WE NEED TO MAKE OUR POLITICS, NEW OR OLD, WORK BETTER
Pat Leahy, Political Editor, The Irish Times
This time last year I stood before you in the early days of new politics and we wondered what it would mean, if it would work, and how it would change our politics.
This year I propose to present an annual report on progress, to offer some thoughts for the future of new politics and, in the spirit of MacGill, suggest how it might be better directed to lead to better government for our country. 12 months ago, the novel arrangements of the 32nd Dáil were still bedding down, and everybody involved – government, opposition, media and public – was trying to get used to it. It’s fair to say that this took some time. Now some of the Independents took to Government like ducks to water. Finian McGrath in particular settled into the ministerial chair quicker than you could say “a new A and E for Beaumont Hospital” and quickly affected the air of a man who had been sitting at the cabinet table all his life.
Others – and I’m thinking of Shane Ross and John Halligan here – were deeply uncomfortable with being in power, with the compromises and responsibilities that this entails. On a couple of occasions during its early months, it was touch and go whether the new government would survive. In truth, it wasn’t until after the Budget that the government really achieved any coherence and common purpose. Budgets are often a cause of political division within coalition governments. But they can also
serve as a sort of bonding experience for governments, establishing a rapport between ministers and their officials and also around the cabinet table. Coming through a budget intact can often engender a sense of a shared endeavour, a common project that is bigger than their individual and political concerns. I think this happened last year.
And while this curious love triangle of Fine Gael, the independents and Fianna Fáil that is our government has certainly had its wobbles since then, it has achieved a sort of internal equilibrium and a modus vivendi that means its prospects for survival into the middle distance is, I think, reasonably good.
This moderate stability is enhanced by the judgements of the three parties to the arrangement about their own political interests.
The fate of Theresa May after calling an election that few people in the UK wanted, and which many people adjudged to be entirely driven by the narrow political interests of the Conservative Party, has been deeply instructive to many people in Leinster House. They believe that Irish voters might similarly punish anyone who was seen to be causing an election for opportunist political reasons.
As Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar circle each other carefully these past few weeks, this is uppermost in their thinking. Neither believes it is in their interests to break up. That may not be the basis for a happy or fulfilling relationship, but it does mean that they will remain together – for now.
A YEAR OF “NEW POLITICS”
So we have had just over a year of new politics. We will probably have another year at least of it. How should we judge its progress? I’ve always made the point that the essential point of the new politics was the lack of a Dáil majority for the government. The inability of the Government to get its way in parliament was the defining difference between this Dáil and its predecessors. From this simple fact of parliamentary arithmetic stems many of the features of new politics and the gripes that people have about it. It’s not quite that nobody’s in charge: but it’s something like that.
The lack of a majority meant a huge transfer of power from the Government to the Dáil. Last year when I spoke to you, I suggested that this would be the key test of new politics – how the Dáil responded to its new found power, how it chose to use it. If you’ll allow me the indulgence of quoting myself, last year I said that there was every danger that the new power of parliament would be used not for ensuring accountability from the government, for collaborative legislating, for true debate over the best courses of action for our country. But rather that it would be used for obstruction, for tactical political manoeuvring and for windy grandstanding. I think that this fear has come to pass to a large degree.
THE RECORD OF LEGISLATION IS THIN
In some respects the performance of the Dáil, especially in the power that it exerts over its own business and schedules, has improved. The capacity of the parliament to hold the government accountable for its actions has been strengthened – and sometimes it has been used.
It was, after all, the Dáil’s requirement that Enda Kenny and his ministers appear and answer questions on the treatment of Sergeant Maurice McCabe in February that pushed the then Taoiseach – or pushed his party to push him – to announce his intentions to step down.
But such events have been the exception rather than the rule. In general the Dáil has relished its new found power, but it hasn’t had much of an idea what it wants to do with it.
This is not just the fault of the Dáil, however. It is also the fault of the Government. It has failed to adjust to the simple fact that it cannot tell everyone what to do, opting instead to throw its hands in the air and ask: sure what can you do, rather than working out just what it is it actually can do, and going about securing parliamentary approval for that. It often appears happier to put off decisions than to make them. Its record of legislation is thin, to say the least of it. But looking at the amount of legislation passed is only part of the picture. To a certain extent, counting the number of the bills passed is the ‘never mind the quality feel the width’ argument. What legislation which is important for curing what ails us has been frustrated by the ‘new politics’?
IRELAND HAS A GOOD GOVERNANCE DEFICIT
Go back to first principles. There is overwhelming evidence that Ireland, although a successful country in terms of standards of living and national wealth and social progress and life expectancy, has a good governance deficit. It appears increasingly hard for major structural issues – like health and housing – to be overcome. We can’t plan for anything beyond the political and electoral cycle. The politicians of our governing centre crumble before Juncker’s dictum: we all know what has to be done, we just don’t know how to get re-elected afterwards.
This good governance deficit cannot be attributed to whether or not a government has a secure position in parliament. Lemass’s most dynamic government was a minority government – and the last government ended its term appearing essentially clueless about where to go from here when faced with the reality of emerging and urgent issues.
No, there are other things contributing to the good government deficit. What are they?
• A political culture which is localised and short-termist.
• An electoral system which encourages TDs to compete with one another to bring home the bacon to their locality.
• Voters which reinforce these failings by choosing to reward candidates and parties who pursue them most assiduously.
• A public service in which there is an astonishingly strong and enduring resistance to change and in which too many interest groups believe they have a right to work the way that suits them rather than in a way that suits the public.
(One example: school holidays. Why should we have much longer school holidays than other northern European countries? And could you imagine trying to change that?)
What else? A lack of a sense of ownership and participation in the state, which the great Peter Mair has written about, and which leaves us with a situation where even the highest earning public servants, hospital consultants, pay accountants tens of thousands of euros to help them avoid paying income tax, as The Sunday Business Post reported at the weekend. I could go on, but these are the things that must change if we are to have a better politics and a healthier public culture.
New politics has changed our politics but it hasn’t changed it enough or in the right ways.
WE NEED MORE HARD WORK ON POLICY AND STRATEGIC PLANNING
New politics itself is a term intended to be dismissive. It came into the world greeted by cynicism and it has few defenders. But we’re not really pining for the days of the Old Politics, either. The truth is we need a new politics. We need to make our politics, new or old, work better. We need a parliament which is more ‘workhorse’ than ‘show pony’ – doing the hard work on policy and spending less time on escalating demands for spending or exaggerating every passing problem. We need a government which embraces the idea of more active policy review and strategic planning. Where budgeting is reliable and realistic. We need elections where everyone gets scrutiny, and government formation predicated on a realistic plan for addressing the country’s problems, rather than a list of platitudes and a series of bribes for small parties and independents. Big things are coming. Big choices, hard choices with victims and losers – Economic choices about tax and services and investment and paying for a population whose older cohorts will become more expensive and whose younger ranks more needful. Choices about the north in the post-Brexit era and a changed demographic and political situation where the unionist majority is no longer a given.
About abortion, perhaps one of the only true cases of Irish exceptionalism. What do we want to do about it?
FACING NEW CHALLENGES AHEAD
This year’s theme as you’ll see behind me is Global Turbulence and Uncertainty: Ireland and Europe must prepare for a new era. As we heard yesterday, Ireland faces a dramatically changed security and defence environment, and questions about a much more uncertain and threatening world.
How will we respond: how integrated in European security and defence apparatus do we want to be – and is it necessary for us to be?
Do we need to dramatically increase our security and intelligence capabilities, and are we prepared for the costs that entails? Do we trust the gardaí to do it? And if not, how do we urgently reform the gardaí so that we do trust them with additional powers and capabilities? These choices and issues are not going to go away. Even if we are not interested in them, they are interested in us.
The economic outlook is both promising and threatening. While the economy continues to expand at a fair old clip, it is proving quite tricky to estimate the actual velocity of that clip. The public finances have made impressive progress and next year the government will not borrow to fund current spending growth. But we remain worryingly over-borrowed both as a state and at an individual level. That’s fine when things are hunky dory, but not when things turn bad.
Our tax system remains dangerously unbalanced and the calls for virtually unlimited extra spending dominate much of our public and political debate. The truth is the economic recovery has been impressive but uneven, swift but fragile.
The eternal questions of how and where to spend, and how and whom to tax will not go away. They will become harder and harder – the right thing to do will become less and less clear.
To answer them and to find the best solutions, we need a clearer focus on the need to practice good government.
BETTER POLITICS FROM ALL OF US
I think that will need a better politics from all of us. We have to get better at this stuff. Politicians, government and opposition. Voters. And the media. We have to get better at it too. Not every disagreement is a crisis. Some problems of public policy are simply not amenable to quick solutions. Houses are not built quickly. Context is important.
But also we should concentrate on what governments do, more than what they say. Short-term kicks to touch might be politically skilful, but they rarely contribute to the progress of good government. Governments are powerful but they allow themselves to be pushed around – by vested interests, by lobbyists, by their own short-term political needs. We need to highlight that too.
But let me say something else, because I see more and more commentary, especially online, about the failures of the media. I know this will sound like special pleading but it’s sometimes very hard to be a member of the mainstream media elite. There you are thinking you are just getting on with your liberal left, anti-catholic, pro- abortion, secularising left wing agenda when all of a sudden you discover that you are in fact part of a conservative neo-liberal conspiracy to promote and protect the interests of the capitalist elite. It’s very confusing, I can tell you.
WE WILL NOT BE BULLIED
In the wake of the Jobstown trial, I’ve no doubt that the struggle of the radical left parties and independents to define the coverage of politics in a way favourable to them will continue. That’s fair enough.
But I will say this. They or anybody else will not bully us into presenting their view of things as the truth. We will decide that ourselves. We will cover the politics and public life of our country as best and as fairly and as thoroughly as we can. No doubt we will get many things wrong. We should certainly listen to those who complain about us and decide if their complaints have merit and if they do we should act to rectify our failings.
But they will not bully us into being their propagandists. And I dare say that if you asked the establishment, they would say that the media have been much of a thorn in their side than the estimable and voluble representatives of the revolutionary left. Let me add one final thought.
A POINT OF OPPORTUNITY IN OUR POLITICS
The political change that has been wrought upon our system in the wake of the great economic crash will not abate; it will continue. It may accelerate.
This year has seen that change reach the very apex of political power in this country in the shape of the generational change in government. The Taoiseach is not yet 40; the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure – now the most powerful finance minister since the pomp of Charlie McCreevy – is in his early 40s.
They came of age during the boom and their political hinterland cannot fail to be marked by that. Their politics is shaped by a time after the hegemony of the old duopoly. Remember those old black and white ard fheis pictures – with everyone smoking Michael Noonan there with the comb-over and Enda looking like he had just made his communion – the world of Leo and Paschal is a different one to that. Their politics is less tribal – and more consumerist.
This generation inhabits a political and intellectual world that is far away from the tribal certainties of the old duopoly that bred politicians such as Kenny and Noonan. Kenny was elected before Varadkar was born. Noonan became a councillor in 1974.
But it’s not just the personnel, it’s the politics. The economic boom that defined the growing-up years of Varadkar and his tribe accelerated the de-anchoring of political allegiances. No longer was it possible to talk meaningfully of Fine Gael families or Fianna Fáil families.
The spirit of the age was consumerism; and that leaks into politics, because as in life, so in politics. The politics of the Varadkar-Donohoe generation is a version of consumer behaviour, as political identities take on the characteristics of consumer loyalty: conditional, shallow, constantly reviewed.
That’s one of the reasons why it is so demanding. Their generation buys goods online and sends them back when they don’t match the description. Varadkar is a student of and thinker about politics, but his peers are less interested and more transactional. They prioritise delivery of public services, a hard beat for any politician. Their expectations are framed by the market efficiencies that pervade their
Leo and the lads will certainly understand this because it is the animating force of much of their direct political experience. They are the generation of record incomes, long hours, unaffordable houses, excruciating childcare costs, crowded schools, crap pensions. And high expectations.
Those expectations cannot be met quickly. But they can be moderated and managed by a government and a political class that prioritises good government. We are at a point of opportunity in our politics. It would be an awful shame to waste it.