Wednesday 19 December 2018

After two years, what's the Government done for us?

Leo Varadkar might prefer to fight an election than endure another year of concession and defeat, writes Eoin O'Malley

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar

It's now two years since the Fine Gael-Independents minority coalition was formed. Expectations were low at the time. Most commentators, including me, didn't rate its chance of seeing out a year very highly. In May 2016 most people were just relieved to see a government formed.

But there were some optimists who thought that with a much more powerful Oireachtas, some of the old mistakes that governments make would be avoided - because the Government couldn't railroad stuff through the Dail and Seanad in the ways it was used to.

The new Government might be hamstrung, the feeling went, but this would be no bad thing. It would be accountable to the Oireachtas, and have to try harder to govern well.

As it marks its second birthday, how might we say the Government has fared?

It is hard to know whether a government performs well. On most metrics, Ireland is doing remarkably well - yet we still complain. Even in Heaven they must whinge about something.

We shouldn't judge it on the cervical cancer scandal. Scandal haunts even well-functioning governments, because sometimes its cause is down to bad luck, or it is due to decisions taken years before a government took office.

And if this Government isn't performing well, is it because of the Government's performance or because the Oireachtas isn't allowing it govern?

Pinning blame is usually easy in Ireland, but we now have a type of divided government, so if nothing is being done, it might not be the Government's fault.

When it entered office, the people hadn't told it clearly what was wanted in the 2016 election - but the Irish National Election Survey did give us some pointers.

Asked about the balance between taxing and spending, there was a two-to-one preference for public spending over tax cuts.

The two budgets reflected this desire. The Government's two budgets gave little in tax decreases.

There were big increases in the spending on health and housing. But in both areas you might be forgiven for wondering where it went. Housing Assistance Payment consumes hundreds of millions, but it's not money that delivers much.

People too often make the mistake of equating spending money with doing things, but the Government has merely overseen good money being pumped into bad projects.

As Dan O'Brien pointed out in this paper a few weeks ago, we continue to run large budget deficits at a time when our economy is booming. This pro-cyclical budgeting was something that led to the last crisis.

The deficit is in part because the configuration of the Dail means it's hard to say no. Paul Murphy demands an end to water charges, then Sinn Fein follows, and Fianna Fail falls in behind them. They got removed, but it didn't solve any problem, apart from the problem of the Government's own political survival.

That's been the story of this government. Although Varadkar strides the political stage with assuredness, he's no leading man.

Rhetorically we hear the vision of a Republic of Opportunity, but it's not clear what that means in practice. The Government is reactive, trying to keep itself together, without going too far against its better judgment.

The fragmented Dail and Seanad means there are now more access points to policy making than ever before. Any interest group can get its issue on the agenda. With a political system that doesn't like to say no, many proposals get taken more seriously than they should.

We've seen huge numbers of private members' bills, more than ever before. In the 2000s there was an average of about 70 bills published a year; last year, there were 156. There have been 50 already this year. Not many make it into law - only a quarter of them became Acts in 2017. In the past, about three-quarters of bills would become law.

The Government isn't strong enough to stand up to well-intentioned but frivolous ideas.

There's a bill to force radio stations to play Irish language songs. Some are straight out of students' union politics, such as the Arts (Dignity at Work) Bill or the Provision of Objective Sex Education Bill.

The Seanad is trying to put into legislation minimum response times for local authorities to get back to councillors' queries.

They aren't all bad goals, but often they shouldn't be bills at all because there are better ways to approach these issues.

Even the Government's own bills aren't in great shape. The chief legal officer regards the Judicial Appointments Bill as a "dog's dinner".

There have been only six acts passed in the first four months of 2018. The number of acts passed is hardly a measure of quality of a government or the legislature, but it does show what a political system's priorities are.

Some acts give effect to decisions made at EU level. Others are minor, but essential to the running of the country. But there is no evidence of a vision that Varadkar could call his own.

One act enables the name change of institutes of technology. Another allowed pubs to serve alcohol on Good Friday. A third changed the rules to make it easier to appoint an outsider to senior positions in the Garda. Not really the stuff a legacy will be built on.

The National Development Plan could be something with real impact - but it's in the delivery, not the announcement, that we'll judge this. Again because of the Government's precarious position in the Dail, it's forced to dilute the plan - giving something to everyone, but reducing the potential impact.

If the Eighth Amendment is repealed, and the Government passes legislation to give effect to that decision, Varadkar can claim some credit (or blame).

But as the Budget negotiations start in the summer, he might think that an election sooner would be better than another year of concession and defeat.

  • Dr Eoin O'Malley is director of the MSc in Public Policy at the School of Law & Government in DCU

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