms, we have seen that government is not the thing you need to get out of the way when you want to make progress, it can be the agent of that progress, when it has the will and the leadership.
Even this government, but only if it looks deep within itself and connects to a bold and ambitious vision of how life in this country could be improved by 2025.
Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. His column appears here every Monday.Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney