We need ministers to lead – and not just act the part

Varadkar Murphy

During the week the Financial Times was speculating about who the EPP group of EU centre right parties, which includes Fine Gael, might consider putting forward to succeed the outgoing EU Commission President, Jean- Claude Juncker.

Much to the delight of the Taoiseach and his entourage, Leo Varadkar’s name and, more importantly for them, his photograph featured prominently in the story. Their rapture was short lived however, as the accompanying text was hardly flattering.

The attraction of the Taoiseach, according to the folks in the FT, lay not so much in his own abilities and skills, neither of which they rated too highly, but in his image and what he appears to represent: youth, modernity and energy.

One can understand why some EPP leaders might like the idea of following a famously sociable, veteran insider with a more sober and neophyte outsider, but they also know that there is more to the job than spin and hype.

They have sat alongside Varadkar and his ministers at European Council meetings long enough to discover what we here have known for year, namely that this Government is made up of folks who know everything about political spin and precious little about political action.

The phrase “in office, but not in power” could have been coined to describe the current crop of ministers.

Though years into the best-resourced, though unaccredited, on-the-job training scheme in the country, this crew still haven’t the vaguest understanding of their roles and responsibility.

They think governing means making announcements. The bigger the announcement, the more expensive the launch video, the bigger the impact it will have – or so they reason. They measure political success in retweets and likes, not in outcomes.

They imagine their policies must be working because the press releases and social media posts churned out by the Fine Gael press office tell them they are.

And who wouldn’t want to live in the imaginary spin-land described in Fine Gael press releases?

It is idyllic. In Fine Gael spin-land there are no consequences to lengthening hospital waiting lists or cutting services. Its leaders can blissfully ignore the increasing number of families living in emergency accommodation. The same is true with huge cost overruns on major public projects, while soldiers in the army of Fine Gael spin-land happily hand money back to the State because they are so well looked after.

It is a magical land which Fine Gael ministers and TDs can summon up by simply clicking their heels three times and keep telling themselves, “there’s no place like here”.

It works, just as long as they don’t have to face any flesh and blood voters in the real world where they live.

Take Ministers Murphy and Harris. Daily they enter the ministerial suites in their respective departments and sit themselves down at their Fisher-Price my first government department playset and imagine that all those lovely multi-coloured dials, buttons, flashing lights and buzzers are connected to the real world.

But they are not, so every day we see ministers making announcements and pronouncements that bear no relationship to what is happening out here in the real world.

If all it took to sort out the growing crises in healthcare and housing was to make a big announcement, then even these ministers would have managed to do it by now. But it takes more than that – a lot more.

You need to fully grasp that there is a problem. You need to face up to the depth and extent of the problem and then work ceaselessly on creating the conditions within government that change attitudes that result in real transformations.

Ministers have to do more than just pull levers that are not attached to anything – they need to put the resources and supports in place around the agencies and bodies whose job it is to implement that change.

It isn’t enough to act like you are in charge: you must take charge and that means making decisions that have consequences.

Most of these are of the 51/49 variety. By definition, it is the tough decisions that make it to your desk – the easier 80:20 ones are sorted out further down the line.

Only after you have done all of that should you devote any time on setting up the photo-ops and launches.

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