The lack of trust felt between the governed and the governing is undeniable. In whatever way it is measured there is a deep and long-term disbelief by the public that the people they elect to public office will always act in the public interest.
This is true in relation to parties which hold or have held power – and is also true of those who like to present themselves as anti-establishment. It’s even more true in relation to the Northern Executive, where basic faith in the good intentions of parties continues to collapse.
This sense of cynicism towards the role and behaviour of politicians is so embedded that last year we had the deeply cynical spectacle of a government putting up thousands of posters calling for fewer politicians.
We’ve already moved beyond the Seanad referendum and it is now rarely commented on. This is a mistake because it actually proves that the public’s view of politics and politicians is far more complex and mature than is understood.
The polls said that 80% supported the abolition of the Seanad. Fine Gael is reported to have carried out extensive research over four years confirming the idea that there would be a stampede in favour of a cull of politicians.
Backed by their colleagues in Labour, as well as by Sinn Féin, many left-wing parties and a substantial part of the media, this was seen by many as a close-to unlosable proposal.
It was also a proposal which summed up what is wrong in how government works in this country. It should be a case study for the flaws of the current system and how the public is way ahead of the elite in understanding the need for reform to rebuild trust.
Having carried out its polls and focus groups the Government decided it didn’t need to consult with anyone about the reform of our national parliament.
The Constitutional Convention, established with the supposed purpose of public debate, was expressly denied the right to discuss it.
The amendment was finalised without debate and the passage through the Oireachtas was held at the last minute and guillotined.
There was no White Paper on reform and changes to Dáil procedures were produced in the dying days of the campaign rather than as part of a total package.
Comprehensive and independent costing of the proposal was not only not allowed, government refused to admit clearly false statements about costs.
Finally, there was the small matter of the head of government refusing to debate the proposal in a forum where he didn’t control the rules.
The now all-consuming and ever more corrosive dominance of spin meant that this referendum was promoted through empty slogans and exaggerations rather than a mature argument.
Ultimately the people could see that this was a proposal to make a grand gesture but leave the core structure of government in place. Worse than this it would have had the effect of further concentrating power in the hands of the executive.
Even offering fewer politicians and cheaper politics didn’t work because it missed the point – people may be cynical towards politics but they want a politics which works.
They want to engage with politics and politicians.
People want to trust those they elect to govern them – and they will respond to real reform.
Reform involves change – but not all change is reform.
This is the lesson which the Irish people have learned but which has not yet got home to the government.
As an aside, it is important to address the clearly false idea that the government is unpopular because it, to use its own favourite phrase, “took the tough decisions”.
A basic perusal of the facts shows that faith in the government collapsed well before it introduced its first budget. It is unpopular because people believe it has made bad and unfair decisions – and because before the election it made promises which it knew it would not keep.
To restore trust in politics we have to be willing to be genuinely radical in changing how public policy is developed and implemented in our country.
We have to end the situation where governing is essentially a closed-circle – where a large portion of elected representatives and the entire general public are shut-out of any meaningful debate or influence.
Today we have what is almost the exact opposite of a participative approach to governing.
We have to reform our system so that policy cannot be driven by an overwhelming obsession with public relations.
We must develop a politics which values expertise and independence.
We have to give the public and all of their representatives, a role in ensuring that policies are timely, well-founded and genuinely address the issues concerned.
Ultimately we have to develop a standard of debate and engagement which puts substance ahead of spin.
This is not a case of extolling the virtues of motherhood and apple-pie, it’s actually clear how to turn this into specific proposals which could be implemented quickly.
Fianna Fáil has published what is by far the most detailed and radical set of proposals to reform the working of government and the Oireachtas. These reforms aren’t the traditional agenda of believing that everything is about creating forums where you can look for your opponent’s scalp.
They propose a genuine restructuring of the balance of powers within the system and this involves holding the opposition to account just as must as the government.
Our proposals are not about how many hours the Dáil sits, but what it actually does when it sits and how to ensure that its work is both expert and independent.
The presence of a government majority in parliament should not give the government the right to control every element of policy development and evaluation.
As the Taoiseach revealed in recent months, his definition of an independent parliamentary inquiry is one where he knows in advance what the members will do.
Except in genuine emergencies, strict timetables and information requirements would ensure that every measure would be independently costed, its legal implications fully explored, the public consulted and a detailed policy-rationale set out.
The public outrage about the property tax and water charge was heightened by a policy process which consulted on nothing and hid the detail as late as possible.
Over the last few Budgets there has been a growing public reaction against an unfair approach to revenue raising and spending cuts. Every independent report has confirmed that the biggest shift in fiscal policy has been towards being more regressive.
Instead of justifying the policy or questioning the reports the government’s response has been to stop publishing the damaging information. This year’s Budget was the first in 20 years which did not include tables on the distributional impact of measures.
In area after area the response of government is to deny the reality rather than engage with the facts. This is a direct cause of public cynicism and removing the ability of government to do this would have an immediate effect.
The crisis in the Health budget this year is another practical example of where a genuinely independent review of government documentation would make a major difference.
The enormous campaign of withdrawing medical cards was based on a desperate attempt to reach a specific savings target set without any reference to facts.
The HSE’s service plan for the year was actually censored at cabinet in order to pretend that services could be delivered for the cost included in the Estimates. As the HSE Chief Executive has confirmed to an Oireachtas Committee, ministers intervened to amend the plan and remove his warning.
The major overrun which Leo Varadkar acknowledged last week is not down to bad management or waste by pampered health professionals, as some superficial comments suggest. It is the cost of the services government demanded but wouldn’t pay for in the Budget.
Health is an area which would greatly benefit if government had to go through an independent consultation and review process before pushing ahead with policies.
I welcome the Leo’s decision to abandon the attempt to overturn the Seanad’s defeat of the ‘gagging clause’ which was due to be a requirement of the under-6’s GP service. However that clause should never have been demanded in the first place.
The proposed compulsory health insurance is another example of a policy which is destined to involve dispute and public reaction against a half-thought out and deeply destructive proposal.
It would involve a dramatic overhaul of nearly every element of public health services. The specific proposal has no equivalent in any other country. In spite of this our government is claiming, without evidence that it will deliver everyone whatever treatment they need as soon as they need it and won’t cost anything.
In an interview published this Sunday Kenneth Clarke looked back on his time as Secretary of State for Health under Margaret Thatcher and said his greatest achievement was stopping her demand for a compulsory private insurance funding model with the state paying premiums for those on low incomes. He said he looked at the facts and saw that it would be “a disaster ….hopeless….dreadful”.
What is interesting is that even under Margaret Thatcher there were enough checks and balances in the British system to subject a major health reform to independent study and prevent its implementation no matter how strong her commitment to it.
In contrast, this policy has been official policy for both of our government parties for over a decade yet no costings are available and we have a White Paper which is more about empty slogans than an objective review of evidence.
Compulsory Universal Health Insurance is undermining a system which had shown significant progress and was delivering a sustained improvement in patient outcomes. Abandoning it now rather than first requiring the inevitable backlash from the public and professionals alike would show a commitment to a more mature, credible and constructive engagement with the public – the very thing which is required to rebuild trust.
This is a moment of many unprecedented challenges being faced by all countries. The standard way of carrying out politics is no longer good enough. It is not sustainable to retain public legitimacy while leaving public engagement solely to the context of elections.
Exactly the same goes for behaviour in the North. At the core of a crisis in public confidence in governing institutions has been the constant refusal of parties to respect those institutions.
The DUP and Sinn Féin have specialised in both being in government and attacking that government – and have in very serious situations attacked and made their support for basic institutions and laws conditional.
I believe that there is an appetite for a politics which has more policy substance to it. People have shown repeatedly in recent years that they can accept radical decisions if they believe they are soundly based and will deliver. Anyone who goes to the doorsteps regularly can tell you that there is a level of policy engagement far beyond what you would have expected in previous times.
One of the things which continues to strike me is how the public understand the global context in which Ireland operates. They know that the European and world economies are central to the success of ours. They have humanitarian values which have remained strong no matter how pressing domestic concerns have been. They understand that Ireland has a need and a duty to be a constructive international player.
In the Dáil many parties and independents have spent the last six months accusing the EU’s behaviour of being morally equivalent to the of Russia. The public has no such doubt and notices an imperial aggressor when it sees one.
In March President Putin openly talked about expansionist policies and his Deputy Prime Minister said that Russia was entitled to control lands where its soldiers had died in the past. You don’t need to know much history to know where this ends if countries put commercial links ahead of standing up against aggression.
The situation in Gaza is also one where the Irish people have a deep interest and a strong position. It is an outrage. It is a humanitarian catastrophe. The plight of civilians in Gaza demands real action – and Ireland could and should join with other democracies in proposing alternative solutions.
There are also many more areas where Ireland has a direct personal interest in international decisions yet we have an approach to debate which avoids engaging the public.
It’s long past the time for a comprehensive re-evaluation of our approach to handling European issues. At the moment the public mainly hears from those who try to say as little as possible and those who attack everything.
This superficial and damaging debate means that Ireland is standing on the side-lines and not speaking up on behalf of reforms which would benefit us and the whole of Europe. On the banking union, the budget, enhanced cooperation and many other areas Ireland has no public policy beyond supporting what emerges.
Of course this feeds disillusionment – particularly when there are many parties and individuals eager to put as much blame as possible on the EU for every problem.
The benefits of a more ambitious and open approach to European debate are starting to be seen in Britain, or more correctly in England which is the only part of the current United Kingdom which has large-scale anti-EU sentiment.
In preparation for the “In/Out” referendum in 2017 a review of competencies has been launched. David Cameron may be the first ever prime minister to announce that there would be negotiations on an urgent and passionately held issue but he would first need two years to decide what those negotiations would be about.
Because of the insistence of the Liberal Democrats, full public consultations have been taking place and there is a commitment to reports based on facts not ideology.
This is causing a huge problem for some euro sceptics because the facts are not matching their claims. For example it was reported at the weekend that the report on migration and labour policies is being withheld because some do not want to acknowledge that while 2.3 million non-British EU citizens live in Britain, 2.2 million British people have emigrated to other EU countries.
Another problem has been cause by the fact that while euro sceptics claim the EU damages employment, economists, employers and unions are saying the exact opposite.
Over time more and more of the anti-EU shibboleths are being exposed and the hubris and cynicism of the euro sceptics will confront a very different situation in 2017.
The only way to confront stereotype and increase Ireland’s influence is to move beyond the superficial and occasional debate we have now.
The Irish public is known for its level of interest in the news. Unfortunately we have a politics which makes no use of this and which treats people almost as infants to be sold policies rather than actively engaged with.
Changing this requires us all to have a commitment to valuing independence and expertise. We need to change the balance of powers within politics to allow all public representatives to play a constructive role – and equally to be held to account.
There is a loss of trust but there is no loss of engagement or hope. The public is, I believe, willing and eager to respond to political debate which is more informed and balanced – where the deck is not always stacked in the government’s favour and we value debate rather than run from it.