The 2020 Programme for Government

This is a good agreement for getting people from a broad range of parties and political backgrounds to temporarily suspend their critical faculties and to support it. 

This is a bad agreement for a government to deliver on, to bring the public through is likely to be very tough times over the next few years and demonstrate that it has been successful at the end of its lifetime.

There were plenty of people who still believe we were better off in 2011 than in early 2020. Creating jobs, increasing social welfare payments, employing more people in the public service, extending benefits and services to people means nothing to those individuals who consistently believe that they should have gotten more and that they should be asked to contribute less to the public purse. Giving them the club of an unrealistic Programme for Government to beat around the government’s collective heads is politically clueless.

The programme, like people who are good at being agreeable and in trying to be all things to all people, is highly aspirational, even it’s woollier in places than an Aran jumper and that’s reflected in the language used in the document.

Examine” is there 68 times, “review” is there 127 times but “legislate” only makes an appearance 15 times. Is this a Programme for Government or a Nightlight prayer for Reflection?

support” in various forms is there 413 times! while “introduce” (57) and “change” (78) are well behind – for comparison “support” was there 70 times in the 2011 Programme for government.

The massive red flag is that “Deficit” appears just three times. and there’s only 6 references to a specific amount of money in the document. That illustrates the lack of content in the Programme, despite its excessive length. It’s political Vaporware, full of civil servantesse and management speak yet avoiding detail that might show us how its lofty goals will be achieved.

This is not about nitpicking the programme. 

We could all find items or measures in the agreement that either we strongly disagree with or which we very much like. Indeed, I’m fine with many of the proposals, having them as goals is five by five as far as I’m concerned. Yet there’s a sustained lack of “How” in the document when it comes to the delivery of those goals, the messy and necessary nuts and bolts of governing. “How” is policy, it’s what politics and political choices is all about. Everyone can agree on the goal of more employment, better paying jobs and more affordable housing. It’s in the detail of how you plan to arrive at those goals that our democracy is rooted, offering the electorate a choice not along in the destination but in how we should get there. That what parties are for, offering a choice.

The problem with the Programme is with what’s underpinning it, or not there to underpin it. The foundations of this Programme are terribly, terribly weak. We need to be much clearer with people that there is not going to be a default increase in public spending, i.e. salaries over the next few years for restoration or time served or bench marking or whatever non-productive methodologies people might like to conjured up. Being clear and upfront with people in 2011 is what served Fine Gael best in getting the country through the worst of the consequences of the crash. That it was going to be hard but it would work out. The Labour approach that somehow ordinary people would be spared ultimately did for them. This Programme smacks too much of the latter approach.

This is not a plan. It is not a plan for future success. 

The poison pill in the agreement is that it is completely ambiguous about where the money will come from to underpin the commitments to increased and new public spending in the agreement. 

There are measures in the agreement that require state funding that we might support but it’s not possible to make a case for them when we don’t know what public money they’re competing for. 

There is nothing about where the money to cover future budget deficits will come from, what will be the breakdown between new or increased taxes, reductions in spending or borrowing? We had the much vaunted 2:1 breakdown for spending:tax cuts over the lifetime of the last government. Yet there’s nothing similar for likely spending reductions: tax increases:borrowing.

Knowing this, being honest about this is critical for public support for future measures. And it’s vital to prevent any government from coming apart at the first budget.

The document reads like it will be entirely borrowing to cover the deficits, that’s fine in the short term for one or two years but not longer.

Finally, from a party political viewpoint the failure to address the retirement age for the state pension will mean that like water charges, medical cards reviews in 2014. Fine Gael will go into the next local, European and general election once again being blamed for a FF policy (and it is was and will still be a sensible change that we need to make to ensure state pensions are sustainable into the future). Even if the government lasts long enough for the change in Taoiseach in Dec 2022 (what date exactly) then it will be a Fine Gael leader who takes over as just as that retirement age is back in the political picture. 

Not to mention that after those first two budgets when any low hanging fruit of new measures or spending reductions are gone, it will Fine Gael that will be tagged as the ones on the hook again for any more drastic measures. Just watch as FF and Green reps complain that it’s the bad Fine Gael that are making the deepest cuts. And they won’t be waiting until them to paint themselves as the good ones at Fine Gael’s expense.

Our prospective partners are actively gearing up to permanently stand as both government and opposition. Already about a quarter of FF cllrs are opposed and will remain opposed for the next 4 years if FF members accept the Programme . The Greens won’t hold together beyond the first tough decision, whether it’s just some cllrs or a few TDs they will lose first time out is uncertain. They may not even hold through the next few weeks.

As intended the weighting of the electoral college will mean that the parliamentary party vote will drive the decision. So as members we can voice an opinion but we’re not really deciding the result.  In fact members of the Parliamentary Party who are on the Executive Council can vote with that body, and thus the Parliamentary Party has more than 50% of the vote.

However those who do have votes have a duty to reflect the very real concerns that members have. I would hope they do so.

We would all hope to be proved wrong here and that any administration will be successful, that it lasts five years and is rewarded by the public for its work.   That is something we all really hope for, it’s just not credible that it will be.

I realise that I, like most of us, don’t have a vote in this process but if I did my vote would be No.

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