When your defence is 'Bertie did this too', you’re on shaky ground

Opposition enraged by what it sees as a campaign of promotion for Fine Gael candidates

Leo Varadkar: his defence was blustery, and you suspect he knew it

Leo Varadkar: his defence was blustery, and you suspect he knew it

 

The Taoiseach was dogged and defensive when questioned by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin in the Dáil on the controversy over the Government’s promotional and advertising campaign for the Ireland 2040 national development plan on Tuesday.

Opposition parties have been enraged by what they sees as a campaign of political promotion for Fine Gael TDs and candidates on the back of the development plan’s publicity.

They maintain that it violates the rules that prevent civil servants doing political work, and prevents public money being used for political purposes.

Perhaps predictably, Varadkar waved around similar advertorial-style pages commissioned and paid for by governments led by Fianna Fáil. The visage of Brian Cowen beamed out from the pages. But Varadkar’s defence was blustery, and you suspect he knew it. When your defence is that Bertie did this too, you’re on shaky ground.

Varadkar gave the House details of previous expensive advertising campaigns undertaken by different governments. But it is not the fact of the advertising campaigns that has landed the Government in trouble – it’s the type of campaign that it has mounted.

Annual budget

Though Government Buildings has refused to give details of the spending so far on the Project Ireland 2040 campaign, the annual budget for the Strategic Communications Unit (SCU) is some €5 million, while the Taoiseach told the Dáil that the expenditure on the current campaign was €1.5 million.

This may not seem like a huge amount, but if you view it as a budget for political marketing – as the Opposition parties most certainly do – it is huge. For comparison purposes look at the spending during the last general election, as evidenced by the statutory returns that the parties have to make to the Standards in Public Office (Sipo) commission, the State’s ethics watchdog.

During the campaign period the total advertising and publicity spend for all parties combined was less than €1 million. Fine Gael, incidentally, was the largest spender in these areas by some distance, accounting for €660,000 of the total election spending on advertising and publicity.

Fianna Fáil, by comparison spent less than €80,000 in the election period, while Labour spent just over €250,000.

Election period

It’s important to realise that this spending is just during the election period and also that it covers only spending by the head offices of the parties on the national campaigns. However, it does give some indication of how big the Project Ireland 2040 campaign is in terms of political communication.

The Department of the Taoiseach insists that it did not seek copy approval or the promotion of individual politicians for the content of the “advertorial” style advertisements. But the reality is the department was paying the piper – it would be odd if the department did not call the tune.