Thursday 29 September 2016

The Yates anthology: Spin is no substitute for good governance

Published 16/01/2016 | 02:30

'Ministers berated banks, the top brass were summoned to Merrion Street (pictured) and the Central Bank governor was instructed to report and act' Photo: Getty
'Ministers berated banks, the top brass were summoned to Merrion Street (pictured) and the Central Bank governor was instructed to report and act' Photo: Getty

It's happened by stealth, beginning with each minister having a coterie of appointees. Then there was the State funding of political parties. This paved the way for the arrival of the dozens of apparatchiks to occupy Government Buildings, and Leinster House to manage their bosses' public relations. Spin doctors cost taxpayers many millions. They must justify their existence.

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Serious issues are responded to as PR problems, rather than real-life concerns that need to be resolved, not deflected. The news cycle is managed and strategised in succession accordingly.

First, there is the acknowledgement "listening" phase.

This is followed by a battery of high-profile ministerial meetings and press conferences, with a passing quip from the Taoiseach indicative of concern lobbed in. Stern, solemn utterances of threatened action and indications suggestive of a suitable governmental response are also to be expected. And then? And then nothing. Months later, when the dust settles, you realise there's been little effective legislative or policy action of substance.

A case in point is the months of grievances ventilated by hundreds of thousands of mortgage holders on standard variable rates (SVRs).

There is definitive evidence of financial institutions trousering massive margins beyond ECB loan rates. It is also obvious that there has been considerable cross-subsidising of losses on tracker mortgages. A glance at European comparisons confirms the extent of the rip-off. Ministers berated banks, the top brass were summoned to Merrion Street and the Central Bank governor was instructed to report and act. Threats of bank levies in the budget ensued. Ultimately, despite all the optics, nothing changed - except restricted offers of fixed rates.

A flood of insincerity

Massaging media rather than definitive action was also apparent with Junior Certificate cycle reform. We still don't know precisely how post-primary teachers' unions the ASTI/TUI will carry out individual pupil assessments, separate to exams. Consumer complaints against Irish Water bills/meters were admitted, yet Ombudsman Peter Tyndall was legally precluded from providing an independent grievance mechanism for householders, despite Irish Water being a State-owned utility, embedded in Exchequer accounts. The IBRC/Siteserv controversy is temporarily diffused with the Cregan Commission, but all answers will be awaited from next government.

The latest smokescreen to hide inactivity is the Government's showdown with the insurance industry over flooding. Instead of the Cabinet legislating to levy all households to subsidise uninsurable risk for householders on floodplains, ministers berate executives. Rather than accepting the necessity to relocate the worst-hit families or implementing engineering solutions for up to 70,000 homes, ministers carpet insurers with bullish rhetoric. It's all predicated on time passing, floods receding and public interest abating.

A clear pattern is evident: ministerial press releases pumped out at times of acute media interest; news focus moves on; governance subsides. This elevates optics above meaningful measures of substance. Imagery, based on illusory inaction, succeeds in managing the "story" only. Flood victims deserve better than cynical media manoeuvres, while countries like the Netherlands have eradicated identical crises.

Sink or swim for FF

The Soldiers of Destiny gather this weekend for the final pre-election rally, with the party needing a massive morale boost. A stellar platform launch pad was never in greater need in the party's history. The forthcoming election puts Fianna Fáil's future credibility and survival on the line, rather than its place in history. Electoral meltdown in 2011 was understandable - even acceptable - in context of government implosion, leadership resignations, coalition collapse, sovereign bailout and unprecedented emergency circumstances.

Having an identical rating of 19pc now must be beyond the worst fears of loyal grass-roots members. You'd expect the blame game would have abated after five years. Micheál Martin seems oblivious to his precarious grip as party president. Incumbent TDs are seething with him personally over selection convention outcomes and FF headquarters' additional candidate appointments.

His strategy of outright rejection of FF coalition options is seen as a lesser evil associated with a potential alliance with either FG or SF. He's content to battle with Sinn Féin to be largest opposition party. This modest ambition means FG strategists may ignore FF debate, focusing firepower on SF - subliminally marginalising FF as irrelevant.

Spat of week was the FF billboard personally attacking Enda Kenny for failing hospital patients in preference to cutting top tax rates. Negative smears work - ask Ed Miliband. It's eminently preferable to a splurge of manifesto promises. All parties are mortgaging our futures with hundreds of millions of pledges to simultaneously cut USC, expand childcare subsidies and throw cash at enhanced public services. These commitments may be as valuable as a losing betting docket in the bookies.

FF's weekend priority is energy infusion amongst tepid frontbenchers, who must be much more aggressive in getting in the faces of every minister. Laid-back inertia and invisibility has been the hallmark of spokespersons. Traditionally, FF has the largest support base of any party. It's the sleeping giant of the campaign. Former die-hard DNA gene pool supporters may be 'shy Tory' respondents to opinion pollsters. Time's running out for Martin to inspire, assert and re-connect.

Premier pretenders

THe most exciting ever Premier League race is in prospect. No team seems capable of putting together back-to-back successes. Alan Hansen's maxim of not losing more than five matches is redundant. Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham compete for Champions League qualification, while Arsenal and Man City seemed poised for a fight to the finish. Injuries to Sanchez, Cazorla, Wilshire, Welbeck, Kompany and Nasri have resulted in inconsistency.

Leicester City's astonishing run of results, unrecognisable from relegation strugglers last season, is unsustainable; their challenge will peter out by March. In the past two seasons, Arsenal choked in the spring -Wenger's squad now has more quality and depth. The shadow of Pep Guardiola may unsettle the Etihad elite. My heart says Blues, my head fears Gunners in an epic title battle.

Irish Independent

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