herald

Friday 21 September 2018

Enda has the power now to do something about cronyism row

When exactly does an army of spin doctors turn into a team of key advisers?

It happens, apparently, when two parties who have spent over a decade criticising the employment of such advisers got into ministerial office and suddenly see the merits of the system.

Just under four years ago Enda Kenny was berating the last government's appointment of special advisers saying "With this Government it seems to be a case of too many chiefs and not enough indians."

Yours truly was one of those chiefs at the time, but heh, no hard feelings.

Today, Enda has no problem appointing his quota of advisers -- nor should he.

Enda is a bit like Goldilocks. He tells us this bowl of porridge is too hot and then tells us the other bowl is too cold. What he fails to grasp is that the two bowls are exactly the same.



GLADIATORS

The only absolute certainty in my almost six years as a ministerial adviser/programme manager was that Fine Gael and Labour would table a raft of parliamentary questions every three to four months asking how many of us there were, our pay rates and our expenses.

The replies would form the basis of the ritualistic press releases condemning our appointments as a waste of money -- even though many advisers were existing civil servants seconded between departments, about half, like me, were political appointments.

I penned a piece here a few weeks back outlining the many and varied tasks an adviser can be called upon to perform. I won't bore you by reiterating them here. The adviser network is now a feature of modern government in counties based on the Westminster model such as the UK, Australia and New Zealand because it works.

In his 2005 biography (Page 297) Ruairi Quinn described them as "political gladiators' who "would, up to a point, bargain on behalf of their political masters, in a way that was impossible for a civil servant, whose loyalty was to the department first and then the minister".

It has been an effective feature of government since Labour ministers in the 1973-77 government decided to appoint advisers outside the civil service. The system was institutionalised in law via Section 11 of the Public Service Management Act, 1997.

Fine Gael and Labour may have to endure some political embarrassment now as they try to live down their past point scoring over the system, but that's life. The Government needs every bit of help it can muster given the magnitude of the problems it has to face.

Ministers will need people around them they can trust and depend upon: especially when the tough decisions start to bite and public popularity starts to wane. Each Cabinet minister is entitled to appoint two special advisers, just as they were back in 2002 and 2007. The sooner ministers get their advisers in place, the sooner those advisers can get settled into their jobs and assist their ministers to get the Programme for Government implemented.

It is therefore a bit surprising to see some ministers have still not sorted out their advisers. According to replies to PQs tabled by Deputy Billy Kelleher on such appointments; Social Protection Minister Joan Burton had still not appointed anyone up to the end of May, while the Ministers for Finance, Enterprise, Environment and Tourism & Culture had each only appointed one.

This hesitancy by Cabinet ministers in appointing senior advisers does stand in marked contrast with the rush by some of their junior ministerial colleagues to get family members on to the state payroll.

Bad enough that these guys were not listening to their own anti-cronyism campaign rhetoric: they do not appear to have appreciated the message an angry electorate sent to entire body politic: stop milking the system.

It is one issue on which 2007 Enda and 2011 Enda are in agreement -- and Enda now has the authority to do something about it.

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