A sure way of repeating the mistakes of the past


Pat Leahy, Deputy-Editor and Political Editor, Sunday Business Post

Today I will argue that the central failure of politics and governance in our country has been a failure to articulate what the public interest is, how to defend it and how we should promote it. I think we have allowed a politics to evolve in which the public interest – or the national interest, if you like – ranks far down the list of politicians and policymakers’ priorities – behind expediency, electoral advantage, short-term popularity and the wishes of vocal special interest groups. And when the national interest comes last, good government goes out the window.

So, let us look first at the inadequacy or otherwise of our governance. I will look at the recent inadequacy of our government in the period before the crash and its response to it momentarily.  But first, it might be only fair if we mention a few things that often get lost in the shout-fest of much political debate and in the midst of our well-established tendency to think of ourselves as uniquely disadvantaged. I offer these facts without comment, except to say that they contradict the suggestions that we either live in a banana republic, that our republic is a failed state, or that our politicians are uniquely crooked, useless, mad or bad. I don’t believe this to be the case. I believe we live in a country the politics of which does not serve us as well as it could.  I think we have only a limited perception of this and why that is, and are consequently squandering an opportunity to change this. I’ll talk about that a bit later but, for now, some facts about the adequacy of our governance.

* We live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, wealthier now than it was at the start of the boom and getting wealthier. How that wealth is distributed, augmented, taxed, etc of course, is properly a matter for political debate. But its existence is a fact and, by and large, it’s better to be a wealthy country than a poor one.

* We have a largely modern infrastructure. Yes, we need better broadband in parts of rural Ireland. Yes, there should be a motorway to Sligo and the North West. There should also be one between Cork and Limerick. But there has been a massive modernisation of our country in the last two and a half decades, partly from our own resources, partly with help from the EU. Now you can argue that we have hugely overpaid for it. Our system of public administration appears to be incapable of getting good value for money. But that is a slightly different point.

* Our educational standards are not world beating, but they are decent. More people than ever are educated to higher standards.

* The health of Ireland is in most respects good, and it is improving. Our health service is dysfunctional in some respects and chronically inefficient in others. There are some dreadful blackspots, including in many emergency departments. But life expectancy has risen impressively in recent decades. Irish people are living longer, healthier lives than they ever did.

* Overall, standards of living have improved pretty significantly here in the last two decades. If our political system gets a lot of blame for the failures of the state, it is entitled to some of the credit for its successes.

But our politics has clearly failed spectacularly too. And its most technicolour failure is the recent one with which we are all too familiar. There were two main aspects of the economic disaster of 2008-2010. The first was the collapse of the banking system, kept alive only by the transfer of tens of billions of euros of public funds into it to keep it alive. This was the result of suicidal behaviour by the banks that the state failed to oversee or regulate – not in the banks’ interests, but in the public interest. This failure to identify, describe and defend the public interest is perhaps the key failure of our system of governance. Ireland is not unique certainly in its failure to adequately regulate its banks. But the failure of our banks was uniquely destructive.   So why was our bank failure so damaging? Because of the second aspect of the economic disaster – the sudden implosion of the public finances, which resulted in the extreme austerity implemented by two governments to restore the stability in the public finances necessary for economic confidence and therefore economic growth.  And why were our public finances so brittle just before the crash?  Because taxes had been cut and spending increased over several years. This was done by the parties in power, of course. But it was criticised by those not in power for not being sufficiently generous.

Why? Why did our political system run this huge auction? Because nobody was concerned with the public interest – rather they were concerned in meeting what the public said it was interested in – lower taxes, higher spending, investment for their own constituencies, grants for our projects, pay increases for me.  And to hell with the national interest. Let someone else look after that.

Now we should be realistic; one does not expect politicians to retail misery. The offering of blood, sweat and tears is not one that voters have generally found appealing. But it is surely in our own interest to recognise that pretend politics and fantasy economics are not a recipe for reaching the sunlit uplands. In the past, the fundamental failing of our politics is that it has reflected only the special and sectional interest; there has been no constituency for the public interest, no hearing or reward for any politician saying to voters: we must discipline ourselves. We must provide for the future. We must tax sustainably and invest wisely. We must say no to some interest groups. If this is to change, it requires a change in mindset for the voting public, as much as it does for the political class elected by the public.

Despite my callow youth, I have had the honour of addressing this gathering on a number of occasions. I mean that. It is an honour. Invariably, the topics on which I have spoken have been related to one we now discuss. It is not only the jokes I have repeated. I have also asked the same question every time I have been here: if we had, or if Bertie Ahern had foreseen the economic crash and warned us in 2006 that it was coming, what would we have done? If he had gone before the electorate in 2007 with a manifesto that promised to restrict bank lending, introduce a property tax and increase income tax to create a financial buffer for the state, what would we have done? Would he have been fired as leader of Fianna Fáil before or after the general election defeat that would surely have resulted?

But let’s leave that old question aside and let me ask a new one? What will we do in the forthcoming election if a politician says that we need to maintain fiscal discipline, cancel tax cuts and welfare increases, close the budget deficit and pay down our loans?

Of course there are other models of prudent and sensible government. Perhaps they involve a wealth tax, or higher taxes on those who are better off. But whatever model you follow, or whatever balance you strike, we should beware politicians who tell us we can have whatever we want, with no sacrifice from anyone, with no inconvenience for anyone.

As the shock of the crash recedes, so the shock our politics experienced recedes too. Before it disappears completely, we should ask ourselves: is there a constituency out there for good government? For long term planning? For necessary reform even when entrenched interest groups resist it? For prudence, for self-discipline?

Or is there greater appetite than ever for the old politics of sectional advantage, of promising all things to all men, of ignoring the inconvenient fact of the world that our actions have consequences and unwise actions have unpleasant consequences?
Sometimes, for all the changes we have seen in our political landscape, I wonder if we have changed at a more profound level. The cataclysm of the recession and the reform mandated by the troika during the national trauma of the bailout has seen swingeing cuts and eye-watering tax hikes, to be sure. But the old system is at its work of restoring those.  We have left powerful vested interests in charge of their own fiefdoms.

* the legal profession has rebuffed efforts to reform its structures
* power of consultants still dominates the health system.
* civil and public service has emerged more or less intact. It is now about the business of restoring its own pay.

In fact, the central objective of economic policy appears to be “restoration” – of pay, social welfare, tax and spending. We are demanding, and the government is responding, a return to a situation that I thought everyone agreed was unsustainable. Go figure it out. And in many respects, the way we do politics has not changed. There is an undeniable appetite for change among many voters, but its electoral expression is likely to be dissipated among several groups rather than coming together to achieve critical mass.

Parties and candidates who say they are committed to change have not come together to form a force that would make this likely after the next election. They have not been successful in the difficult but essential political tasks of organising, compromising, deal-making, coalition building. The failure of an alternative force to come together may end up leaving the old politics in charge. And perhaps that’s what we really want. As the late Peter Mair said, we get the politics we deserve. And if that is happening, it’s not just a missed opportunity. It’s a sure way of repeating the mistakes of the past.


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