Pre-budget kite-flying is no rival for taking real action
INSIDE POLITICS:THE COALITION hasn’t made things easy for itself with the premature spate of leaks and media speculation about what might or might not be in the budget in two months.
An already-anxious public is being driven to distraction worrying about cuts that are unlikely to happen as well as those that are inevitable.
Ultimate responsibility for the hype and misrepresentation rests with the politicians but the media plays its part in the process. Despite warnings from the top, some Ministers simply can’t resist kite-flying while the Opposition can’t resist scaremongering. It all provides fodder for a hungry media.
Former British Labour minister Chris Mullin suggested recently that politicians are often unfairly blamed for leaks and spin. “In my experience, political journalists are far greater spinners than politicians or their spokesmen. It is sometimes necessary to run one’s finger down several inches of interpretation before coming to the sliver of fact that justifies a sensational headline,” he wrote. There is some truth in Mullin’s claim but the fact remains that as long as some of those in Government feed the beast by engaging in leaks designed to protect their own departmental interests, the media will have a field day. All sorts of things from child benefit cuts to reducing the State subsidy for private schools will get such an airing that many people will believe they have been introduced, even if they don’t ultimately feature in the budget.
Some Ministers are already furious with their colleagues for setting up a repeat of last year’s pre-budget manoeuvring which obscured the actual content of the budget itself. Things might be better if the Coalition had acted on its own commitment to conduct the budget process in public so that the real choices facing the country could be put before the voters in a coherent fashion in advance of the budget.
Mind you that would require the Opposition to engage in genuine debate rather than the phoney one now in progress. Fianna Fáil’s conversion to the anti-property tax cause is just the latest example of cynical politics, considering that in government the party had agreed to introduce a property tax. Quibbling about the basis of the charge is simply a cover for evading responsibility.
One of the core problems with Irish politics, which flows directly from the Bertie Ahern era, is that the natural desire to remain popular has translated into a policy of appeasement towards almost every vocal interest group that comes along.
Governments have always desired popularity but, in the past, there was some understanding that the price of power entailed taking decisions for the common good that would inevitably antagonise particular interest groups.
Under the social partnership arrangements that became dominant in the Ahern era, government was emasculated and decisions emerged only when there was consensus across the relevant interest groups. That was ultimately one of the prime causes of the economic disaster with public spending soaring to unsustainable levels while taxes were cut simultaneously.