Jim Carroll

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Are you general election fit?

We can already tell that general election 2016 is going to be about soundbites, photos and panto sketches rather than policies and practice

Your man is on about policies again

Tue, Jan 5, 2016, 11:59

   

The phoney war is in full effect. As all sides wait for Enda Kenny to leg it up to Áras an Uachtaráin and ask Michael D Higgins to put the 31st Dáil out of its misery, you can expect more stories like the one about the Labour Party’s proposed ad before the general election gets a date.

Indeed, you can expect many more stories like this – ones which are banal, nonsensical and utterly bereft of any sort of real impact – during the election campaign too. You can get a flavour of why such stories exist from the quotes from Minister of State with responsibility for Equality Aodhán Ó Riordáin in the news story above. Some of his colleagues may take a different view, but the junior minister repping Dublin Bay North feels this is something he can huff and puff about with impunity with a view to making some noise.

But the noise which goes with phoney war won’t end when the election campaign begins. It’s much easier to talk abouts ads, engage in posturing and snark at a woman engaged in a publicity stunt falling out of a boat than actually discuss policies. Policies are boring, tedious, TL;DR and for nerds. Policies are things which everyone feels they need to have, yet which the party bosses are always unsure what they mean in reality. In general elections, policies are burnished with great pride and intent – and quickly forgotten when the votes are counted.

As has become the norm with campaigns, the narrative around general election 2016 will be packaged into events and broad brushstrokes which fit into shorter and shorter news cycles. The manner in which all election campaigns are conducted have become subject to these critera, with very little thought or time given to the bigger concerns which should be informing what is going on. Why go on about the big questions around policy and long-term effects when a story about an ad which never was or a woman falling out of a canoe will get more coverage anyway? The quest for soundbites, eye-catching photos and “he said/she said” panto sketches always take over so every election becomes a TL;DR event.

We shouldn’t be surprised that we reap what we sow because of such thinking and practice. There’s a new column in The Irish Times which details on a day to day basis the news stories from 1916. On Monday, the opening story from January 1916 was “Shannon floods subsided nine inches”. A century on and it’s a story which is still relevant. That’s a whole century to do something about a river and excess water and yet nothing meaningful or of consequence has been done. That’s something which goes beyond policy. Did anyone think about calling in the Dutch?

Of course, some people have tried to make a difference with regards to this particular issue – Fintan O’Toole writes today about the many local protests in vain over the years against development in areas which should never have been built on – but that kind of local knowledge is swept to one side by those who believe they know better. Voting for gombeens and numpties means you get gombeens and numpties making the decisions for you so there should be no surprises when building houses on flood plains results in widespread, devastating bouts of flooding all around.

Such incompetence when it comes to local government fuels a general cynicism about politicians. All of us would like to see better health, education and social provisions in this country and many (some?) of us might be willing to pay higher taxes to achieve this. But would you trust elected representatives of any stripe to oversee spending these new funds? The wastage, over-spend and lack of proper financial planning which is part of seemingly every public project is your answer to that. I’d be happier to give the tax euros to my two and a half year niece to mind before I’d hand it over to some of our elected reps. Look at the flood defences in Kilkenny, to mention one timely example. This project was initially estimated to cost €9 million and ended up coming in at around €48 million. That was our money, lads. What the hell did you do? And did any heads roll as a result?

It’s not just financial incompetence which powers this cynicism. At the moment, the government parties are talking about what they’ll do for the country if they’re re-elected as they’re naturally in general election mode and promises are the way of the walk. But they’ve been in government for the last five years so why haven’t they done some of these great things they are now promising to do next time around? Yes, we know there are extenuating circumstances to do with the economy and some projects do take time, but there are many promises which could easily have been dealt with during the last couple of years. The will to do so is what was missing – and it’s hard to see how this will suddenly change in the next Dáil term. At least, the new government won’t be able to blame the government who were last in power, in a manner of speaking, in early 2011.

Maybe we’ll be wrong. Maybe the forthcoming general election campaign will see politicians of every persuasion meaningfully discuss their medium and long term projects and plans to make Ireland a good place to live for everyone regardless of age, sex, race or background and how exactly these projects and plans will be funded and rolled out. Maybe the point scoring and man-marking and constituency concerns will take a back-seat in favour of the greater national good. Maybe, just maybe, this “election of firsts” might also be the first one where the participants and pol corrs take a broader view of proceedings than mere number crunching and working out who will be with who when the music and dancing stops? Like the main said, maybe we’ll be wrong….