FERGUS FINLAY: We can’t allow the working poor to be the first casualties of reform

THIS media fuss about “trouble in the government” over Joint Labour Committees is daft.

The row itself is a classic mix of ideology, special pleading, media messing, and political grandstanding. But the mix has given rise to pretty absurd speculation that a row about nothing at all is has, somehow or other, the potential to destabilise the government.

It doesn’t, of course. If a government makes a decision to publish a report and begin a process of consultation, that’s what the minister responsible should do. If the minister in question — in this case Richard Bruton — goes around the place implying that irrespective of what the report says, and regardless of the outcome of the consultation process, he’s after a particular outcome, well then he’s inviting controversy.

There’s actually nothing wrong with a bit of controversy. It draws attention to the issues, makes people debate them, might even help towards arriving at a better solution to the problem. But political controversy usually needs ground rules.

At the moment, the basic rule is that a minister should only speak in public if he’s absolutely sure of his ground. And for god’s sake let no one disagree with him — especially no one on his own side. If they do, they’re going to be accused of making the controversy worse.

The conventional wisdom is that any public disagreement is highly dangerous for a government. The way things used to be, if a minister set out his stall on any issue, and subsequently found himself in a minority (that’s democracy, right?) and had to abandon or change his position, he was seen as being “weakened”. So a minister had to win every argument or end up being called a lame duck. But a minister who sets out to win every argument ends up being called a bully, and impossible to work with.

One solution to that dilemma — and it has tended to be the more time-honoured solution — is to have every argument behind closed doors. It’s classic old-fashioned politics, where everyone knows their role. Opposition parties regard it as win-win for them. If the government disagrees in public, the opposition immediately talks up their weakness. If the government does everything behind closed doors, the opposition starts talking about dictatorship.

It’s nonsense, and never more so than now. This government was elected to be different to the previous one. One of the ways in which it’s supposed to be different is that we want it to be honest. That means having the capacity to debate stuff openly, to agree and disagree, and to resolve issues by debate. In turn, that probably means some new ground rules are necessary. Ministers who put forward ideas shouldn’t be seen as damaged if they’re disagreed with. Backbenchers who voice their disagreement shouldn’t regard that as licence to dissent from the final position.

A government that operates in a more transparent way will have to put up with the silly headlines at the start – “row deepens”, “crisis facing coalition” — that sort of thing. But actually, once we all get used to the idea of a bit more transparency and more dialogue and debate being necessary to get the right decision, the media tendency to make a crisis out of every disagreement would start gathering a different perspective.

Let’s operate on the assumption that this is a row about an issue, and that it’s not likely to bring down the government. I happen to believe that Richard Bruton has grabbed completely the wrong end of the stick, and that it is particularly absurd that the first target of reform for the government should be people on the lowest rates of pay in the economy. One of the real cruelties behind the policy decisions of the last government was that they made so many appalling misjudgements and mistakes. And then they made some of the poorest people in Ireland pay for those mistakes. In their last two budgets they savaged things like child benefit, carers’ allowances, lone parents’ support, and disability payments. Every target of those cuts was already poor, and made much more so by the need to prop up banks and repay debt they had done nothing to cause.

We threw that government out, and replaced it with a government of integrity. I reckon the last thing any of us voted for was to empower the new government to continue an assault on the poor, only now on the working poor.

Let’s face it. A large amount of the special pleading that is going on around this issue of Joint Labour Committees is entirely spurious (I think any government with any sense would listen to any of the recommendations of the Construction Industry Federation, for example, and then do precisely the opposite).

But let’s take one industry that has been much talked about, the restaurant and hotel trade. I’ve yet to meet or hear one restaurateur or hotelier say that he had to go out of business because he was paying his staff too much. In fact, if you talk to them, the successful ones will always tell you about the importance of a highly motivated team, because the work of running a successful restaurant is gruelling.

What has done most the damage to the restaurant and hotel trade in the last few years has had little to do with wages. Rent and rates, utilities, raw materials — the cost of all these have soared. And the collapse of the economy, the slowdown in tourism, and the rise in unemployment have all eaten into the customer base.

Dealing with all that, and restoring competitiveness to the industry, requires a multi-faceted response. Using a report into the effectiveness of joint labour committees to seek to drive down the meagre incomes of some of the lowest-paid people in the country is a short-sighted and counterproductive idea. So, there’s nothing wrong with Richard Bruton calling for radical reform in the system. But I believe Labour backbenchers like Colm Keaveney and Michael McCarthy are absolutely right to exercise caution and to press for more debate and discussion.

Nobody can argue that people who have worked for years in hotel kitchens, or trained as chefs and waiters to spend a life in the restaurant business, are responsible for the mess we’re in.

Of course things are tighter now that they were when money was no object, and of course there’s a case for more standardisation of the rules about things like premium payments, so no one is at an unfair disadvantage.

But there is no case for low-paid people, who also tend to be very hard-working people by the way, to be the first casualties of a reformed economy. And certainly not without a lot of open, democratic public debate.

It’s time we grew up about that, at least.


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