What a mess
When you are writing a news story there is always going to be hyperbole. But when it comes to over-the-top reporting, all newspapers are equal but some newspapers are more equal to others.
There was general agreement that the Budget proposal to scrap the automatic medical card for over 70s was a mess and had severely damaged the Government. Reporters used the word ‘mess’. But it was the more suggestive cliches they pulled out of the top drawer (oh! what a clever sentence that was!). Thus we saw ‘blunder’, ‘fiasco’ ‘cock-up’, full-blown crisis, and even ‘monumental cock-up’ and a couple of dozen more.
And so when Brian Cowen, in two amazingly long and amazingly over-convoluted RTE intervies, announced that the scheme that was proposed wasn’t going to be the one that would come into operation in January. What was that? Sure, it was a concession and a modification of stance. But was it a climbdown, or a reverse, or a compromise, or one big juicy humiliating embarrassing U-Turn. It depended on the newspaper.
Everyone will evaluate the scale of the concession in their own way. What was certain was taht Cowen did not have his finest hour over the past week. His interview on the Nine News on RTE on Friday was terrible. And his half-hour stint with Gerald Barry on This Week yesterday wasn’t great. He seems to have swallowed the civil servant manual whole. Karl Rove once said that if you are explaining you are losing. And he spent all his time explaining.
The purpose of the interviews was simple. He had to say the following. The scheme will change because it’s clear that people weren’t happy with it. However, we do need to end automatic entitlement to credit cards because it has the potential to bankrupt the country. Our approach is changing. We are hoping to engage with doctors to see if they are willing to accept a reduction in the ludicrously high fees that they get for over 70s – some of them make €200,000 per annum from pensioners alone.
He did say that but spent an awful long time saying it and used some brutal technical language (“within the budgetary parameters”) that made no sense. The name of the game was to allay the concerns, of his backbenchers and of ordinary citizens. It could have been done simpler, more directly.
Having said that, what it was was a retreat. With his own backbenchers in open revolt, Cowen’s hint at wiggle room and possible solutions on Friday night wasn’t enough to defuse the situation. For country TDs, Saturday is clinic today. And they found themselves under siege from an army of pensioners and their relatives, fearful of being abandoned by the State. Cowen spent all day Saturday in his constituency (he even went to a performance of Waiting for Godot in Birr that night) but it was becoming evident that he needed to do more.
He was supposed to pre-record his This Week interview from Athlone on Saturday. But with a fluid situation, a decision was taken that he would do it live the following day. With his backbenchers in turmoil, Cowen had no choice really but to take the very serious decision of postponing his State trip to China for two days, so that he could attend the FF parliamentary party meeting.
The compromise, climbdown or whatever is just not enough. It lacks details. The means test will still be there. Nobody knows what the thresholds will be. Will the IMO talk to the Government? Can the IMO talk to him without running foul of the Competition Authority? Did nobody foresee the consequences of this? Obviously not as the Department of Health had zero information available about the proposal for a full 30 hours AFTER the Budget.
Bad judgement all round. Liveline led with it before the Budget was announced. That should have been a fair warning. There’s a parlimentary party meeting tomorrow night, where Cowen will ask for – and receive – the loyalty of his party. The Government will win the vote on the Fine Gael private members motion on medical cards, when it comes to the vote on Wednesday night.
But what it will more difficulty with is the public protest that has emanated from Joe Duffy’s Liveline, that will take place outside the gates of the Dáil on Wednesday. The sight of thousands of protesting pensioners will provide toxic propaganda to the opposition.
What a horrible mess.