THE Greens are pushing hard for the abolition of state cars for Dublin-based ministers and the matter will form part of the cabinet's budget negotiations to save up to €5bn next year, the Sunday Tribune has learned.
There is growing support for a system of car pooling whereby ministers will be seen to "share some of the pain" on budget day. Last Monday's spectacle of chauffeur-driven state cars arriving at Farmleigh is privately acknowledged by government insiders to have been a symbolic disaster.
Meanwhile, it is also understood that the cabinet is considering a 'big bang' approach to the budget by announcing the four-year budgetary plan and budget 2011 on the same day or within days of each other in mid-November instead of 7 December.
"Politically there is a lot of merit and logic to the argument that the budget should be held on the same day or quickly after the four-year budget plan," one senior government source said.
"It is all dependent on how much detail the European Commission asks
the government to include in the four-year plan. If it is very detailed it may be possible for analysts to extrapolate what sort of measures will be in the December budget. And if that happens, the government TDs could find themselves under serious political pressure for the period between publication of the four-year plan and the budget."
Another government insider suggested that the government chief whip is "petrified of a backlash from backbenchers when the four-year plan is laid out in November. He is afraid that backbenchers will have to endure over three weeks of pressure between the four-year plan and the budget on 7 December."
Finance minister Brian Lenihan has been an advocate of the big bang approach in the past, whereby a series of significant announcements on the banks have been choreographed for the same day. The decision this time will depend on the logistics of finance officials being able to cope with the enormous workload.
A reduction in the number or use of state cars represents a miniscule saving in terms of the €15bn savings that have to be made over the next four years. However, a number of senior Green figures are pushing for changes, even symbolic ones.
Paul Gogarty told the Dáil last week: "We need to scrap the ministerial Mercs as soon as possible, reallocate the garda drivers back into working on the ground and create a pool of junior ministerial drivers.
"I acknowledge that ministers need to work while travelling and they cannot be driving. It is very difficult to work and drive. I suggest a pool of drivers to drive ministers in the ministers' own vehicles. This would send a message that we are not the elite. It appalled me to see ministers driving into Farmleigh in their Mercs as it sent out the wrong message... We need to show leadership and vision."
Junior minister Mary White has made similar calls and party leader John Gormley said, "We cannot and we will not tolerate the status quo. We need to see changes to ministerial transport, the salaries and expenses of deputies and senators and the working times and productivity of the Oireachtas."