Given the scale of current problems in vital areas such as hospital waiting lists, homelessness, non-functioning Northern institutions and Brexit it is regrettable that we have to spend valuable parliamentary time discussing government communications.
However there is no alternative because the Taoiseach’s approach to this issue is central to how he is running the government and to the government’s efforts to push media coverage away from more serious issues. We’ve had nine months of this behaviour and it’s time for it to end.
As we saw yet again this morning, this is a government which is absolutely obsessed with spinning everything. There is almost no issue where they will not try to pre-empt coverage by planting a soft, one-sided story in a newspaper.
They even sought to twist coverage of today’s debate by briefing about the likely outcome of the internal review – which of course the journalist was told shows that there is no real problem and there have simply been a few teething errors.
This wider problem of an obsession with trying to manage the media is something which we will have to come back to.
Even though this is a government with the weakest ever popular mandate, when compared with recent decades it is the government least likely to actually consult people before taking decisions.
It is also increasingly the most arrogant government in decades when it comes to attacking the right of others to question its actions. The petulance and aggression which are coming to define its approach to being challenged is there for even the most naïve to see.
Past governments of different makeups followed a far more open approach to briefings on matters such as Northern Ireland and Europe with parties which share the same basic approach. There is effectively no recent example of something being discussed in confidential briefings in advance of government spinning the media.
We have actually lost count of the number of occasions where we were informed through the media that we were apparently engaged in discussing matters such as future budgets even though no such discussions existed.
This morning another piece of political posturing about fiscal responsibility was briefed. Given that the Taoiseach spent nearly all of last year talking about the need for massive cuts to higher income tax, it proves that consistency is not something they are too concerned with.
This type of game-playing is corrosive and it’s long past time for Fine Gael to understand that this is catching up with them.
Within days of the announcement, also via an anonymous briefing, that the Taoiseach intended setting up a new unit we began raising questions about its role, scale and politicisation of basic public information. Since then the government has ignored legitimate questions and ploughed ahead regardless.
This unit is the personal project of the Taoiseach. He asked that it be established, he recommended its head, and he secured its budget.
In addition he has followed a policy of giving as little information as possible to the Dáil and his Department has tried to withhold basic information when sought through the Freedom of Information process.
The entire purpose of this Unit is political. It has been set up and given unprecedented staffing, resources and political access for the sole purpose of promoting the political message of the government.
While the clear abuse evident in the launch of the NDP has brought this controversy to a head, the reality is that all of the Unit’s work serves the same goal.
The squalid reality is that the government has sought to use public money to compromise the boundary between public information and propaganda and we have seen the squalid reality revealed of a minister sitting at her desk deciding how much money should be given to individual media outlets.
When you review the ever-changing justification for the Unit using the information withheld from the Dáil but obtained by Freedom of Information the truth is that every justification has been disproven.
It has been claimed that the Unit is about streamlining government communications and saving public money. The facts show that this is nonsense.
When the Taoiseach sought €5 million for this year’s Budget the Department of Finance asked that this be subject to other departments reducing their advertising budgets by this amount in order to prove the savings. The Taoiseach rejected this and insisted on the full extra Budget.
It has also been claimed that the public is confused because there are so many different public bodies advertising and that as single unified identity is required to address this. Again the documents released under Freedom of Information show a different picture.
There is no evidence whatsoever of the public having such a concern and there is no evidence supporting the aggressive branding of stories with a new Government of Ireland identity.
In fact, the research commissioned last December actually seeks information on whether the public is confused and what is understood as representing the government.
It has also been claimed that this Unit is required in order to provide public information. This is transparent nonsense because the Unit only provides information on the political priorities of government, only provides information which is positive and distances government from anything negative.
This is why you have a situation where the Government of Ireland advertises an increase in the minimum wage which was actually decided on by Low Pay Commission but the Department of Communications advertises a request that people pay their TV licenses.
It is also how you have the Unit cherry-picking official statistics to promote. In the nine months since its establishment the Unit has never once drawn attention to a statistic, fact or action which suggests there are any problems in our country.
Since the Unit was established homelessness is up by an astonishing 15% and today there are over 3,200 homeless children – but according to the government this is not something people want to know about.
A further claim for the Unit is that it’s really not that different from what everyone has been doing for years. So we are supposed to believe that we need a radical expansion in staffing and funding in order to do more of the same.
This is of course ridiculous. No one has previously attempted to direct all government resources into a relentless attempt to brand and sell a political narrative. No one has ever tried to take an approach once limited to rare initiatives and embed it in daily activity.
It has been claimed that the Unit is needed to move Ireland up the UN’s eGovernment rankings to the same level as the UK.
As part of this it is claimed that a single branding and unified web portal are simply international best practice. However, when you take the time to check, the reality is very different.
The UN’s eGovernment report shows that the biggest difference between us and the UK is actually the availability of broadband – and the government’s record on this is one of its signature failures.
There is no independent evidence supporting the idea that the UK’s approach is best practice or is appropriate to a country of Ireland’s size and governance structures.
And of course it has been claimed that there is no political agenda or inappropriate attempt to influence the media.
As we have said many times before, we support the idea of government supporting a strong and independent indigenous media at both local and national levels. What we strongly oppose is the idea of this being politicised through linking it to promoting a political agenda and with highly questionable procedures for allocating funding.
Documents reveal that the head of the Unit has met with the most senior personnel in the print and broadcast media. I accept that journalists have not been involved and have not been influenced by these discussions.
However, the fact is that privileged briefings have been given to some outlets and to some non-government individuals but no such briefings have been made available to the Oireachtas. In fact, the Taoiseach’s staff fought the release of information up to the level of the Information Commissioner.
It is a point of extreme concern that the documents reveal that allocations for advertising Creative Ireland, which is a priority of the Unit, were personally decided by a government minister.
And in relation to the accusation by the Taoiseach that we have been slandering people, he is the one who has led this from the beginning.
He is the one who has asked civil servants to promote political priorities with an unprecedented marketing campaign.
He is the one who has failed to be open with the Dáil.
He is the one who has calculated falsely that the hope of an advertising windfall would stop the story gaining traction in the media. He is the one who was happy to have the Unit promote a launch in his own constituency.
If government simply wants to improve the communication of non-political information then why did it refuse to consult? Why did it refuse to first ask the public what it wants to see advertised? Why did it withhold information from the Oireachtas? Why did it attack the reporting individual journalists when they exposed the politicisation of paid advertising? Why did it establish a review which excluded any independent input?
The simple reality is that this government does not respect the legitimate difference between political agendas and the public service agenda.
This Unit should never have been established the way it was and it should now be disbanded. If the government is confident in its argument then submit to an independent process.
This motion will most likely pass with a strong majority of this House. The issue then for the Taoiseach will be whether he is willing to respect the will of parliament or if he will carry on regardless.
The Taoiseach can show some basic humility and acknowledge that this Unit has been irredeemably compromised by the role he set it or he can try to tough it out.
If he chooses the later course he must remember that this House still has significant powers through committees and through its deciding role on Departmental estimates.
If he wants he can end this controversy immediately by respecting the majority decision.
If the Taoiseach is sincere in wanting to talk about substance rather than spin then he should close down his new marketing unit and devote the staffing and funding to tackling real issues.
Alternatively the Taoiseach can drag the controversy on. It is his choice.