Opposition gains initiative in post-troika vacuum

Opinion: Government needs to regain control of political agenda ahead of elections


The Coalition got what it wished for with the departure of the troika just before Christmas, but it has been downhill all the way since then and Ministers have nobody but themselves to blame.

The absence of a coherent political strategy to fill the vacuum left by the troika exit handed the initiative to the Opposition and the Government has been on the defensive over one issue after the other since the beginning of the year.

With the Dáil due to resume normal business next week, after the St Patrick’s holiday break, the Government badly needs to regain control of the agenda to try to focus the attention of the electorate on its achievements in the run-up to the local and European elections.

In one way, the Coalition is only getting what it deserves as it made the troika the scapegoat for policies it knew very well were required to get the Irish economy out of the mire.

Where it really showed its ineptitude was the failure to put a plan in place to keep the focus of public attention on the fundamental issue of the economy and the steps that still need to be taken on the road to full recovery.

The three-monthly reviews by the troika kept the pressure on the political system and administrative system to deliver reforms and also kept the voters focused on the core issue of the economy.

It would have made political sense for the Coalition to replicate the troika regime by publicly setting targets of its own, covering the public finances and the range of reforms required to ensure competitiveness and efficiency in the economy.

Instead the Government, still euphoric at the departure of the troika, launched its “Strategy for Growth” policy a week before Christmas when nobody was paying a blind bit of attention and left the new year to look after itself.

That left the door wide open for the Opposition to attack the Government on a range of fronts, from the administration of justice to the imposition of water charges and the lack of supervision of how taxpayers’ money is allocated to voluntary bodies.

Snail’s pace

The lack of outside pressure to force the pace of reform has also been evident in the way the administrative system has slipped back to its own ways of doing business, with the production of promised legislation slowing to a snail’s pace now

the troika has gone. This was obvious before the St Patrick’s break when the Dáil spent a whole week debating the Government’s priorities for the year ahead. This debate is part of Dáil reform, but in fact it was a reflection of the fact there was very little legislation to discuss.

One area where the Government has managed to keep up the pressure is on the job-creation front. That is primarily because it has a detailed programme in the form of the Action Plan for Jobs (APJ) with three monthly reviews to ensure that targets are being met.

The hundreds of commitments in the programme are steadily being delivered by Minister for Jobs Richard Bruton. One of the main reasons for this is the involvement of the Taoiseach and his department in ensuring the system is forced to account for its performance every three months.

A review of the APJ by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) concluded it had led to two significant developments in Irish public governance. One is a concerted whole of government policy implementation with political backing and oversight at the highest level.

The other important development noted by the OECD is the rigorous quarterly monitoring and reporting system modelled on the troika programme.

The fact that unemployment is coming down faster than expected is linked to the way the APJ is being implemented and the unremitting emphasis placed on its delivery. It should be a lesson to the Government on how it needs to do business across the entire system.

The fact is the Coalition does have a positive message to sell over its handling of the economy but is finding it harder and harder to get it across. That may well be because its own TDs don’t fully understand what has been achieved and so are unable to convey it to the public or the media.

For instance, Ireland emerged in a favourable light in a major OECD report published during the week which examined how the best-off economies in the world handled the economic crisis.

The media headlines focused on the fact that the OECD had expressed concern that the poor had suffered the biggest fall in living standards during the recession.

This was true across almost all 34 OECD countries, but the report noted Ireland was an exception to the rule that the poor suffer a bigger drop in living standards than everybody else in recessions.

Benefits spending doubled

It pointed out that while Irish households had faced

large falls in earnings since the start of the crisis, spending on unemployment benefits and other income support programmes had more than doubled.

“Much of this spending was targeted to the poor. In fact, despite big losses overall, relative poverty, which counts people with incomes below half of the median, did not increase,” according to the report.

This is precisely the argument that justifies the Labour Party’s participation in Government. Its TDs can legitimately argue that they have made a difference on an issue that is a core value for them. However, they will have to shout far louder if they want the public to recognise that achievement, never mind giving Labour any credit for it.

The priority now for both Coalition parties is to recover the coherence and discipline the troika imposed on the process of government.

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