Noel Whelan: Bye-bye silly season, hello serious season of political debate
‘We haven’t even begun to have a real election debate about the policy choices. Instead we just seem to be lapsing back into old-style pre-election auction politics’
‘This week the government reaction to events in Northern Ireland was initially incoherent, with Frances Fitzgerald sounding more robust, and more political this week than she did last weekend, perhaps because of what Joan Burton and Micheál Martin had to say in between.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES
This weekend marks the end of the political silly season. It will be at least another fortnight before the Dáil itself resumes but most Ministers, deputies and political media will be back at their desks next week and coverage of politics will be more substantial and more sustained.
The time has come to leave the 2015 silly season behind us and focus on the political prospects for this autumn but, before doing so, it is worth commenting briefly on how incoherent much of the Government’s messaging has been over the past month. The government communications machine usually gets a free run in August. The number of politicians and operatives involved is such that even when the leading figures go on holidays there should be more than sufficient capacity to enable the government parties to set the agenda while parliament is in recess. That hasn’t been the situation over the last four weeks however.
One of the first prominent political stories of August was the suggestion from Chief Whip Paul Kehoe that Enda Kenny wanted to be Taoiseach past 2021. In the oxygen-filled atmosphere that is the silly season this one got much traction and even its own hash tag #endlessenda. The Taoiseach had to come out himself to clarify that he would not stay beyond next term and that his chief whip had used “a lot of poetic licence” with his remarks.
Then Government politicians or operatives encouraged media discourse about whether Fine Gael or Labour should enter into some kind of formal pact and an agreed set of principles before the election. It is curious why they stoked discussion on this issue at all. At one level it seems irrelevant given the current state of the polls while at another level it seems arrogant or at least self-indulgent. All it did was provoke some in Labour to rule it out and some in Fine Gael to talk it up, thereby creating the kind of disharmony that defeated the purpose of the suggestion.
Next came Government-fuelled speculation that they were going to revisit the arrangements around water charges and the so-called conservation grant. One has to wonder why the Government would poke at public irritation on this issue in the middle of August. Again this story played out along the increasingly volatile fault- line between the two Government parties. Labour began briefing that it was Michael Noonan’s fault that the conservation grant was not conditional on the payment of water charges. Fine Gael briefed back complaining that Alan Kelly’s mishandled the whole situation, only for Labour politicians and briefers to point out that it was Phil Hogan’s mess to start with.
This week the Government reaction to events in Northern Ireland was initially incoherent, with Frances Fitzgerald sounding more robust, and more political this week than she did last weekend, perhaps because of what Joan Burton and Micheál Martin had to say in between.
Now that the silly season is done and dusted we have to avoid just slipping into an autumn dominated by pre-election speculation about post-election combinations. Instead of this focus on the composition of the next government we should focus on what the current Government should be doing for the next eight months and what the next government should be doing for the following five years.
We haven’t even begun to have a real election debate about the policy choices. Instead we just seem to be lapsing back into old-style pre-election auction politics. It’s all about which taxes to cut and who should get tax cuts first.
The 2016 election will, of course, in economic terms be a “recovery election” but it needs to be more than that. There are other important issues worthy of detailed exploration within the context of the policy competition around the next election.
We have a housing crisis contributing to a rent crisis contributing to a student accommodation crisis and causing an acute homelessness crisis. We should focus in detail on what the Government is doing about this and what the other parties claim they would do instead.
There are kids starting school this week laboured with disadvantages that it is already too late to redress. We should demand detail from Government and Opposition on how to tackle inequality in early childhood.
We have a crisis in the quality, availability and funding of long-term elder care and we need to have a real pre-election debate about how it should be solved.
At the last election all the parties promised to tackle the inequalities endured by those needing to avail of disability services. We should be asking all politicians why they haven’t done it.
We need less premature focus on the election outcome as an issue in itself and more on the policy issues that should shape the voters’ decisions. After the silly season and before the election season we need a serious season of substantial policy debate.