Saturday 1 October 2016

Fiddling while the homeless get colder

It's not just rampant incompetence. Ministers share a stagnant and failed ideology, writes Gene Kerrigan

Published 08/11/2015 | 02:30

Cartoonist: Tom Halliday
Cartoonist: Tom Halliday

Wasn't it fun? All those weeks of playacting, with Fine Gael making nasty remarks about Alan Kelly, the Minister for Prolonging the Housing Crisis.

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How we laughed when an anonymous Fine Gael cabinet minister told the Sunday Independent, of Kelly: "It's not that he cares about the homeless crisis but he wants to be the person who fixes it."

Biting, hurtful and nasty. And perhaps true. After all, Fine Gael know him better than we do.

And what fun we had when Alan called his tormentors "cowards", for hiding their identities. Meanwhile, "sources close to" Alan anonymously bad-mouthed Michael Noonan.

According to David Davin Power of RTE News, during this playacting Kelly and Noonan were seen amiably enjoying a pint in the Dail bar.

We were told there was a serious conflict within the coalition Government. Hand-to-hand ideological combat. It was, of course, a staged spectacle.

It's the kind of thing guaranteed to stoke up the Fine Gael and Labour troops, so they'll work their asses off to re-elect Alan and Michael and the rest of those wonderful people.

A nice tonic for the troops. And a wee bit of entertainment for the masses.

Thank the Lord all this merry-making didn't involve serious stuff, such as families being evicted because they can't afford rising rents and people dying in lanes and doorways.

Why are our politicians so bad at things like housing and health?

Here is my favourite-ever quote from a politician. It's from Brendan Howlin, the current Minister for Thrashing the Social Infrastructure.

No, it's not the quote from 2011, just before the election, when he asked for our votes and told us: "We are against water charges."

No, it's from an interview Brendan gave about a decade after he was Minister for Health. Being a thoughtful man, he had spent some time reflecting on his experience in coalition. He wondered why he and others had failed to deliver "a first-class public health system".

He had since realised, he told author Maev-Ann Wren:"If we did that, there would be no reason for sustaining a private system."

And the right-wing want a thriving private health market. They want, according to Brendan, around 30pc of people to pay for private health products.

However, he said: "In order for that to happen, they really required the public [health] system to be inferior. Why else, if it was first-rate, would people pay for a private system?"

That's the sound of a penny dropping.

It dawned on Brendan, in between shifts as a prop for right-wing governments, that such governments are obsessively committed to cutting state spending and generating profits for private investors.

Sometimes, the failure to provide accommodation to match the needs of the citizens, or the failure to provide for the medical needs of the sick, seems a result of incompetence beyond belief.

It's not. It's the result of efforts to meet those needs while protecting the rights and opportunities of those who profit from the market.

It's your friendly right-wing politics in action.

Belatedly, it dawned on Brendan Howlin. As Minister for Health, he could not take only our medical needs into account - the Cabinet and the civil service and the rest of the free-market clergy would ensure that he would do so only if it involved a nice little earner for private investors.

A hospital isn't just where medics seek to preserve and repair our bodies and minds. It's an investment opportunity. Housing isn't just where we hang our hats. There's big money to be made. Schools aren't just places where teachers pass on the accumulated knowledge of generations.

Just about everything is an opportunity for speculative investment. And it doesn't end there. In order to ensure the freedom of the market, all the activities of the State must be subordinate to the market.

It is better that families go through the trauma of eviction, of living for months or years in small hotel or B&B rooms, of bunking with relatives or sleeping in a car, than that the freedom of the market should be interfered with.

This is the dominant political theme of our age. It's observed with religious fervour by politicians, the media and the civil service.

It applies to housing and health and education just as it applies to iPods and cars.

The same quick-buck ideology that brought the crash dominates the chaos of the housing market. Blind belief rules all. So it was that an NESC report encouraging rent control was pigeon-holed, while "experts" emerged from the woodwork to assure us that rent controls would do more harm than good.

Experts are always available to justify not doing something. Or to tell us we can count on a soft landing.

Now, after weeks of playacting, as well as the odd pint in the Dail bar, Alan Kelly and Michael Noonan emerge with a partial rent cap. This pleases those who are desperate to ease the housing crisis.

But that's just one of the measures on which Alan and Mick have agreed.

Building standards are to be lowered. In the age of Priory Hall and Longboat Quay, the market now rules that current building standards are too high.

Speculators will be encouraged to throw up more dog-box apartments. There will be relaxation of rules about, for instance, the amount of light available to each dwelling.

Get ready for clusters of small, dark dwelling units - and all in the name of helping the homeless.

Landlords have been refusing to accept tenants who receive rent supplement, forcing them into homelessness. Under Alan and Mick's new rules, landlords will get a 100pc tax incentive to accept people on rent supplement.

The sensible, more direct way of ending the discrimination would be to use the stick, not the carrot. If you discriminate against any sector of the population you will be stopped from renting to any other sector.

That would work, quickly, but it would "interfere with the market", so it's a no-no.

Landowners hoard their land until they see prices rise - take it off them at the price they paid.

Speculators get planning permission, then hold back, hoping to force up prices. Use it or lose it.

Small businesses are still forced to the wall by predatory landlords operating unfair rent reviews. Use the tax system to break their grasping hold.

Meanwhile, some wonder why Nama is selling bundles of properties so large that only a handful of vulture funds can bid for them - at knockdown prices. Because it provides quick money for the Government, and because of reverence for the market. Furthermore, our Government has expressed a reverence for vultures.

In September 2014, the United Nations moved to limit the damage being done by vulture funds, passing a draft resolution proposed by Bolivia. The Kenny/Burton government is so committed to the free market that it voted to support the vulture funds against those on whom they prey.

Too often, we see incompetence where the real problem is ideological stagnancy.

Yes, you look at the housing crisis and recall Alan Kelly's predecessors - Phil Hogan, Martin Cullen, Noel Dempsey. Not, perhaps, the sharpest tools in the box.

But they also shared a reverence for the market.

In Health, James Reilly, Micheal Martin, Mary Harney, Brian Cowen. All sharing a belief in the primacy of the market hierarchy.

Meanwhile, for the second week, the retiring governor of the Central Bank, Patrick Honohan, has warned that the growth figures on which the government relies are unreliable.

Not, of course, that there's anything to worry about.

Sunday Independent

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