Sunday, October 11, 2009

Culture of Entitlement Runs As Deep As Culture of Blame


By Jennifer O’Connell

The meeja were on his back from the beginning. So were ‘the Protestants’ and the lawyers for the Tribunal, with their prurient interests in his personal life.

And then there were ‘those creepy writers’ who had the cheek to wonder what happened to all the money that disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle at the Department of Health. Perhaps worst of all, though, were the doubting Thomases in his own flock – the likes of the “guy on my own team who hadn’t seemed to have much faith in me earlier in the campaign.”

In his memoir, which is actually a work of fiction so superbly imaginative it could be renamed The Chronicles of Ahernia, and the interviews he’s giving around its publication, everyone gets a crack at the blame. Everyone, that is, except the canary-yellow clad hero himself - one Patrick Bartholomew Ahern.

I’m sure it proved very therapeutic for our former Taoiseach to exorcise his demons at the expense of the publishing empire Random House, but taxpayers searching for answers to life’s big questions – such as ‘where did all my money go?’ – will have to fork out for the therapy themselves.

Ahern’s hangdog act is nothing new. He has always understood that his success in the ballot box lay in his ability appeal to the lowest common denominator. And so he set about creating an artificial state of siege, an ‘us versus them’ mentality based on the myth that he and his cabinet were far better attuned to the concerns of normal folk than the South County Dublin journalists populating the newsrooms of RTE and the country’s national newspapers.

Every thing he did in public, from the greasy anorak to the pints of Bass in Fagan’s on a Sunday, was designed to reinforce the fiction that he was one of us; that there would be no Charvet shirts in his cabinet.

And so, when journalists started to ask hard questions about his finances during the 2007 general election campaign, he got away with stomping around and sighing like a hormonal teenager instead of addressing them.

It was only the ‘meeja’ that cared about stuff like the IEP30,000 cash he got from Micheal Wall, he suggested.

As he says in his memoir: “The consensus from canvassers all around the country was of voters saying: “Who do these people in the media think they are?”

Well, not any more, Bert.

Now we know about John O’Donoghue and Rody Molloy parading around the race courses of Europe and the health spas of Florida while they ‘represented Ireland’ like a pair of ruddy-faced Saudi princes, that particular fiction is a little more difficult to maintain.

Now we know about the first class flights; the limousines waiting at airports and race tracks; the student nephews paid e16.66 an hour to sort through post.

Now we know about the extent of the unvouched untaxed expenses enjoyed by Ministers; we know that one fifth of Oireachtas members employs a close relative on a salary of up to e45,000 courtesy of the taxpayer gravy train, and that one in three has another source of income.

Now, it’s probably safe to assume that the question keeping the voters up at night is not so much ‘who do these journalists think they are?’, but ‘who the hell do these politicians think they are?’

They are already amongst the best paid in Europe. Taking advantage of the raft of additional generous expenses open to them would be a full-time job in itself; then again, they’d probably just employ a family member to do so for them.

It was during Bertie Ahern’s first year as Taoiseach in 1998 that his finance minister Charlie McCreevy introduced legislative changes that allowed TDs to routinely ‘review’ (read: ‘increase’) the expenses they award themselves.

The politicians had been given a round-the-world ticket in the first class carriage of the gravy train, handed a ladle and told to help themselves. And help themselves they certainly have.

On top of their basic salary of over e100,000, they can claim subsistence; overnight allowances; mileage, if they live more than 15 miles from Leinster House; free parking; hotel allowances; constituency travel allowances; a secretarial allowance; an allowance to set up their office; an allowance to maintain their office; a contribution to their electricity bill; contributions to the cost of owning, insuring and maintaining a mobile phone, and a ‘walking around allowance’ – money just to reimburse them for their very existence.

More than a decade later, TDs routinely claim e60,000; it is not unheard of for a TD to claim up to e90,000 in expenses – almost doubling their salary.

Ministers, meanwhile, now get a e202,000 basic salary, on top of other generous perks like a state car and driver, a ‘dual abode allowance’ and a ‘walking around allowance’ of almost e14,000.

This is the culture which allowed John O’Donoghue to jet off around Europe in the company of his wife Kate Ann, hopping into and out of limousines like they were a pair of his favourite slippers.

And yet, when the revelations about his expenses first emerged – the e500,000 racked up as Minister for Arts Sports and Tourism, including e472 for a limousine to take him from one Heathrow terminal to another; the e250 water taxi in Venice; the e20,000 bill footed by Horse Racing Ireland that wasn’t even covered by expenses; the staff of ten he employs as Ceann Comhairle, including a ‘special adviser’ who is paid the equivalent of a TD - even Opposition politicians were surprisingly mute on the subject.

Then again, they weren’t exactly lining up with motions of no confidence when McCreevy introduced changes to the expenses system.

In the political climate which prevails after twelve years of uninterrupted Fianna Fail government, measures such as the abolition of the system of unvouched expenses won’t go nearly far enough.

The disdain which routinely greets calls for accountability is a measure of just how deep-rooted the culture of entitlement runs within that party.

The now-retired Taoiseach can afford not to mince his words when it comes to expressing his views on journalists pressing politicians on the issue of their finances: “Who do these people in the media think they are?”

It’s probably safe to bet these views are shared by many in his party. I know of one senior politician who feels so cushioned from public opinion that he is emphatic that he never reads anything that is written about him.

We don’t need just to change our political culture. We need to change our politicians.

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