On the long and growing list of abandoned promises made by Fine Gael and Labour the promise to reform politics has a prominent place. This is a government which promised a ‘democratic revolution’ but has worked to deny even basic accountability of Ministers to Dáil Éireann.This debate is further example of a persistent trend to marginalise the Dáil. It was promised as a detailed discussion of a specific programme of priorities, with the government pledging to listen and take on board suggestions. When announced it was hailed by the Taoiseach and the Chief Whip as a huge innovation. Instead what we have got is an empty and cynical vehicle for self-congratulatory speeches.
This is a fitting way of marking the third anniversary of a government which is deeply obsessed with trying to spin everything. The difference between the rhetoric and the reality is growing all the time.
We are being asked to debate priorities which have not been set out and circulated. There is discussion about what the priorities might be – they are to be whatever the government has already decided.
Between now and Thursday evening the only vote before the House will be Fianna Fáil’s legislation to protect mortgage holders. This will be voted down by the government with no real engagement with the issue being raised.
On Friday two non-government TDs will propose legislation which will be rejected by Ministers in pre-prepared speeches. The government will add this week to the list of meetings of the Dáil and declare that in year three of the Democraic Revolution we are doing more work than ever.
This debate is a transparent political sham. Nothing will change because of anything said here over the next three days. This sort of so-called debate goes a long way to explain why this government has been so unpopular for so long. While the Taoiseach and his ministers were busy telling journalists at the weekend that they are unpopular because of taking tough decisions – the undeniable fact is they became unpopular well before they took any real decisions, let alone tough ones.
This is a government which waited over 2 ½ years before it published any economic plans. Its defining policy has been to follow events and jump on things which it might be able to claim credit for. How else can you explain a government which claims credit for budget changes it voted against and interest rate reductions it didn’t ask for?
The Taoiseach said at the weekend and again today that creating jobs is the absolute priority. No one can disagree with this. What we can do though is to disagree with the government’s spin about what is happening in the jobs market.
In recent weeks the Taoiseach has said the government intends to “deliver 100,000 jobs”. According to speech after speech at Fine Gael’s conference employment growth in the economy is down purely to the government. This is both deeply cynical and wrong.
The growth in employment has nothing whatsoever to do with government employment policy – in fact all of the evidence is that government policy has continued to be a drag on employment.
You do not create jobs when you take millions out of pension funds which invest in Irish businesses. You do not create jobs when you cut local enterprise supports. You do not create jobs when you miss every single growth target you set in government.
The economy today is over €5 billion smaller than predicted in the first Fine Gael/Labour budget. The government has never introduced a measure to which it has attached a specific jobs target. In this context, claims to be “delivering” on jobs are clearly untrue.
Government is not creating jobs – businesses are creating jobs using the underlying strengths of the Irish people and an upturn in international growth. Government is a by-stander, focusing on public relations rather than having an impact.
The Action Plan for Jobs 2014 which both the Taoiseach and Tánaiste have mentioned again today is the perfect example of a strategy all about claiming credit for job creation rather than actually creating jobs.
Just like its two predecessors, this year’s ‘Jobs Action Plan’ is primarily made up of actions which will either have a marginal impact or were happening anyway. In some cases they go much further and are crudely cynical.
The best example of this is the proposal to establish 31 “new” local enterprise offices. What the government has actually done is to close every County Enterprise Board and cut the funding for local enterprise support. It will rearrange offices and then go on a spree of opening them. Every one of those openings will be a sham. A cut in local enterprise services will be celebrated as an increase: a tactic which would not be out of place in George Orwell’s 1984.
This is not the first time we’ve seen such cynicism – it every year’s Action Plan – for example last year we were told that 7 ‘new and world-class’ research centres were being created. What wasn’t said was that each of the centres had already existed for between five and ten years – and many other centres which operated at a world-class level were being closed to provide the extra funding for them.
There is a wider and more strategic problem with this effort to sell a message of a government delivering a huge boost to employment – it fails to acknowledge the deep strengths which the economy already had in place. It puts short-term politics ahead of a long-term message for the country. This is not a good message for Ireland.
We can see this strategy at work in the government’s reaction to the IDA’s results last year. It was another good year for the IDA. Implementing a strategy devised over the long-term, the IDA has focused on key industries and key types of employment. As it pointed out in its own press release, it was the fifth year in a row that the IDA had delivered a net positive result. Even in the worst part of the recession inward investment remained strong and most new projects are with firms we have had a long-term engagement with.
In contrast the government’s press release on exactly the same figures ignored this strength and tried to claim that all progress was new and directly linked to ministers.
If the Action Plan for Jobs represents the government’s major priority then this will be a problem for it. When you take the time to look behind the presentation you find some very interesting detail.
In one action it is proposed to arrange research which, ministers hope, will “establish links where possible between actions in the Action Plan” and outcomes. So in other words, while ministers are already claiming to be delivering jobs, their own document says they don’t know if they are delivering jobs.
In order to make jobs a real priority the government should adopt a new approach to key issues.
Firstly it needs to recognise that we are seeing a two-tiered recovery. Where there has been a priority by the state over many years to invest in skills and attract investment job growth has been high and the levels of pay have been high. However in many other areas employment growth has been weak and conditions have been poor. The two largest elements in the employment figures are part-time work and Solas training places. We shouldn’t settle for this.
The government needs to push the financial system to return to proper levels of support for business. Credit is far too tight. The state-funded balances of the banks are sufficient to enable a return to levels of lending which can allow more businesses to survive and grow. Domestic demand will not recover until lending returns and government should move from its position of leaving it to the banks and settling for weak targets.
It also needs to get serious about the large overhang of mortgage and family debt that is imposing a huge social and economic burden throughout the country.
My party has produced a succession of bills and policy positions to tackle the problem – and each one has been voted down by the government in favour of its gradualist “leave it to the banks” approach. It is this week again refusing to give statutory protection to mortgage holders to prevent state-own debt being sold to non-regulated companies.
For the last three years the government has claimed that it is prioritising the needs of people with mortgage and household debt problems, but it has stood by as the problem has deepened.
For jobs and the economy, as well as for fundamental social reasons, a more aggressive approach to tackling mortgage and household debt should be, but is not, a priority for the government.
This is the fourth month in a row when the government has been giving “exclusive” comments to journalists about how cutting tax this year is a priority. Labour and Fine Gael have even started attacking each other about whose idea it is to cut taxes.
It’s time now for the government to stop the media campaign and start explaining what it is considering. We have been promised an open budgetary process, with genuine debate, so let’s start with the promised priority for tax cuts.
Families are feeling the pressure on their disposable income and the government’s claim to have left this alone is completely untrue. This year the property tax has been doubled and a range of other service cuts and charge increases have also impacted on disposable income. The campaign to withdraw discretionary medical cards is directly targeted against the ‘squeezed middle’. Families with children with autism or other disabilities are particularly aggrieved .Jack and Jill Foundation supports this claim, they try to help parents with the most ill babies and children in the state and they are appalled at how medical cards have been withdrawn from such families.
Water charges are on the way, we don’t know exactly when people will be told the charges that are going to be imposed on them but from January 1st next year next year families will have extra bills .They will also be facing a compulsory health insurance charge if the government introduces universal health insurance.
Because it is now the government’s key tactic to give a small bit back on order to cover up what it is taking away, if you genuinely want to help the squeezed middle then you have to set out all of the changes to charges and taxes you are proposing.
Every independent study of the government’s fiscal policy has confirmed that the advent of Fine Gael and Labour in government has marked a significantly more regressive approach to revenue raising. The one consistent element of the government’s policy is that the ability to pay is not considered. You may find some people gullible enough to listen to your promise of tax relief – but the general public will not be fooled.
The medium-term economic plan launched in December contained less detail than any recent multi-annual framework. It was written in a way to maximise political claims and minimise detail.
Instead of continuing the current campaign of trying to get soft stories about tax cuts, show us what spending cuts and revenue increases you are proposing in order to fund them.
Show us the true cost of water charges, of compulsory health insurance and of property taxes. If you keep refusing to do this – if you keep talking about tax cuts but show no details – then people will be justified in seeing this as being more about the government’s fortunes than the interests of ‘the squeezed middle’.
Over the last month the internal cabinet debate about compulsory health insurance has been fought out in a series of unattributed leaks as well as a public fight-back by Minister Reilly. In a signed article he claimed that his new system would cost less, deliver more and be the end of any problems.
The Taoiseach reiterated these claims at the weekend. However it appears that there is no basis whatsoever to any of these claims. Without producing costs, without producing details of services to be covered and without producing details of premiums to be charged it is dishonest to make any claims about the new system.
Compulsory health insurance has been the policy of both government parties for over ten years, yet they expect us to believe that they still don’t how it would work. One thing that appears settled is that the Fine Gael preference to have the system controlled by for-profit insurers has prevailed.
The Department of Public Expenditure has already estimated that the average cost of a policy under UHI will be €1600.
Labour’s plans specified that the insurance companies would be state-owned and not for profit – which is the predominant model elsewhere. How Labour can stand over this defeat on a core ideological principle is yet to be explained.
The government’s priority for Health during the next year is to keep moving forward towards Minister Reilly’s new system. If this happens further chaos is inevitable.
The HSE Service Plan which was censored by cabinet cannot be delivered on current funding. This has been confirmed by the HSE’s Chief Executive. Throughout the country patients are seeing the impact in curtailed services.
In order to cover this up, the government has fixed the figures. It has changed the way waiting lists are compiled to adopt a much easier target and it has redefined what is meant by admitting a patient. It has reduced nursing and medical cover for each patient on the wards – and there is a ramp-up in the programme of shutting services which the Taoiseach personally promised to keep open.
The introduction of free GP care for under-6’s is a stated priority for this year. The implementation and cost of this promise is becoming less clear by the day. Assuming that it is actually able to be implemented, it appears that ‘free’ is now to be defined as ‘with a charge’. We have another scheme which does not do what is promised and which are to be funded by cutting other badly needed services.
The priority for health in the next year should have been an honest approach to mounting problems. Instead it is more spin and denial – while pushing forward with damaging and costly changes which will ultimately lead to an open-ended health tax.
It is being said that a genuine consultation process will be run. A genuine consultation process would include the possibility of listening to people and abandoning an ill-thought out, privatised and costly change.
During the coming year the full operation of Irish Water will come closer, as will the introduction of charges.
Irish Water has made a submission for how much it wants to charge. Because there has been no commensurate reduction in other taxes, these charges will be an additional tax. Larger families are likely to feel the hardest hit from the water charges.
The government has ensured that the final figures for the new charges will not come out until after the local elections. If it is genuinely convinced that its new agency is a good thing then it should immediately publish the submission of Irish Water concerning its desired charges. Only this will show people the full agenda and impact of this scheme.
It is disappointing that restoring confidence in the administration of justice by this government is not a priority for the year. At the weekend the Taoiseach fully supported the move to not only back Minister Shatter but to applaud his behaviour.
In spite of the fact that it has been necessary to establish three reviews of actions under Minister Shatter; in spite of the fact that he has used confidential information received from the Garda Commissioner to slur an opponent; in spite of the fact that he has shown no interest in how another deputy was targeted through leaks or how GSOC investigations have been ignored or hindered, the Taoiseach decided that party loyalty is more important to him.
This does not auger well for how the government will handle the independent reviews when they are delivered. In fact it suggests that no matter what he does, Minister Shatter’s past loyalty to the Taoiseach is more important than any of his behaviour as Minister for Justice.
Because Minister Shatter is allowed to operate independent of Cabinet or Oireachtas oversight, the legal priority for the year ahead is to be his scheme of changes to the legal profession. This is not reform. It has at its heart changes which no one is asking for and which will bring no benefit. Not one piece of research has been produced to support the claims of reduced costs – while the conclusive evidence shows that access to the top legal talent will be more restricted and elitist. Once again, Labour is silent on a deeply regressive measure.
Over the last three years the government’s neglect of issues concerning Northern Ireland has become more and more obvious. The government is not to blame for recent problems, but it has chosen to take the role of by-stander rather than active participant. Leaving the peace process in the hands of two parties who are focused on their partisan interests has failed.
Levels of trust are falling and, worst of all; opportunities for growth and reconciliation are being missed.
If the government is sincere about Northern Ireland it will give a priority this year to reengaging on all issues. It will say to the Cameron administration that it must fulfil its commitments about the past, particularly in relation to the Finucane case and the Dublin/Monaghan bombings.
It will also stop focusing on holding formal meetings and start developing concrete proposals for new North/South activity. Funding the Narrow Water Bridge should be an immediate priority.
European policies played a central role in Ireland’s economic crisis. We have not yet received full justice for our case. Having declared victory on at least three occasions in the last two years, it’s time for the government to be open and honest in stated what it is seeking on relief of bank-related debt and other issues.
This week in the Dáil, three days have been allocated to debating a set of government priorities which have not been set out. All we have before us is a set of political set-piece speeches driven by public relations rather than public policy.
The real priority for this year should be an end to the strategy of putting spin first, a real engagement with the social and economic pressures facing people and an acceptance that policy must change of we are to tackle the two-tiered recovery which is underway. Unfortunately, nothing which has been said by either the Taoiseach or Tánaiste suggests that they understand this.