Just when we thought Fine Gael was getting impressively ready for Government, riding high in the polls despite sticking firmly to its often tough policies, along it comes with another PR gimmick, and surely the most populist and crowd pleasing of them all: creating a website where the public can give their views in easy sound bites on that rather general question, "What's wrong with the country?" As one respondent correctly put it, "If you don't know what's wrong already, then you shouldn't be in politics."
The site seems a silly idea, and one that distracts from the real job of a political party and the seriousness that FG had so recently shown with its commitment to public service reform and Michael Noonan's tough stance on the IMF bailout.
FG could have opportunistically tailored its policies of late to suit a future coalition with Labour, but instead it has been creating a position consistent with its base and reputation as prudent State corrector. It has carved out a coherent policy. So why this need to reopen its policy package and throw it open to the floor, so to speak?
The website smacks of easy gimmickry, but also insecurity. The party obviously feels it hasn't milked enough moaning yet from the Culture of Complaint and the angry world of talk radio, texters and pissed-off Tweeters. But it looks superficial and opens FG up to ridicule: the site crashed on its first day, such was the volume of traffic, and Fianna Fail has had great play with the idea of Virtual Enda and wondered when it could debate the real one.
This is a reference to the site's explanatory video message from party leader Enda, sitting in a smart cafe and sipping a cappuccino, suitably full of froth. Apparently, politicians spend too much time talking and not enough listening, and now FG is going to listen to the views of the people. But as well as being a well-worn cliche -- the people have been talking very loudly for two years now -- it also implies that FG hasn't been listening.
Although the public's comments are often good (and eccentric, with "legalise cannabis" popping up a few times), they are, in the main, predictably gloomy and fatalistic and -- this is important -- connect FG with a culture of negativity. Anyone who tires of the relentless shrill criticism of bearded growlers like James Reilly will get little respite here. Remember how Liam Cosgrave was depicted as the Minister for Hardship back in the Seventies and how it damaged that FG period in government? People want to be inspired, not demoralised all the time, and this tickertape of negativity does not inspire.
But more seriously, it begs two questions about FG: is it not happy with the policies it already has and is developing and, second, can it not lead for a change instead of following the mob and the online ranters? Where's the gravitas? You may as well have government by text messages.
Also, what does it say about the value of its own membership, and their views, if the likes of random bloggers are contributing in this way? Apparently, some of the anti-Corrib gas pipeline protesters had tried to get themselves listed, and I've no doubt the Socialist Workers Party people will be hacking their way in. This is a tent so big that there's no one left outside it, and an electronic town hall where everyone gets a say.
Many of the contributors seem to know this. "Almost as bad as the fact that FF has run the country into the ground," writes one, "is the prospect of a populist policy-less government led by Enda Kenny." Spot on, sir. And surely a tactic better left to Labour. "This website falls flat on its face," writes another, "with regards to providing for proper public discourse. From the
250-character limit to the inability to properly browse and respond to suggestions, everything is set up to provide nothing but sound bites."
The comment roll also moves too quickly, so that one confusedly merges into another. But this doesn't matter, for the idea seems to be to just create background noise, feeding the cacophony of pain and so do more damage to the Government. But, hey guys, the FF-led government is effectively gone, you don't need to rant any more.
And, on this, the party is being foolish, for it is fashioning a rod for its own back, for when it gets into government. By pandering to every wish and whim of the electorate, it is inevitably going to disappoint a lot of people. In the video, Enda Kenny talks about ending emigration, just like that.
FG would be better off going quiet for a while and availing of the January lull to rest itself for the spring contest, when such gimmickry is more appropriate. Otherwise, it smacks of a party desperate to follow the mob and get into government at any cost.