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Beware of contracting Government Jet Syndrome

One of the things that most people struggle with – regardless of their intelligence – is understanding large numbers. The difference, for example, between a million, and a billion. It’s not so much that we do not understand the technical difference – a billion is a thousand million – so much as we struggle to get our heads around the sheer scale of a billion euros. But how big is the difference in reality? Well, if you spent a million euros in a year, that would work out at spending about €4,000 per day. If you spent a billion euros in a year, that would work out at spending about 4 million euros in a day. Most of us can imagine spending 4,000 euros. Few of us can imagine spending 4 million euros.

Because of that, when it comes to politics, we tend to focus on the numbers we can personally relate to. And this is why politicians tend to come a cropper on the small things, rather than the big things. I call it “Government Jet Syndrome”.

Imagine, for a moment, a politician does two things wrong: On the one hand, he invests in a capital project one billion euros of taxpayers money, which is ultimately wasted. On the other hand, he flies the Government Jet, at a cost of eight thousand euros, to London, and takes his wife with him, on a shopping trip.

Which one, do we think, is more likely to provoke calls for his resignation, and hours of discussion on the Joe Duffy show?

I mention all of this in the context of Paschal Donohoe. On the one hand, the Minister for Public Expenditure, and erstwhile Minister for Finance, has sanctioned over the past decade untold billions of extra public expenditure on healthcare alone. In return for all that extra spending, the country has fewer hospital beds today than it did twenty years ago, and waiting lists are longer than ever. On health alone, his additional spending of ten billion euros represents an extra 27 million per day on healthcare.

On the other hand, seven years ago, he is alleged to have under-declared a campaign donation by an amount that, depending on who you believe, ranges from a few hundred euros to a few thousand euros.

It is this latter, fairly trivial, alleged offence for which he was dragged into the Oireachtas last night to answer. At the same time, Fine Gael is fighting back, alleging that Sinn Fein, in their election campaign, under-declared their spending by €7,000 in relation to an opinion poll that they commissioned. The Standards in Public Office Commission, presumably, is on the case.

I do not write here to argue that none of this is not important, in its own way: Politicians who make laws should, of course, be expected to abide by them. But at the same time, if you want to know why there’s so little accountability for the state of Irish public services, one need look no further than the widespread infection of Irish politics with Government Jet Syndrome.

When I tweeted something to this effect yesterday, I received a reply which I will repeat here, word for word: The 10 billion is meant to distract you from the corruption and I see it has worked.

Forgive me for saying this, but personally, I’d rather live in a country with a small bit of corruption, and competently delivered public services, rather than the other way around. Having one’s politicians be whiter than white is probably too much to expect – politicians tend to be ambitious human beings, after all. But having public money spent efficiently and with political accountability in return is not an unreasonable request.

As ever, voters must take their share of blame here: We do tend to get angrier about someone wearing a suit that cost five grand than we do about that same person being responsible for a project that over-spent by half a billion euros. And it is easier to rant and rave about vague corruption and people making out like bandits than it is to identify ways to improve the spending of public money. “They’re rotten, my guys are clean” is an easier message to sell than “they have failed to deliver proper accountability for the public servants answerable to them in their portfolio”.

This problem is probably unsolveable, for all the above reasons. But we should, I think, be aware of it. Paschal Donohoe has not done you or I any measurable harm in relation to his SIPO returns. Whether the same is true of his stewardship of the public finances is an entirely different question – just not one that any of us are sufficiently interested in to worry about.

And that’s part of the reason, I fear, that the health service – to cite just one example – is the way it is.

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