News Liz O’Donnell

Thursday 18 September 2014

After months on auto-pilot, it's time the Coalition took things up a gear

Published 12/07/2014 | 02:30

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Pat Rabbitte was dropped
from Cabinet. Photo: Tom Burke
Pat Rabbitte was dropped from Cabinet. Photo: Tom Burke

With Garth Brooks and World Cup drama dominating the news, the Cabinet reshuffle had to take a back seat. While journalists, used to a regular diet of spin, were baying for a Government announcement to satisfy their copy deadlines, most people were otherwise preoccupied.

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It is serious that because of the elections and subsequent Labour leadership campaign, the Government has been totally distracted for nearly three months now. It is as though the country was running on auto-pilot as ministers laid low in the hope of survival and/or promotion. A lengthy Labour leadership campaign was inappropriate for a party of Government.

But in my view, despite the whinging of the political correspondents, the two leaders were right to spend the time agreeing a substantive policy programme. Who gets what job is less important although the media are obsessed with this blood sport element.

The clock is ticking towards the next election and there is major ground to make up for both parties if the country is to be spared a clatter of loony leftists and independents making gains.

I have qualms about structural departmental changes. Such reforms take ages to bed down and are operationally very disruptive. After the 2011 election, Trade was moved to Foreign Affairs. In a small, open economy, trade is fundamental to business so it should be part of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, which will now be overseen by Richard Bruton and the new 'super junior' from Labour, Ged Nash.

Despite a swipe against his suitability for the post of Commissioner by Gerry Adams under Dail privilege, Phil Hogan is on his way to Brussels. Sinn Fein certainly makes its presence felt by barking up every tree.

Mary Lou was early out of the traps on the Garth Brooks row, admirably supporting the income-generating concerts in the wider national interest rather than pandering to the local residents as would be expected from a local TD.

All in all, the Brooks carry-on resembled an episode of 'Callan's Kicks' and was politically unedifying.

There were bizarre calls for emergency legislation and even reminiscing for the old days of Bertie the fixer. The Taoiseach's intervention was ill-judged. It is difficult to imagine the British or German Prime Minister wading into a country 'n' western concert row but the lure of 400,000 votes won out.

One half expected Enda to turn up in a Stetson and wink into the camera. Undoubtedly there are legitimate planning concerns involved. But given the millions of income and public backlash at stake, such a decision would not have been made by an elected person.

My advice to the Government would be to get down to work immediately with renewed focus and determination. The public are more discerning than the media in these matters. If the Coalition can deliver some meaningful benefits to the lives of ordinary citizens over a finite period of 20 months and avoid mistakes like the medical card fiasco, the people will reward them for the undoubted progress made to date. The Labour initiative on social housing and measures to help the working poor and hard-pressed middle-income taxpayers will go a long way to assuage traditional Labour voters, who have been defecting elsewhere in their droves.

Already Tanaiste Joan Burton and deputy leader Alan Kelly are communicating Labour's priorities more clearly. They make a good team. Politics is essentially about the convincing communication of ideas and implementing policy. Ms Burton's record in Social Protection is one of operational reform. She is an ideologue in the best sense of the word and that definition is what her party needs.

People need to know first and foremost what the Labour Party stands for in 2014. Alan Kelly will prioritise social housing in the Department of Environment and will appeal to middle-class voters, given his pro-business perspectives and broader experience as an MEP. Securing a super junior role in the Jobs and Enterprise Department is a definite gain. The promotion of leadership contender Alex White is wise, but dropping Pat Rabbitte apparently without discussion with him is a regrettable lapse.

More important than the Cabinet reshuffle, there is now a clear statement of the priorities of the Coalition aimed to build on achievements to date and modest growth. Economic and social repair of society is a good way of describing this endeavour. It is reassuring that continuity is being maintained on the crucial Economic Management Council, the engine room of national recovery. Fresh legs, generational change and two extra women will enhance a Cabinet that had become jaded and accident-prone.

 

Liz O'Donnell

Irish Independent

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