Monday 24 October 2016

Vote buying hasn't worked - watch as Coalition now tries bullyboy tactics

Published 16/02/2016 | 02:30

From left: Gerry Adams, Sinn Féin; Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Fine Gael; Tánaiste Joan Burton, Labour; and Micheál Martin, Fianna Fáil at TV3’s Vote 2016 Leaders’ Debate in Dublin last week. Photo: Arthur Carron
From left: Gerry Adams, Sinn Féin; Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Fine Gael; Tánaiste Joan Burton, Labour; and Micheál Martin, Fianna Fáil at TV3’s Vote 2016 Leaders’ Debate in Dublin last week. Photo: Arthur Carron

With just 10 days of campaigning left to go before people go to the polls, panic is beginning to set in among the Government parties.

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Sunday's Red C opinion poll revealed that support for Fine Gael and Labour has dropped by five points, with the likelihood of the Coalition being returned to government appearing increasingly remote.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Fine Gael and Labour had planned each day of the General Election campaign with military precision but their message has failed to resonate with voters.

Despite all of the money spent on private opinion polling, focus groups, special advisers and spin doctors, not to mention the endless hours of handwringing over the most opportune time to call the election, the sales pitch from the Coalition parties has fallen flat.

That message, naked auction politics with every interest group being catered for - a one-for-everyone-in-the-audience approach to politics - may have worked in 2007, but after eight long years of austerity and recession, the electorate isn't buying it.

While the lure of big tax cuts and huge increases in public spending may have once been enough to buy an election, the electorate today has learned to be extremely cynical about political promises.

Voters don't just want to hear slogans about tax cuts and improved public services, they want to know how political parties intend to pay for them and whether they are going to be sustainable.

This is why the debacle about the 'Fiscal Space', which dominated the first week of the campaign, was so damaging - it undermined the Coalition's mantra that it was best placed to look after the economy.

Both Fine Gael and Labour thought they could use the most optimistic possible economic forecasts to conjure up a massive 'Fiscal Space' figure that would provide some degree of cover for their gratuitous pre-election giveaway commitments.

However, in their eagerness to latch onto the biggest possible figure, they managed to miscalculate by €2bn, as well as including a notional €1.5bn that may or may not ever materialise, coming up with €12bn, when the actual figure was €8.6bn.

Embarrassingly, it was left to Sinn Féin to point out to Finance Minister Michael Noonan and Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin that their sums were wrong and the tax and public spending commitments they were making were predicated on a major miscalculation.

The controversy seemed to come as a surprise to both Government parties, who had apparently assumed they could simply pluck a 'Fiscal Space' figure out of the sky and it would be accepted without argument or interrogation.

The second calamity to befall the carefully planned election campaigns of both Government parties was the gangland violence that erupted in Dublin and dominated headlines.

At first, Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald seemed to think that a few hackneyed soundbites would be enough to allay the public's concerns and was adamant that Garda resources were not a problem.

However, this was contradicted by organisations like the Garda Representative Association (GRA), who said that staffing levels were at dangerously low levels while gardaí didn't have the requisite resources to help them tackle gangland crime.

Instead of engaging with these complaints, Government parties instead opted to focus debate on the Special Criminal Court and Sinn Féin's commitment to abolish it.

Before long, every question on crime that was directed to one of the Government parties was met with a scathing criticism of Sinn Fein for wanting get rid of the Special Criminal Court.

However, whatever one may think of Sinn Féin's position on the Special Criminal Court, it has nothing to do with the resurgence in gangland crime in Dublin today and why criminals seem to view gardaí with such contempt.

Sinn Féin hasn't been in power for the last five years, so it can't be blamed for skeletal staffing levels in many Garda units or the fact that gardaí are trying to tackle wealthy criminal gangs using equipment and weaponry that have long been obsolete.

The Coalition's obvious attempt to deflect blame wasn't helped by the fact that as soon as Ms Fitzgerald had assured everyone the upsurge in gangland crime had nothing to do with Garda resources, she was handing the Garda Commissioner a cheque for €5m in order to pay for an increased Garda presence on Dublin's streets to deter criminals.

After more than a week of using the Special Criminal Court as a political football, the result was Sunday's Red C opinion poll, which showed that support for the Coalition was down while support for Sinn Féin was up. In short, their plan had spectacularly backfired.

The Government parties started this campaign thinking that if they just promised voters enough, it would win them the election. Now they are beginning to realise that headline-grabbing promises won't be sufficient, voters want to see the small print.

It should be noted that it's not just Fine Gael and Labour that have engaged in auction politics, even if the other parties have at least managed to calculate the foundation for their economic pledges correctly.

While all of the main political parties do their damnedest to outbid each other, hoping to win voters' first preferences, it is notable that the only party to eschew this auction politics, the Social Democrats, is the only one that has seen steady gains in the opinion polls.

With all of its well-crafted plans after falling asunder so far, one Government strategist was quoted in a Sunday newspaper saying that the plan for the rest of the campaign was to "scare the s***out of them for the last 10 days".

Now that bribery hasn't worked, political parties will move onto bullying as a campaign tactic. Maybe if they just tried being honest with the electorate, and treating them with some respect, they would find them more receptive to their pledges.

Irish Independent

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