GERARD HOWLIN: Shane Ross needs to get a focus on his ministerial responsibilities

Transport, especially public transport, is exactly at the intersection of economy and society. Picture: Jason Clarke

Minister for Transport Shane Ross would do well to acknowledge the transport crisis and leave the judiciary well enough alone, writes Gerard Howlin.

SHANE ROSS’s interview with Áine Lawlor on RTÉ’s News at One on Monday was an astonishing imitation of Jim Hacker (Yes, Prime Minister). It left me wondering what he does exactly for a day job. He is Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to be exact. Judicial appointments may need to be improved on, but we don’t have a crisis of confidence in the judiciary. That’s not a reason change shouldn’t be made, or Shane Ross as an Independent Alliance Minister in Government shouldn’t concern himself, but I’d like to hear about the basics first. That means Transport is not Hacker’s department of “administrative affairs”.

Tourism is hugely important, but largely commercially-driven. The State’s role is in overarching policy issues such as the VAT rate for hotels and restaurants. It’s about driving and funding agencies which play an essential role in marketing. But the tourism industry, as distinct from tourism policy, which is only one part of a much bigger dynamic, is private enterprise.

Sport, is a major part of national culture and community life. For smaller sports at every level and nearly all sports at international level except soccer and rugby, State funding is very important. Still the one nearest to crisis, far nearer than the judiciary, is transport. Tentative economic recovery coming after years of retrenchment has left transport, especially public transport, woefully underprovided.

Shane Ross needs to get a focus on his ministerial responsibilities

We can’t have a housing policy or a climate change policy worthy of the name without a credible transport policy. And we don’t have a transport policy capable of delivering on either — let alone supporting economic competitiveness, getting people to and from work in a growing economy — if the economy is in fact to grow sustainably. The past mismatch of housing and transport policy lengthened commute times, undermined competitiveness, and damaged the environment and quality of life. It meant houses further away from work and children having a longer day in the crèche.

It puts all sorts of pressures on people. In a world where every last ounce of competitiveness is mission critical, it drains away jobs, the taxes jobs pay and the services taxes fund. It really matters that we don’t have a transport plan fit for purpose. That is not Shane Ross’s fault, but it is a fact and it remains unaddressed. He is busy-out on “administrative affairs”.

Yesterday marked 200 days in office for the Government. Shane Ross published a list of his achievements and priorities. It deserves a pass mark for risk aversion. It gets none for ambition. It’s a competent to-do list of business as usual sort. The lack of ambition is a sense of how essential to the country, his transport portfolio is. Fearless in pointing out inadequacies elsewhere, there is no sign of a braver man taking by the throat, what may be his one opportunity in office. If he will not tend to the central issues he is directly responsible for, is the fearlessness just faux?

After the budget Ross pointed out that his department spends almost a third of the Government’s capital programme. But that’s the nub of the problem, not the name of the achievement.

Feargal O’Brien the policy director at IBEC pointed out earlier in the year that “strong growth and a rapidly increasing population are putting severe pressure on the country’s infrastructure and public services” and he said “we are currently investing far too little”. To put that in context Ireland’s capital investment expenditure is the second lowest in the EU while we have Europe’s fastest growing population. Average annual Exchequer funded capital investment over the 2015-2020 period is planned at under 2% and will be the lowest of any period since 1970. This is the real Leprechaun economics. Capital expenditure, investment in critical infrastructure, is far wider than transport. Oddly it’s the thing Donald Trump and Democrats agree on, better infrastructure is essential to competitiveness and economic growth.

Shane Ross didn’t cause the problem, nor can he instantly roll out infrastructure. Instead, his considerable energies, and perhaps his own political agenda, are spent elsewhere. He points ahead to a mid-term review of the capital programme next year, about half-way through his expected term of office. He risks leaving with little done, even in terms of plans.

Shane Ross needs to get a focus on his ministerial responsibilities

His retort, the one he made on October 5 when he outlined his plans at the Vision for Public Transport hearings initiated by the Oireachtas Transport Committee was for his detractors to come up with “proposals as to how these could be funded at an earlier date and where the money would come from, I would be the first to welcome them”. That’s a fair point. And here is the answer, or part of it.

Shifting major resources, requires changing the policy paradigm and public conversation. Nobody said it would be easy, but shying away isn’t part of the answer. Underlying it are fundamental questions about taxation, and spending.

For more spending, there must be more taxation as well as hoped-for economic growth. Spending must be productive, not hijacked for serving public servants at the expense of new hires, additional service, and capital expenditure. But I haven’t heard Minister Ross evince any wider vision or initiate any broader conversation about ‘what’ it is we should be doing and the ‘how’ it should it be done, economically. Famously caustic about waste in public expenditure in the past, he seems to fundamentally lack a sense — intellectually or politically — of what he as a minister in his own department, should be doing that is a game changer. Based on yesterday’s list of departmental ‘to-do’s he seems unprepared to risk failure. Some party politicians have used that formula successfully as a template. It won’t do for Ross.

If there is to be a real review, one that fundamentally changes priorities, of the capital programme there needs to be intense political debate about what overall economic priorities should be. But there isn’t. And I don’t think buses and trains feature much in Shane Ross’s sense of what causes and delivers major change over decades. That’s a pity, because they do. Transport, especially public transport, is exactly at the intersection of economy and society. Right now, it is also at the political nexus of the debate as to how resources should be divided between public servants and public services.

Refusing to make appointments to State boards from candidates approved by the public appointments process is obsession with political hygiene at the cost of delivery. Government is the art of getting on with it and fixing it at the same time. The end result will not be unsuitable appointments but a dearth of suitable candidates. But I suspect Ross knows he excoriated too often in the past.

Now, in office at last, there isn’t a sense of destiny, only of process. In Government, unless he delivers in his day job, he’ll be a parody of Jim Hacker and all he’ll be remembered for is “administrative affairs”.


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