ZapponeGate: Why are we paying so much for special advisors?

One of the most baffling things about the Katherine Zappone cock-up (let’s call it what it is) is that it ever got this far. Politicians spend millions of our euros every year on a veritable army of special advisors, many of them ex-journalists, precisely so that they can be advised how to avoid banana skins like this.

You do not have to be a genius to figure out the danger areas in Irish politics. The public will always get far more annoyed, and upset, over the small things than the big. Waste a billion euro on a children’s hospital, and the public will be upset, but they won’t be viscerally angry. That is because most of us cannot really comprehend a billion euros. We say we can, but really, we cannot. We just know a large sum has been wasted.

No, we reserve our real anger for the small things: Expenses. Salaries. Little deals behind closed doors. The idea, in short, that someone is getting something that we are not, and at our expense. The Zappone story is the perfect example of the kind of thing that drives the Irish electorate bananas, in many ways precisely because it was so small. When some fool FG backbencher goes on television to say it’s “only” fifteen grand, we lose our cool altogether. Objectively, of course, Deputy Higgins was right: €15k is not going to bankrupt the nation. But politically she might as well have said that her constituents were little people who were so impoverished that they were getting worked up about nothing.

These are the kinds of things that political advisors are supposed to sniff out, and stop. Ideally, Simon Coveney’s well paid advisors (led by ex-Newstalk presenter Chris O’Donoghue) should have been able to tell him straight away that appointing Zappone was a terrible idea. Certainly, once the controversy broke, the Government’s advisors should have been screaming “danger”. Where were they?

After the last election, the Government went on a high-profile recruiting spree, plucking journalists from the media left, right, and centre, and installing them in Government departments for the purpose of keeping Ministers out of trouble. These positions are much better paid than Zappone was going to be: The very lowest rank of advisor gets about €75k, and most of them are on six figures. And yet, to watch this Government operate, one would be forgiven for thinking that they had no advisors at all.

A fool could have seen, from day one, that this appointment was trouble. The Government, it seems, cannot even muster a fool from its own ranks, or at least not one that they will listen to.

The problem, for what it’s worth, and from my view only, is that the Government does not quite understand what advisors are for. It hires advisors who can tell them how to get on well with the media, and how to get good coverage in the newspapers. But that is not, and never has been, the same as telling them how to relate to, and understand, the public.

The fact is that most journalists quite like Katherine Zappone. She is one of the good people, after all: A secular saint who campaigned for marriage equality, and a more liberal Ireland. She is reputedly nice in person. Throughout this scandal, the media were at pains to point out that she was “qualified” for the job for which she was nominated, which was, at the very best, a dubious claim. Many in the media, like politicians, see €15k jobs as no big deal, and political appointments as routine. The nature of Irish politics and media is so incestuous that the advisors and the journalists, coming from the same class, sometimes fail to see the world outside their own little bubble. That is what happened, be in no doubt, in this case.

It is bad enough that we are spending all this money on special advisors. It becomes a little bit harder to take when it is patently obvious that these advisors can’t even give the obvious advice: That this appointment should never have happened, and that the Taoiseach should have pulled it on day one. If you and I, and everyone else in the country can see that, why can’t the people paid six figures to advise the Government?

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