Thursday 29 September 2016

Current Government's performance points to grim future for Irish politics

'New politics' has not worked well, but is here to stay. So don't expect future coalitions to be more stable than this one

Published 18/09/2016 | 02:30

'It should also be said that although the current administration has not performed well overall, as this column will argue, it has not been an outright failure. ' Picture credit; Damien Eagers
'It should also be said that although the current administration has not performed well overall, as this column will argue, it has not been an outright failure. ' Picture credit; Damien Eagers

The country's political parties have wrapped up their annual think-ins before the start of the new Oireachtas term. Seven months on from the General Election and with the Government in office for more than four months, now is a good time to consider how the 'new politics' has worked. Much more importantly, what does the functioning of the new politics say about the longer-term prospects for the country's quality of government?

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Let's start by saying that the very considerable political uncertainty, domestically and in relation to Brexit, has had less impact on the economy than it might have done. Growth in consumer spending and confidence indicators certainly paint a more subdued picture in 2016 than over the course of last year, but they do not point to a slump. And, as discussed in my column in the business section, there is only limited evidence to suggest that companies are investing less in their productive capacity as a result of political uncertainty.

It should also be said that although the current administration has not performed well overall, as this column will argue, it has not been an outright failure. The preparation for the possibility of a vote for Brexit was good, as has been the focus on the huge challenge the UK's likely departure from the EU has posed since the referendum in June (with a few notable exceptions). The publication last week of a detailed 10-year education plan shows that some substantive work is being done in the policy space too.

This in part suggests that mature democracies can get by without stable and effective administrations in the short run, as Belgium has shown in the past, when it went without a government from more than a year, and as Spain is showing today, as it remains without a government after nine months. The business of government can be kept ticking over by caretaker administrations and the permanent government of civil service.

But over the longer term, effective and cohesive political direction is a central factor in how well countries are run and the outcomes citizens end up with. Good institutions are a central, some argue the central, factor in determining whether countries - and their societies and economies - are well functioning or badly functioning.

A government that fails to think beyond the immediate and the expedient makes crises more likely to happen and their management less effective when they do happen. That, by and large, is how things have played out since May.

Politics is now dominated by questions around the timing of the Taoiseach's departure, when Independents might peel away and, ultimately, how soon the next election will take place. The substance of government is taking second place for the most part, as evidenced, among other things, by limited legislative output.

Even more serious in undermining good government is a persistent unwillingness or inability to take unpopular decisions and to stand up to interest groups.

In this regard, a relatively minor event says most about this minority government since it took office more than four months ago. In June, changes in the bin charging system, which were to come into place on July 1, were looming larger. The idea was that the weight of refuse would be the main determinant of how much householders pay - linking use of the service to the amount paid makes sense as a pricing structure and benefits the environment by reducing the overall amount of waste produced.

But as the change came closer, panic set in. Within days of the July 1 changeover date, the entire plan was effectively abandoned.

The episode demonstrated both an incapacity to think ahead and an unwillingness to implement measures that, though sensible, might trigger opposition. It also showed a preparedness to suffer the humiliation of climbing down in an unseemly fashion by the Government collectively and by aspiring Taoiseach, Simon Coveney, in particular (he was then the minister responsible for regulating the waste industry). Demonstrating such weakness is to invite further and stronger challenges from any and all interests.

The Apple tax case was another example of failing to prepare and, in a different way, resorting to a populist fallback position in an attempt to mitigate the domestic political damage. It was abundantly clear before the decision that the Independents in Government could not be guaranteed to back Fine Gael in appealing the decision to the European courts. Despite that, a mini-crisis ensued about that very issue after the decision was announced.

Nor was the Government prepared in its response to Brussels. The announcement was made on a Tuesday morning and it wasn't until the Friday afternoon that both the Taoiseach and finance minister made co-ordinated statements.

Their considered response after three days was to accuse the European Commission of picking on Ireland because it was a small country. To play the Brussels-bullying card was unwise. Even if it were true that the Commission made the ruling because Ireland is a small country, and in this case the evidence is thin, stating it in such a confrontational manner was shrill and merely served to up the ante with Brussels.

It also gives hostages to fortune. If the European courts find that the commission is right, will Fine Gael then claim that the EU court picks on small countries too? If and when a referendum has to be held on changes to the EU treaties, does Fine Gael think that the anti-Europe brigade will not use those very statements, made on the steps of Government Buildings, in their No campaign?

Despite the Apple case, Brexit and a series of mini-crises in Cabinet, the Government has been fortunate to a considerable extent. That is mostly because the economy and the public finances are mending. There are always fewer hard choices to make in upswings than downturns. As long as that situation pertains there is some possibility that the Fine Gael-led administration will survive.

But it will not always be the case. That brings us to the longer term.

There is a view held among some, if not many, politicians and pundits that the current instability is transitory. A fresh election will, in this view, restore some semblance of normality to politics.

But there is far more reason to believe that current state of affairs is the new normal and that solid parliamentary majorities are a thing of the past, barring of course a Fianna Fail-Fine Gael coalition.

The three long-established, mainstream parties won 56pc of the first preference vote in the February General Election, their worst-ever collective performance. Despite the record-breaking time lapse between the election and the formation of Government and the unsteady performance of the administration, there is little sign that voters regret their decisions in February and have become more stability-orientated in the time since.

The latest opinion polls, taken in July, showed only a marginal defragmentation of the vote, with the three establishment parties mustering the support of 60pc of respondents. It may well be that the collective support for those three parties has risen a little further over the past two months, but a return to times when, decade after decade, they won up to 90pc support are gone for good.

This mirrors the sort of fragmentation that has happened almost everywhere in Europe. And the reasons are the same, reflecting common societal and political trends. Declining loyalty to parties, more politically promiscuous voters, the rise of niche parties and, what is perhaps the defining characteristic of the age, an inchoate anger towards anything considered mainstream or establishment.

There is every reason to think that these trends will continue to affect electoral behaviour and none to think that the vote will defragment.

Welcome to the new normal.

Sunday Independent

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