Taoiseach needs to act like a real leader on labour reforms


POLITICAL history suggests that Labour ministers usually don’t start to distance themselves from their government colleagues until the last few months of a government.

This is why their absence from the Dail chamber last Tuesday came as a bit of a surprise. It also suggests that while the Government may get to stay in the honeymoon suite for a bit longer, one of the partners is thinking of spending less time in the room just now.

The briefings against each other between Labour and Fine Gael ministers on the issue of JLC reform would all be deeply entertaining if the issue were not so serious.

It has also reached such a pitch that is almost possible to feel sorry for the Labour ministers. Almost.

They were the ones who valiantly defended the Government’s ill-conceived plan to raid pension funds to pay for the jobs initiative.

They are the ones who are girding themselves up to make further cuts in their own departments.

They are the ones who thought the minister would accept the Duffy Walsh report and thought the Taoiseach’s undermining of Richard Bruton’s proposals to go beyond it, calling it a “personal agenda”, was sufficient.

While it is increasingly clear that Bruton will not get to go as far beyond Duffy Walsh as he would like, the Labour ministers cannot claim the credit for his climbdown.

The political reality is that they took their eye off the ball at the start of this process. They both allowed Fine Gael to hold the Labour Affairs portfolio and allowed their junior minister to be placed so far away that they can’t influence the action.

The commitment on JLCs in the Programme for Government is so vague that both parties can claim to be pursuing it while they happily thrash each other. Having failed to act early, they are now playing catch-up. This seems to involve them stalling the process if their tactics last week are anything to go by.

The Taoiseach has stated that the matter is urgent and that the entire economy is depending on these changes. Indeed he confirmed this to me in the Dail last Wednesday.

What he was not able to confirm, however, was when the Government was planning to introduce legislation to implement JLC reforms. In fact, not only could he not suggest a date, he could not even say if ” . . . any legislation may or may not be necessary”.

If the Government is planning to just implement Duffy Walsh, as most people want, and address some of the outdated and defunct aspects of how JLCs operate, then there should be no big delay.

Over five weeks ago Bruton announced that the Government had “set out a time-limited programme for a Government decision to be taken and announced an action plan before the end of June 2011”.

This timetable appeared reasonable, especially in view of how specific and targeted the 19 Duffy Walsh recommendations were. It conducted its work efficiently and effectively. It was issued its terms of reference in early February and reported to the minister in April.

We have now passed the June deadline and still there is no agreement in sight, never mind an action plan. Instead we get spin, counter spin and uncertainty.

The last thing the people on the lowest wages in the sectors in which consumer spending is at its lowest need is more worry and uncertainty.

The tourists we are pleased to see visiting our shores now expect a certain level of service. One cannot expect workers to provide First World levels of service with Third World rates of pay.

The Taoiseach needs to stop parading like a leader for the cameras and start exercising some leadership to his ministers.

He simply must get the Cabinet to agree to the recommendations of the independent report on JLCs and then get on with implementing them.

There will be plenty of time in the last year of this government for this political backbiting and bickering. There always has been in the past.

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