Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

Archive for the month “July, 2014”

Reshuffle blues….is it enough?

The cabinet reshuffle sees the government select its management team to face the electorate at the next general election. The delay in announcing it created quite a lot of fuss. In my last piece I warned against the dangers of Joan Burton staying put in Social Protection. That warning was not heeded. While a majority of commentators might disagree with me on it, I stand firm over my assessment that I think this was an error. Social Protection does not carry enough weight as a ministry. While people felt Joan was hard done by after the 2011 election that sympathy is now gone, she has confirmed that social protection was the role she wanted and therefore will take the blame now for all the cuts that have happened on her watch.

There is a suggestion that the numbers on the live register are falling so Social protection will have good news to give. This won’t happen. While the numbers will fall the credit will go to the Jobs minister for getting them back to work. If Joan has money over it will be used to bolster the ailing Department of health where the government needs an impact. There will be no increases in social welfare rates, no extra payments and no easing of the burden for those surviving on welfare. Nor will the Department be reformed, if it hasn’t happened by now then it’s not going to. Joan Burton took a safe option. it’s a ‘stay as you are’ policy that is trying to avoid risk and increased responsibility.

The Labour party has said that it now controls ministries that are close to its base and relevant. Wonderful. it controls them at a time when there is still no money to do anything. The expectations will be big and almost impossible to deliver.

Apart from the appointment of Heather Humphreys this was a fairly safe and steady reshuffle. No doubt the phrase ‘calm heads are needed’ was used a lot in the negotiations and preparations. It is not the reshuffle of a government that took a fairly large kicking at the local elections and wants to reverse this. It is the reshuffle of a government that believes its only a matter of time before people see sense and ‘it will be alright on the day’. Like its predecessor this government has decided to avoid gambles or playing for high stakes. While Labour has made some decent changes, and got a shift in portfolios I just can’t see it being radical enough. To me it suggest that the party still hasn’t grasped just how deep the trouble it is in is. What was called for was far more stern and radical and there is nothing here to suggest that Fine Gael is in any way wary of the new more assertive Labour. They are still ready to face them down and I fear Joan has not shown that she is daring enough to really put the frighteners on Enda Kenny.

Fine Gael will be very happy with the reshuffle. A few new faces and steady as she goes. Even James Reilly avoided the drop. What is interesting is that if you look at recent Health Ministers then the bad part of the job is trying to run the hospitals, the only good bit is the public health. That bit gets you some kudos, a few preventative programmes, good information campaigns and give tobacco a good kick. This is what helps Health ministers. The new division sees Leo Varadkar left with all the ugly troublesome bits of health while James Reilly walks away from the wreckage of his outlandish promises with all the nice PR bits of health. He will be sniggering at Leo in the coming months.

The only other danger for FG was the strange decision to bundle Defence and Agriculture in together. These two ministries do not have a lot in common. Agriculture has been happy with Simon Coveney, who has done well. However, people in rural Ireland generally feel that they are not top of the governments priority list. The Defence forces have questions in this regard too. Bundling two senior ministries into one will only cement the view that neither of these sectors is seen as deserving of a full ministry.

Rumours are that in the junior ministerial ranks there will be a role for Labour affairs and a Rural Affairs ministry. Both of these are earmarked for Labour Party personnel. The first is understandable. The second is a bit of a mystery. Labour will not find a new vote in rural Ireland and the only possible answer I can think of is that Willie Penrose wants a return to the junior ministerial ranks.

All in all the government will feel pleased with itself but it is the polls that will tell a story. It would appear that despite warnings from bodies like the ESRI the government is determined to pin all its electoral hopes on cutting the top rate of tax. It is a play for middle Ireland. The problem is though that it may not work out as well as they think. A decent tax cut will save you a couple of hundred euro in a year. Not to be sneezed at. however, it will be for earners who are more worried about figures far in excess of that. A couple of euro in each pay packet may hardly be noticed when set against, property and water charges that will far outweigh it. Then of course there is another problem for Labour. How will that pan out in the PR realm? Is a cut in the top rate of tax really preferable to Joan Burton restoring some of the cuts to welfare payments? In a battle for the left, Sinn Fein will be sharpening their swords on that one. But sure who listens to me? Certainly not Jenda.

Joan Burton’s reshuffle headache

Joan Burton has a lot of thinking to do in a very short period of time. Today, she will meet Enda Kenny to discuss the changes to cabinet. This will be the first real test for Burton. Judging by the early speculation there are some reasons to be concerned.

On a positive not there is much talk of a swapping of some portfolios or a restructuring of Departments. This would be a very positive move for Labour who got sidelined after the general election by being pushed out of the pro-active economic roles.

Now, let’s look at the reshuffle headache for Burton. First up who stays and who goes. A major test of her mettle will be Pat Rabbitte. He has not made it easy like Quinn did. Rabbitte is not popular or anything spectacular as a minister. There is also no future in him for the Labour party. Despite his many years in politics this is his first time to sit at the senior cabinet table so unlike Quinn he is not even bringing you years of experience. Rabbitte has to go. Burton will have to show she is not afraid of doing that. If she doesn’t then she ends up with only two new Labour faces at cabinet and that is not enough given the disastrous polls. It will also appear like she felt she wasn’t strong enough to make Rabbitte go. This is the first chance to lay down a marker to all for the future.

Brendan Howlin may survive the purge but the question is what to do with him then. The perceived wisdom is that he will be left alone and that Joan Burton will remain in the Department of Social Protection. If this happens then Burton will have made the first error of her leadership. Noonan and Howlin occupy the most important roles at cabinet. All policy and decision emanate from them. it’s going to be very difficult for the government to show a new face if both remain in place no matter how well regarded they are. No change in finance means no change in policy.

That said, Burton will be flooded by talk, mainly from FG about stability and not upsetting the work of government. This theory will be used to keep her from getting too involved and changing plans too drastically. When Gilmore appointed Howlin and sent Burton to Social Protection there was a feeling that she was exiled. She was kept away from the important financial role in which she had served Labour well because FG would find it more difficult to work with her. Now as Leader she runs the risk of putting an imprimatur on Gilmore’s decision. This is dangerous territory. A politician must believe in themselves and their own ability. They must not be afraid of taking bold decisions. Burton should have the confidence to go into the role Howlin occupies and show that she could have done better had Gilmore had the courage to appoint her.

I am not holding my breath though based on the early speculation. This means that Burton must carve out new roles. Is there hope that she will move herself to another role? Again the speculation is worrying. The perceived wisdom is that she will stay in social protection and this is a huge error. It is said that Burton knows the department she is in and doesn’t have time to get to know a new department while she has the Labour party to save. This is pure folly. It is the kind of line devised in the backrooms of her opponents. What a wonderful break that would be for FG. You can picture them now saying : ‘Yes Joan take it easy, you have a lot of work to do there with Labour, you go off and do that and leave all this government and economy business to us. The big boys will make sure that’s done.’ Today there is talk that Labour might get the Enterprise portfolio from FG. This is a huge and very important role, a highly senior ministry. The speculation is that Alan Kelly would get this role. Now here is where it gets very hypocritical. Alan Kelly only days ago suggested that he would have the responsibility of reforming the Labour party, yet he has no difficulty taking on a massive new ministry at the same time.

I have said it time and time again across all parties. This thing about reforming and reenergising your party as leader is nonsense. You can only be a figure head. The leader or indeed the parliamentary party members cannot be responsible for the act of reform in any party. They must appoint someone they trust and let them do the job away from the public eye. Internal reform is a time consuming task and one that sets TD’s, Grassroots, front bench and HQ all against each other. Therefore the person doing it cannot have a bias to one group or the other.

Anyway, back to Joan. Some of you will ask ‘What’s the problem in staying at Social Protection?’ There are several. Burton is well regarded and escaped the blame for many of the cuts in Welfare. This was because there was a perception she was hard done by. Forced into a role where she was cut off from the main decisions and only able to implement what she was given. There is a feeling that Joan wanted to do things differently but was curtailed. However, all that is going to disappear if she decides to stay put. Then the role is her choice and all polices become her total responsibility. Things aren’t getting that much easier in budget terms for a department like hers.

The next problem is seniority. There is a hierarchy of ministries whether people like it or not. They are not all equal. Traditionally Education, Social Welfare and Agriculture are ministries that are good to start or end a career in. They operate individually of most others and the minister in charge can’t really upset too much else in government. Therefore they can learn the ropes there or you can send someone there that you need to keep as a minister but want away from the control room.

Eamon Gilmore was slated for taking the Foreign Affairs portfolio, yet traditionally this is on a par with Finance. The problem for Gilmore was that in the current crisis it was not economic enough. However, given its role with Europe and the opportunities to engage to investors and senior ministers in other countries it is still a bigger role than Social Protection. When the foreign Ministers meet in Brussels it’s a gathering of all the heavy hitters and influencers. When Social Welfare ministers meet, few enough even notice. If Gilmore could not make the T├ínaiste role work for him on the Economic Management Council the Burton has even less chance if she is coming from Social Protection.

Then there is the imagery. Politics is so much about imagery. Even more so than Gilmore how will Burton find her way into the big news stories? If there were to be negotiations she will appear like she is there only because she is Labour Leader. Like a special allowance. Her role as Social Protection Minister would never see her as a required figure at major negotiations. Next problem is who sets the rules? Howlin and Noonan sit down and discuss spending and limits and where the axe falls, they then go out and tell Departments what they must do. Burton will find herself effectively taking financial orders from her supposed subordinate. Meanwhile, if there are big job announcements or investment plans there is a chance Alan Kelly will be the minister who does all that? Madness. She would be locking herself in to a situation where she holds one of the more junior portfolios and then hopes to lay down policy and orders to guys in bigger Departments.

Now one argument is that she is in a big spending department with a lot of impact socially. The problem here is that spending is decreasing not increasing. Burton may indeed have an affiliation to helping those on welfare but you can be sure there is going to be little opportunity to get that across in the next two years. She will be faced with the blame game and further accusations that Labour only spend money and never know how to create or raise it. That is a PR disaster.

We can only await the reshuffle but right now Burton needs to sit down with someone who is going to look at the long game and is not going to buy into the hype and rules being set down to engineer a position where change will be minimal.

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