'Striptease' on election date is weakening Government cohesion
Published 11/10/2015 | 02:30
With the final Budget of this administration three days away, one would expect forensic budgetary and fiscal analysis of the direction the Government should take.
What should the breakdown be between social supports for the vulnerable versus tax breaks for working people? Will the Government heed the warnings of the ESRI not to go wild and risk destabilising the recovery in the hope of winning favour with the electorate? Is the much-heralded USC reduction morally justified when so many people are homeless? But these important questions are being eclipsed by a total obsession on speculating about when the General Election will be held.
The €27bn capital spending programme launched recently hardly got a look in. For the first time in years, the Government has money to redistribute after a long period of fiscal constraints.
The figures are remarkably good, with tax receipts up, unemployment down to pre-crash levels and a palpable sense of confidence in the business community. This pre-Budget period should be a festival of democratic debate on how the economic and social recovery is going to be managed. It gives the opposition parties the chance to show their offering and challenge Government policy. It also allows the two Government parties to indicate their respective priorities and budgetary choices.
Instead, the hype is all about rumours and leaks that Fine Gael is poised on the starting blocks for a November election while its coalition partner is vehemently opposed to such an option.
Calling an election is the sole prerogative of the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny; so all eyes are on him. He is door-stepped at each public event and badgered for an election date. Each nuanced reply is parsed for hints of his intentions. Because of his tendency to use opaque language and equivocate when a microphone is in front of him (particularly this week) he has allowed this speculation to grow.
It's like a tiresome and slow striptease.
While announcing sports grant goodies, Michael Ring, the Taoiseach's somewhat mischievous constituency colleague, suggested that the poll should take place this year rather than next spring. Other Fine Gael TDs are saying that they, too, would plump for November. The rationale cited for "going to the park" sooner rather than later is that the public mood will be at its optimum immediately after a benign budget.
Why wait for some unforeseen event or mishap to rain on the Government's parade over Christmas and New Year?
FG is up in the polls and could win over 50 seats. Is it time to cut loose and quit while they're ahead?
But Labour leader Joan Burton is vowing to "stay the course", stressing the need to finalise important legislation and the Banking Enquiry. The real reason, perhaps, is that the Labour Party is still feeling the white heat of public anger related to austerity and cutbacks, which directly affected their voters and caused a flight to the far left and Sinn Féin.
They will undoubtedly gain some brownie points by measures in the Budget on childcare and a radical plan to address the housing crisis. But eaten bread is soon forgotten. They have not fared well in the opinion polls to date, despite clear interventions to moderate the influence of Fine Gael on social and welfare issues. Being progressive on women's reproductive freedom, marriage equality and refugees, however worthy, would appear to "butter no parsnips" to use Pat Rabbitte's memorable phrase.
Labour has a good story to tell but it seems to fall on deaf hears - the familiar lot of the small party in government. Not only are they blamed for all the bad news; they get no credit for the good stuff.
One senses that the party is not psychologically ready to face the electorate - and it shows. On the contrary, it is hoping that by hanging in there for a few more months, it can regroup and gain a few percentage points. But there is no certainty that things are going to improve for the party in terms of public sentiment.
In fact, with the homeless crisis getting worse and winter approaching, there will be plenty of ammunition to use against the Government parties. Winters also risk floods, flu epidemics, more homeless fatalities, rural crime sprees and all sorts of 'GUBU disasters' which could be avoided by an early election.
For all the considerable achievements of this Coalition Government, there are some glaring weaknesses, including the ongoing chaos in accident and emergency.
The unprecedented housing and accommodation crisis - including a 55pc rise in the number of homeless families in Dublin since the beginning of the year - also continues to evade solution, despite best efforts.
The Dublin Region Homeless Executive found more than 3, 000 adults have accessed homeless accommodation since January 2015. The majority of these homeless are not on the streets, but are like nomads, drifting in temporary accommodation, night shelters, B&Bs, hostels and refuges.
It would be unfair to attribute this entire problem to the current Government; it is a legacy of the property boom and bust and neglect by earlier governments.
But it will be held accountable for not resolving it to a greater extent. The housing plan, with incentives to developers and landlords to "unlock" thousands of affordable homes, and moves towards greater rent certainty for tenants are desperate attempts which may work if given time.
Labour needs more time; Fine Gael is raring to go.
The truth is that there are sound arguments for going early and also for delaying.
But if this inter-party row goes on, it will poison relations. It would be foolish for the Taoiseach to have a falling out with Labour by defying the Tánaiste. The two parties have agreed a voting transfer pact, an indication that the preference in both parties is to return to govern together after the election. For the larger party to adopt a strategically selfish approach on election timing would damage trust and even collapse the transfer deal.
"Every man for himself" is not the way to go. It looks unprincipled and weakens the promise of cohesive government being offered to the voters. Fine Gael and Labour have weathered the storm together.
They should stick together up to the finishing line.