Decisive management the key to handling fiscal crisis
OPINION:You want to know the differences between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, Fintan? Okay. Read this, writes ENDA KENNY
THE KEY difference between the way a Fine Gael government will manage the economic and fiscal crisis and the current Fianna Fáil approach is - to follow Fintan O'Toole's linguistic theme in his column this week - one of meaning. Fine Gael will manage it. Fianna Fáil are not managing it.
Good management is not about calculator-cuts, taken with tunnel vision, to make the end of the tot look right to the Department of Finance. Good economic management of a nation requires a sophisticated understanding of the dynamics in play, and how those dynamics can be affected by blunt-instrument deflationary action.
It's that wider understanding that has been so signally absent from the Budget and from subsequent U-turns from that first disaster. When callers to radio programmes announce that they're tired of all the negativity, and want someone to offer them hope, the subtext of their comment is that the Government has delivered punishment, but no direction; cuts but no sense of what can be achieved by those cuts.
O'Toole is right when he says that Fine Gael, in some areas, will make deeper cuts than Fianna Fáil. Of course we will. We will make the deepest cuts in the wasteful programmes that allowed daft projects like Ppars and e-voting to rack up costs of €200 million on behalf of the taxpayer.
We will also act on the ever-increasing pay bill in the public sector by implementing a pay freeze for 12 months for those earning €50,000 or more. Would O'Toole prefer if we allowed more good money to chase bad projects and unsustainable pay costs? Fine Gael in government will not. And we will not mortgage the future to keep today's balance sheets straight.
One way to mortgage the future is to withdraw the introduction of a life-saving vaccine for cervical cancer. Bluntly, Fine Gael would never have done this. Of course the issue of cancer is vast, complex and subtle. It is an area where equally valid claims on the exchequer must be prioritised and chosen from. But the Government proposition that it's an either/or between screening and vaccine is sophistry, designed to mislead. The reality is that the cervical cancer vaccine prevents the illness (along with a series of other illnesses). No moral government can make the decision to withdraw a vaccine and use words to confuse the clarity of the choice being made, when they know that lives can be saved.
The fact that Fine Gael would reject unconscionable courses of action should not be taken as a soft approach to the economics of this country at this time. Reminiscent of the countryman who, when asked for directions, says: "If I was going there, I wouldn't start from here," the fact is that an incoming Fine Gael government would be in a position no government should be asked to start from, and which Richard Bruton has warned against and predicted for the past year and a half.
That's bad enough. However, the financial constraints inherited from a Fianna Fáil administration would not reduce a Fine Gael government to the kind of blinkered panic cuts, clearly made without reference to the most obvious societal consequences, which characterised Brian Lenihan's Budget. Not only did that Budget fail to consider the predictable human reactions, it failed to address the predictable financial reactions.
Since the Budget, Fine Gael TDs, Senators and councillors throughout the country have reported to me on a daily basis, listing businesses putting their workers on short time or letting people go. Houses aren't selling, retailers are recording record falls in sales and small businesses are going to the wall because their credit lines are drying up. Productive activity within this economy, in direct response to the Budget, is slowing to a halt, raising the spectre of turning a recession into a depression.
In sum, therefore, the situation faced by any incoming Fine Gael government in the next 18 months would be significantly worse than that faced - eventually - by this Government when it finishes its period of denial and shooting the messenger. Worse than when it got over its lengthy valedictory tours for Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen, the two men who between them ensured that the international financial crisis became more acute in Ireland than in other European nations, like Spain.
There was a country where the prime minister came back from his holidays to ensure his country did not slip into deep recession. Decisive leadership, responding to a crisis.
That said, the differences between Fine Gael's putative approach and Fianna Fáil's current approach could not be more stark. Fine Gael has a plan, a different one to Fianna Fáil, and we set that out in July, and again before the Budget. Fianna Fáil, having created a bureaucracy for us to live in, rather than a nation, stand stunned, in the face of the wilfully incurred costs of that bureaucracy, making vague non-specific noises about public service reform, but giving no indication of the Ireland that must emerge from this annus horribilis.
I do not accept, and no member of my parliamentary party accepts, that financial crisis absolves political leadership of the responsibility to imagine an achievable future and create the methods to get to it. To accept that proposition is to reduce governance to battlefield triage.
Fine Gael's leadership and direction will move away from a shambolic Fianna Fáil economy reliant on building and selling houses to one another, to a committed move from worst to best in every area of Irish life damaged by Government inattention.
The healthcare system must be driven from worst to best without throwing more money at a HSE top-heavy with redundant management. Environmental action must be more than isolated gestures about light bulbs and bicycle tax relief.
I recently witnessed a Fine Gael TD in an argument with someone who follows the Fintan O'Toole line that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are essentially the same.
"Give me two differences," the questioner demanded. "Just two, between your lot and Fianna Fáil." The answer came without hesitation. "First, Fine Gael never had a corrupt leader. Second, we tell the truth about the economy."
There's a third. Economically, we combine decisiveness with direction and we always put the public interest first.
• Enda Kenny is leader of Fine Gael