Populist politics – An age old legacy

An article by Cliff Taylor in the The Irish times advocating a neutral budget for 2015 has caused … well, absolutely no reaction whatsoever, partly because he wrote the same article this time last year. It does however raise a few interesting points that bear consideration. He argued for what would be a classic case of fiscal conservatism. In normal circumstances I wouldn’t advocate this if not for the pain that the country has had to suffer over the past seven years or. Taylor is essentially proposing that we maintain some sense and aim for a neutral budget and further reduce our deficit before we go ahead and repeat the mistakes of the Celtic Tiger once again. By doing this we could also reduce our deficit to the lowest it has been in two decades and demonstrate to the markets that we are not at the mercy of their ratings. Are we going to try spend our way into another massive boom, only to fall so shamefully to our knees once again?

As we approach the centenary of the foundation of the Irish Free State, we can look back at a century of extreme boom and bust cycles. While this is typical of capitalism across the globe, the Irish experience tends to be all the more severe, which in turn makes the planned budget from October seems all the more foolish. Given that last year’s budget was boosted to the tune of €1bn and that the current government plans an even bigger giveaway this year of €1.5bn (split evenly between spending and tax cuts), the total adjustment stands at €2.5bn. The question must be asked – are we €2.5bn better off than we were in 2013 or 2014? In the grand scheme of things €2.5bn is not a massive amount of money when you are discussing a national budget, however the ways in which it is rumoured to be spent is indicative of a government who sees only the looming light of a general election on the horizon.

Those first in line to benefit from Fine Gael’s incredibly transparent election strategy budget are the most middle class, easily swayed, middle age group in all the land – the public sector. You have to give credit where its due : FG know where the votes will lie next year and what groups can be swayed easily. If the rumours are to be believed each public service employee will benefit to the tune of €2,000 (totalling an actual cost to the exchequer of €350m), with veiled promises of more to come particularly for those earning above €65,000.

A number of unions have been critical of the deal, particularly the Irish Medical Organisation. They feel it does little to help the plight of our junior doctors which they see as being much more to do with working conditions than pay. Given that they are at the mercy of the behemoth that is the HSE for this one I don’t see a change any time soon as for all his good intentions Leo Varadkar seems – much  like his predecessors before him – to be getting swallowed by the burden that is being Minister for Health. Industrial Relations Director of the IMO, Stephen Tweed illustrated this: ‘Over the past number of years doctors have been working in an environment of illegal working hours, unsafe conditions and reduced resources to treat patients.’ This begs the question – what return is the taxpayer getting for this €2,000 investment?

There have been vague utterances about extensions of the Haddington Road agreement and insuring industrial peace, however this should not be an issue. What is needed is for someone to assume control of the public sector and manage it for what it is: an under-performing necessity. For too long they have been afforded the comforts that come with the position. A job for life, public service pension, increments, a more than generous holiday entitlement, immunity from unemployment to name but a few. They have been pandered to and placated simply because they are an important voting bloc and to go against their wishes would be akin to declaring Fascist views for your political career.

In the current political establishment, do you believe that there is anyone who is capable of doing this and managing our countries finances responsibly?

Fianna Fail, having managed the economy pre-crash about as responsibly as the captain of the Costa Concordia,

Fianna Fail leader, Michael Martin

faith in them might be hard to find. I believe that Fianna Fail will make a comeback but I think that 2016 will be too soon for them. I think the aim of the the next five years for them will have to be to go back to grass roots level, drum up support and find viable new candidates who are not tainted by the past rather than dragging up the old guard. If they can provide a stronger version of opposition to the next government than they have to this one then traditional voters may remember some of the better times that were had under Bertie’s leadership, conveniently forgetting that the whole boom was built with quicksand at the foundations.

Sinn Fein are currently enjoying the strongest polling performance in the history of the party, have some of the most high profile and outspoken candidates in the Dail (Pearse Doherty and Mary Lou McDonald to name two), and are masters at drumming up youth support. They are also masters however at masking their glaring faults. Taking away the chequered history of the party and a number of its members, Deputy Adams in particular, the lack of a coherent economic policy is the biggest problem most informed voters have with the party. The philosophy adopted by the party of supporting anything that is in any way populist has led to a massive rise in the polls but one look at the policies adopted by the ‘All Ireland Party’ north of the border will demonstrate that this mantra does not fit.

Labour as it stands are about to suffer a Green Party style meltdown. In the last election delivered a higher return than I think Eamon Gilmore even imagined was possible but the policies quickly shifted once they singed up to the current coalition and the bark of ‘Labours way or Frankfurt’s way‘ was forgotten and it became more about Fine Gael’s five point plan with a few pleading adjustments. While there was little that Labour could do about the economic situation they found themselves in, they could have done so much more to inspire the confidence of the people. They had the opportunity to lead the way and pioneer improvements in government and judicial structures. The change of leadership nearly twelve months ago has done little for them in terms of public opinion so it looks like they are to spend a term or two on the scrapheap. Given the broken promises of the last election it is hard to say this is unjustified.

Renua leader, Lucinda Creighton

Renua is the new kid on the block, formed by those who were expelled from their parties for expressing opinions seen as regressive,  and against adjustments that were needed to bring Ireland to the 21st century. Lucinda Creighton is undoubtedly a very capable politician, but her views of the world are antiquated and she would fit in better with the founders of Cumann na nGael than she would in modern Ireland. As of now they have no coherent strategy or policies which is reflected in the polls. Lucy might maintain dreams of being the King-maker in the next election but I think the idea of anyone reaching out to Renua for support in that situation will be a last resort.

Independents are possibly the biggest loss to the Irish electorate as the current establishment stands. As it stands they become one of three things. The first of these is much lampooned caricatures like Mick Wallace and his pink shirts who shout loud and often but nobody really pays attention. The second is those like Shane Ross, who do good work in the background but ultimately are limited in their impact due to the fact that they are outnumbered by the parties around them. The third of these is akin to the Healy-Raes (Michael and his father before him) who are more concerned with pot holes in their constituency than the matters of the national Parliament. Independents should, and I stress should, be vocal in opposition on both a local and more importantly a national level. There are not many out there who are fulfilling this purpose at the moment.

As things stand it is hard to imagine an outcome where Fine Gael do not end up back in power, perhaps without any whining voice like Labour in the background. Blueshirt or not it is hard to deny that FG have done a decentjob and have been a relatively steady hand when it comes to the economy, the latest actions are something that would be more expected from Bertie’s regime than that of Enda Kenny. The question must be asked as to whether it is possible to win an election today without resorting to some form of short term gain for the electorate. The tangible effects of the recent economic growth, fuelled by low interest rates, are yet to be felt in the pocket of the regular public (both public and private) and the strategy of FG is to accelerate the effects so that they can benefit at the polls. The major issue with this is that the recovery – while going well at the moment – is far from complete. Given that we are currently at the mercy of so many factors (The ECB, the global economy, the markets, the fate of the Euro, a potential Brexit), Enda would be better advised to be more prudent with our finances and guard the economy against a negative outcome to any of the above. But how many seats would this leave them with come election time?


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