The Cabinet provoked widespread anger last week when ministers arrived one-by-one in their Garda-driven cars for a budget meeting at Farmleigh.
Ministers later admitted it had been a public relations disaster, and Green leader John Gormley signalled that the size of the ministerial fleet would be reduced in the budget through a car-pooling arrangement.
But Mr Cowen appeared irritated when the issue was raised yesterday.
“Let’s be clear: what the Government was seeking to do on that day – on the bank holiday – was to be seen to be at work, to be continuing to come up with decisions and solutions to the problems this country is facing,” he told RTÉ Radio.
Pushed on the issue by presenter Mary Wilson, Mr Cowen responded: “Sorry, sorry, in relation to this matter – if you want to get rid of every Mercedes and Audi or whatever you want to talk about, it doesn’t compare anything to the scale of the problem we have.”
Mr Cowen said the coalition had led by example by reducing the cost of government since the financial crisis erupted in 2008.
He said of the Mercs: “Let’s not have a serious conversation about the difficulties this country is facing by reducing it to that issue. And it’s an important issue in terms of optics. But the substance – the substance – the substance of the situation is very clear.
“We have to ensure that we cut back on what we’re spending and we have to raise some taxes and we have to have growth in the economy.”
He also rejected suggestions that the December budget was a “terrifying prospect”, indicating that the loss of economic sovereignty was a far greater threat.
“It’s not a question of figures or, you know, what you regard as the terrifying prospect: the terrifying prospect is having a Government that wouldn’t have the wherewithal to make the decisions that have to be made,” he said.