Opposition parties must tell electorate hard truths

 

THE COLLAPSE of the artificially inflated property bubble over the past 18 months has brought the country to its knees and destroyed the Irish banking system as we know it but, remarkably, the political system looks exactly as it did before the economic earthquake struck. A Fianna Fáil-led Government is still securely in power and shaping up for yet another year in charge, writes STEPHEN COLLINS

There are signs, though, that the shifting tectonic plates of the economy will have a dramatic impact on the political system, sooner or later. For a start, a change of government looks inevitable after the next election but the big question is whether that will result in fundamental long-term transformation or merely mark another short interruption of Fianna Fáil dominance.

The electorate does seem to be on the verge of a decisive shift. The European and local elections last June turned traditional party politics on its head, with Fianna Fáil slumping to its lowest share of the national vote since the 1920s and Fine Gael becoming the biggest party for the first time.

Yet despite that extraordinary result the Government parties regrouped and continued through the autumn as if nothing had happened. The Taoiseach and his ministers are very pleased with themselves after jumping the well-flagged list of hurdles they set during the summer: the Lisbon referendum; a new programme for government; the Nama Bill; and the Budget.

Conventional political wisdom is that the Fianna Fáil-Green Party coalition is now set fair for another year or two but it would be very foolish to take bets on it. Events have a way of destabilising governments, just when they look at their most secure, and there are a host of potential pitfalls out there.

For instance the recent Prime Time programme on the links between the bankers, developers and Fianna Fáil disclosed what was probably just the tip of the iceberg. But it was shocking for all that. The responsibility shared by some of the most senior Government figures for what went wrong could come back to haunt them at any time.

Going by the results of last June’s elections and a succession of opinion polls, the electorate is determined to get even with Fianna Fáil for what it, and its friends, did to the country. While there seems to be a broad acceptance that pain has to be endured in the interests of national survival, it seems people will not forget who caused it in the first place.

That mood is almost certain to lead to a change of government at the next election, whenever it happens. Fine Gael and Labour are in a strong position to sweep into power with a real mandate. The main reason for that will simply be disillusionment with Fianna Fáil but the two Opposition parties will need to work harder to devise a realistic programme for government.

TDs from both parties resent some of the criticism that they are getting for not spelling out exactly what they would do if they were in government. They point out, with some justice, that Fianna Fáil has the primary responsibility for creating the mess and they don’t see why they should have to spell out in detail the kind of unpopular choices that now have to be confronted.

However, in their own long-term interests Fine Gael and Labour need to tell the electorate the hard truths about what things will be like after a change of government. If they are elected on a wave of public anger at Fianna Fáil, and denial about the real state of the country, disillusionment with them will set in very quickly.

Not since 1927 has a non-Fianna Fáil government been elected for two terms in a row. Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore have the opportunity to break out of that pattern if they come to power with realistic expectations about what they can do in the current harsh economic climate and if that is linked to a programme of underlying reform of the political system itself.

For instance, reform of the tax system is an overriding imperative but even after its years of dissolute behaviour, Fianna Fáil is still shying away from facing up to the need to introduce a comprehensive property tax as well as taking a bigger slice of revenue through income tax. If the Opposition parties are open about what they intend to do, they may have a mandate from the voters to implement real change and there won’t be a backlash when they do it.

The next election is likely to see a much greater focus on policy issues than any other in recent times. For one thing, the economic crisis should focus the minds of the voters on real issues, with facts rather than emotion taking centre stage. For another, the personality-dominated era of Bertie Ahern is over and voters may be able to focus their minds on the really important aspects of the choice they face.

An often-voiced criticism of Enda Kenny is that he is not a big personality like Ahern but that could actually be turned to his and Fine Gael’s advantage. After all, it is becoming clearer by the day that Ahern was probably the worst leader the country ever had and people in all walks of life are now suffering because of his incompetent management of the economy. What the country desperately needs is a leader who can run an efficient and honest government, rather than one whose raison d’être is a craving for public approval. Kenny has the credentials to present himself as a classic chairman rather than chief and, with Eamon Gilmore, who has proved himself a strong Labour leader, could offer the country hope.

If the Opposition parties are not seen to be facing up to the issues in an election that is about policies rather than personalities Fianna Fáil could actually stage a bit of a comeback. Whatever about causing the crisis Fianna Fáil has finally got to grip with the economy, mainly through the efforts of Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan. He has the advantage of not being tainted by association with past sins but he has also displayed courage and intelligence. For all that, the best Fianna Fáil can hope for at the next election is to minimise its losses.

One issue the Opposition parties could do well to focus on is the need to transform the political system itself. The Greens got Fianna Fáil to agree to look at the issue in the new programme for government but no one in politics realistically expects the party of near permanent power to agree to change an electoral system which has served it so well.

Yet the imperative for change is overwhelming. Our system of multi-seat proportional representation has encouraged a system of clientelist politics that, at the very least, contributed to our current woes. In order to survive TDs are forced into mindless competition in terms of constituency work and don’t have time for the bigger picture.

It is the pressure from local and often vested interests that contributed to so many bad planning decisions, fostered a culture in which corruption thrived and fuelled a property bubble that has brought ruin and hardship to so many citizens. During the Ahern years the government actually entrenched the system by formally giving TDs allowances for constituency offices, secretarial help and a range of other benefits to help them in the unending quest for votes.

A move to single-seat constituencies linked to a list system would improve things. It would required a constitutional referendum but a move to cut the number of TDs to 120 and change the Seanad might encourage voters to back reform. There would certainly be considerable voter resistance to change but the scale of our problems should convince people that while the current system provides a great deal of entertainment on election night, it is actually part of the problem.

A radical change in the way the Dáil does its business by involving all TDs in decision-making is also vital. A cull of the committees, many of which were designed with perks for government backbenchers in mind, would be a real service. A handful of well-resourced and powerful committees where TDs could have a genuine input into legislation would improve political life.

A genuine attempt to devise a more open and accountable system would be of enormous benefit to the politicians themselves as well as to the country and might help put paid to the nod and wink culture that has created so many of our current problems.

Of course there is no guarantee that changing the electoral system will automatically transform the quality of political life. Ultimately the health of our political system, and the values of our public representatives, comes back to the standards set by the electorate. If voters want honest and hard-working politicians they can elect them but, if they persist in electing a substantial number of charlatans and chancers, they must accept the consequences.

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