The elections showed a lack of faith in all the political parties
Voters could not forgive Labour or Fine Gael for economic austerity or the HSE's medical card scandal
Published 01/06/2014 | 02:30
It is the tragedy of political leaders to oversell expectations, under-deliver in government and spend most of the next term on the run from the media, making up excuses. Such was the antipathy towards Fianna Fail that voting for them was like turning up at a funeral with a get-well-soon card, nevertheless neither Fine Gael nor Labour could resist misleading the public, a pattern now embedded in the economic narrative of the Labour usurper, Sinn Fein.
In the cynical calculations of vote game, the con is to promise to get the next fella to pay your bills for you. Sinn Fein and Labour before them, spun the yarn that the net contributors to the public finances could simply be squeezed for more, to lighten the burden on the net takers, whom they largely represent. In this daft world it is assumed that a linear increase in the tax rate results in a corresponding linear intake of fresh tax revenues.
Both parties implicitly accept that hammering workers at over 50 per cent on the next euro they earn is both unjust and economically damaging but cling to the stupidity that taking a baseball bat to higher paid workers at rates of over 60 per cent will produce an entirely different result.
Last Monday night, Sinn Fein TD Peadar Toibin, speaking on TV3, promised to abolish water charges by increasing the tax take on Ireland's high achievers, clearly expecting them to just stand there and get hosed. He also reiterated Labour's policy to decapitate pension tax relief at just 20 per cent, but tax most of the benefits at over 50 per cent, yet still expecting the middle classes to shovel money into the swamp. Toibin gravely told Vincent Browne that: "If you want Nordic type services you must have Nordic type taxes." Indeed, he could have been any Labour grandee before the 2011 General Election.
In Sweden the average gross pay is nearly €47k a year but the State takes €21k in taxes and insurance, that's 45 per cent of pay, leaving the average Swedish single worker with €26 grand in cash to spend in a country where a pint knocks you back a tenner and a combo meal at McDonalds is €7.15. You can buy a loaf of bread for €2.30 and a kilo of chicken breasts for €8.66, a new pair of 501 jeans for €105 and a pair of men's leather shoes for €125.
A one-bed apartment in Stockholm costs about €11,500 a year to rent but it takes about 2.5 years queuing to get one. City centre prices per square metre exceed €7,200 and, based on a recent central bank study, many Swedes will die still in mortgage debt. In Ireland we surrender 20 per cent at the average pay rate to the State, less than half that of Sweden and when you hit twice the Irish average that rises to 36 per cent of total pay, at a hundred grand its 41.2 per cent and at half a million a year you can hand over 49.9 per cent of the lot – that's why it's called Europe's most progressive tax system.
So what are these mid- term elections results really telling us – that Ireland now wants to become Sweden just because Sinn Fein has replaced Labour?
I don't think so. What's really coming through is that the middle ground is fed up with the old conventional parties which explains the big shift towards independents. The public has outgrown the old brands and doesn't believe a word about reform from any of them. Who could blame them? If so, the results are yelling for a fresh political movement.
In 2011 Eamon Gilmore was unequivocal about what he was selling: "That is what this election is all about. Real, transformative change that can bring about the kind of Ireland we want to live in, not just for ourselves but for our children as well."
Roll forward three years and there is a palatable sense of anger fuelled in the run-up to the elections by harrowing testimonies about the savagery of removing free medical aid from Ireland's most vulnerable citizens – children with severe and permanent physical and brain disabilities. The Jack & Jill Children's Foundation, having warned the Taoiseach about the coming calamity, offered 33 cases in evidence.
On the eve of the election Jonathan Irwin recounted to Pat Kenny on Newstalk how James Reilly had left a meeting with the children's charity after five minutes in 2012, never to return. The question left hanging before the elections was how can the Government expects us to believe in its reform agenda when it refused to stop the HSE inflicting such cruelty. The Government, last week, U-turned on its medical card policy but it took an electoral waterboarding to do it.
Many in the middle ground appear to have taken the view that the Coalition has blown the opportunity for real reform. Why can a senior civil servant dictate terms of engagement to a parliamentary committee and get away with it? Where is the bonfire of the quangos promised by both parties, 145 state bodies and companies by Fine Gael?
Neither party has shown any appetite in tackling public spending excesses like the hundreds of allowances masquerading as core pay. Both have supported the cocooning of 15 per cent of the workforce with an unjustifiable pay premium over the private sector and continue to gift the highest pay rates in Europe.
But, perhaps most troubling for the Coalition, is the general feeling of being conned all over again. Gilmore promised "Labour is the party to reform politics because we have the best track record on reform. Labour is the party to reform our public services because we believe in the value of public service, and what its potential is.
"Government is not the business of the insiders, it is the business of us all. It's time to roll up the tent and put the concerns of the people at the heart of Government."
Gilmore's messianic manifesto was mirrored by Enda Kenny's five-point plan which promised a smaller government and more efficient and fairer health system. The incoming Taoiseach declared that: "Behind the wreckage of our banking system, our health service, our public finances and the jobs market, lies a cosy culture of cronyism and low standards that infiltrated the top of our political and public service systems under recent Governments."
Under Enda Kenny, the economic turnaround is driven by a rigid adherence to the Troika plan but the public labour cartel has remained intact and incapable of real reform. Meanwhile the banks leaned over the Dept of Finance to write the insolvency laws. The only parachute left on the plane is to make the EU deliver on its promises to backload the ESM funds into the Irish banks, giving the Coalition some cash to spend – but it may be too late.
Last word goes to 10-year- old Alexander Coyle, a former Jack & Jill child who introduced himself by tweet and later to Brendan O'Connor on The Saturday Night Show. "My name. Alexander. I can't talk, walk or go to the toilet. Nappies. 31 medications a day. HSE took my med card away." Indeed Alexander, and when the local and European elections came around, the public tore the Government's prestige asunder.
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