The next election is too good to waste

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I’m going to take issue with Jason’s reasons for his view that the next election is too good to waste on Fine Gael but then I’m going to end up agreeing with him for quite different reasons.

Jason has a lot to say in his post (read it, it’s good stuff as is usual) but I’m going to use as my jumping off point this particular paragraph.

“I’m sorry, but this is not good enough. We can’t have the most important election in the history of the state since 1948, an election that is a pivotal turn in our national story, and end up electing a crowd of guys who were Fianna Fail and would still be if Dev had had any bottle and said “You know Mick, you’re right. We can do something with this treaty.” We can’t hand over the country to fellas who have only ever excelled at losing. We can’t put in power people that all of us who aren’t in the Cult of Fine Gael know would have done little different in the last ten years.”

Let’s be honest here, even Fianna Fail aren’t the same as Fianna Fail in 1922 and nor were or are Fine Gael. Hell, even FF in 1927 were not the FF of 1937. The FG party that emerged in the early 30s was much changed from the people who formed the first government and who founded CnG as an afterthought when it came to fighting the election after the treaty. They were tempered by having to run a country while it was in motion, and made some stuff up on the hoff. FF were defined by their opposition to what CnG did, not be some principles other than the difference over the Treaty. For example, if CnG had engaged in a policy of larger scale land redistribution then FF would now be the party of the big farmer not FG.

So the idea that FG and FF must be one in the same cos at the time prior to the treaty negotiations they were all in the one political grouping is rather ridiculous. It’s matched only as a myth of the state’s origin as the one so ably but incorrectly presented in “The Wind that shake the barley” that all the lads of 1916 and the war of independence were in the main all lefties looking for the coming of the great socialist republic, they weren’t. They were mostly interested in national self determination with vague ideas after that of what form it would take, some were avowedly left leaning but not most of them. That both of the main parties that grew out of their efforts ended up being quite anti-left shows that there never was this ground swell for the left at the time the state was founded. The real reason FF and FG don’t differ radically in their aims is down to the inherent conservativism and paternalistic view of politics that much of the Irish electorate have. That’s the real problem. Paraphrasing from US policies, it’s the parent problem not the mammy problem. Too large a portion of the Irish electorate want the government to be their parent not their partner or support in getting on with their lives.

Moving on I had to agree that had FG and Labour/DL formed the government over the last 13 years that they “would have done little different in the last ten years.” but here the rub they needn’t actually have done radically different things in order to have a radically different outcome. As any student of speculative counter factuals will tell ya a very minor change have lead to very different outcomes. We didn’t need radically different policies in order to arrive at a radically different outcome.

Imagine for a moment that FG and Lab/DL had managed to win enough seats to govern as a minority administration and then a maj0rity just as FF did from ’97 to ’07. We’d have a number of key differences that I’m listing below

  • Considerably fewer tax breaks for development resulting less development overall and less dependency on the construction industry for taxes and employment – that probably means a higher level of unemployment but also
  • a lower level of immigration as there were fewer opportunities for unskilled migrants.
  • a higher rate of social housing being built (this is a government with Labour in it) and most likely more concentration in medium density developments in the large population centres – that means less ghost estates in the midlands.
  • less cuts in income taxes over all
  • the cuts in capitial gains tax would have been less leaving the tax base wider than now
  • changes in the funding model for the health service with the principle of money following the patients – what would that mean? An end to the 2nd tier system almost overnight. Why? Because at the moment a public consultant gets paid the same money week in week out whether they see 10 patients or 30 patients but they get paid each time they see a private patient meaning there is an incentive to see private patients that there isn’t for public patients. Remove that and the two tier system ceases to exist.
  • I doubt that the runaway public procurement process with considerable cost overruns would have been as bad as it was under FF.
  • I do think that the public pay bill might actually have been worse as I can imagine Labour would have tended to hire people left right and centre. That said I suspect that at least some elements in FG would have sought to ensure that benchmarking lead to some reforms in the public service, in particular they would have been aided in this by the pressure from the PDs in opposition that bench marking must deliver results. So we would have a larger public service but with more reforms in place than we have now. And with the reforms a greater ability to change more quickly.
  • A lower initial minimum wage, cos Labour while wanting a high one would have been more conscious of the attacks it would bring the government under and which might have undermined the principle that they would have felt was more important than the rate itself plus or minus 50c.
  • The lax mentality and culture around regulation and enforcement that Seanie Fitz and Fingers were aware of and took advantage of simply wouldn’t have existed, they would have to have been more cautious and less devil may care in their actions. In that instance, the loans Anglo and Nationwide would have made to developers would have been considerably less than they were, if they were less then their profits would have been less and the pressure on AIB and Bank of Ireland to follow would have been less to. We would still have most likely faced a property downturn eventually and even a decent sized bubble but it would be smaller one than the one we face and I think bailout of Anglo might have been closer to the order of 10billion (of course that’s pure guess work on my part) and the losses at AIB and Bank Of Ireland might have been manageable in the course of normal business so they weren’t chasing the Anglo way of doing business.
  • SSIA’s would probably never have happened
  • The National Pension Reserve Fund would exist and would be considerably bigger than it is now.
  • There is the potential that a trade off of further reductions in income tax for a local tax might have occurred but I’m realistic enough to see that given the chance to avoid it no Irish government is going to bring in new taxes. That goes for property taxes and water charges too. Sad but true.
  • We might have seen what they do on occasion in the US, tax refunds from the surpluses rather than permanent tax cuts.

I do tend to the view that given the situation we’re now in that we do need to make radical changes across almost all areas of public life but I also believe that relatively minor changes over the last 13 years might have spared us much of the current scale of the problems we face and obviated the need for that radical change. That might not have been in the long run by the best thing for the country. As the saying goes never waste a good crisis.

I agree with the point that voting for Fine Gael because they’re the largest opposition party at the moment and that some people view it as being the party’s turn is simply not good enough. If that’s what you think then don’t vote for Fine Gael. Vote for Fine Gael because the candidate(s) standing for election has made a case for what Fine Gael would do in government after the election and what their personal aims and principles are. And if the candidate fails to make that case then don’t vote for them but don’t vote for anyone else either who fails that test. Don’t apply a test to Fine Gael that other parties get a free pass on. Voting for Labour because they’ve never had a real go is no more an argument than voting for FG because it’s their go now. It’s no one’s go. Being in government is too important for it to be someone’s go. And I agree that Fine Gael have excelled at not winning elections but they’ve also excelled at changing the country by changing the political weather.  It was people in Fine Gael that brought the entire political establishment and the public in the south including FF around to the idea that the north was something that we couldn’t just dig in our heels over but that we had to accept the principle that the consent of the people was needed and that we need to find some way to work with unionists. John Hume did the more dangerous running  on this and if anyone deserves the bulk of the credit it is him but if he was depending on FF to be listened to then nothing would have happened. It was Fine Gael that made the case long before the PDs arrived on the scene that we need to be fiscally responsible. People in Fine Gael who were of a progressive bent have worked to change attitudes on a great many problems in part because so much of the party (as was even more of the country) was conservative, people in FG choose to face that conservatism head on and change minds.

I think that Fine Gael have articulated over the last few years a reasonable set of policies in respect of the public finances and Irish life and has made efforts to address the problems associated with unemployment. I also think that some of those policies are inconsistent, some areas are lacking and I personally disagree with party policy in a number of areas in the short and longer term. Yet unless there is the ME party out there made up of clones of mine that subscribes only to policies that I agree with then I’m never going to find a party that I share 100% congruence with. And the difference between me and many others is that I’m prepared to continue to make the case within the party to try and change those positions where we disagree. It’s a long slog and very dispiriting at times but that’s how our system of democracy works, you achieve the change you believe in by convincing others to do so, slowly and life sappingly so. You don’t as has been true in the past achieve real change by saying one thing to get elected and then doing something else that you never said you were going to do.

Change won’t come about by backing a party who can’t say what they will do in detail, who can’t tell anyone how (the great unanswered question in Irish politics, where the announcement of targets is often mistaken by the media for a detailed plan) the change will be achieved and who aren’t able to be upfront about what needs to be done.

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2 Responses to The next election is too good to waste

  1. Pingback: Jason O Mahony » Blog Archive » Dan Sullivan has a go!

  2. Pingback: Could it all have been so different? | Daniel Sullivan - he’s a little political

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