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Brendan Keenan: Voters don't want promises, they want to see the country sorted out

ALLOW me to share with you just a small selection of my e-mails of the past few days, sent by the political parties.

"FG to promote high tech jobs to help lead Ireland's recovery." "Labour will promote our creative industries, to aid recovery."

"Fine Gael found out on cuts, stealth taxes and charges -- Rosin Shortall TD."

"€1,361 annual additional cost of Labour tax plans for every household -- Michael Noonan TD."

And so it goes on. (There has been virtually nothing, by comparison, from Fianna Fail, which may say something; although what there has been is in the same vein. There has been lots and lots from Independents).

One does not like to argue with professional politicians. One has to assume they know their business. But I still find it hard to accept that people pay attention to this kind of thing, or that it persuades them how they should vote.

Credibility

For all these claims to have credibility, the citizens have to believe that Irish political parties have discovered the elixir of life where economies are concerned -- how to create jobs.

They also have to believe that, with a deficit before interest and bank costs of €10bn, if they vote for one political party, the rise in their tax burden and the cuts in their public services will be noticeably less than if they voted for another.

Let us hope they don't believe it. It seems to have escaped the general attention that this kind of thinking largely got us into the mire. Government, it says, can save you from unemployment, and from having difficulty paying your bills.

For the past 10 years, it did. Had it not -- had we maintained a sensibly-sized building industry, cautious banks, and a public service whose costs were rising in line with long-term growth -- the unpleasant fact is that there would have been at least 200,000 fewer jobs in 2007 than was actually the case.

There's job creation for you -- and the results are disastrous. It is also the case that, had the excesses of the Ahern years not taken place, total taxation, excluding property-related taxes, would have had to be around one-fifth higher than it actually was.

The 2000s would not have been boom years, but a period when unemployment and taxation resumed their traditional role as troublesome political issues.

Possibly that is how it should be in a well-managed economy. Most of the time in the economic cycle, there will not be enough jobs for everyone who wants one; and something is seriously amiss when taxation is near the bottom of voters' concerns, as it was in the Bertie bubble.

Unemployment is already back to its traditional high place in the worry stakes. Taxation will climb higher over the next few years. The parties are right that these are big issues, and will say that is why they dominate their campaigns. Unlike the campaign promises, though, the winning party or parties will spend the next few years managing the consequences of high unemployment and rising taxes, not alleviating them.

The question they might like to ask, as they mothball the promises, is whether the central place in Irish politics of providing jobs and higher incomes is not, in fact, part of the central problem?

At times, Irish political economy resembles that "cargo cult" in the remote Pacific islands where the inhabitants, having accidentally received food in a US air drop during the war, gave prayers and sacrifices to the gods for the bounty to be resumed.

If anything like that is the case, it might explain why there was nothing distinctively different in any of the party manifestoes. Those professional politicians reckoned that voters will still choose those they think would be nicest to them.

Somehow, it does not feel that way. The impression gleaned from comments, interviews and polls, is that the voters do not want goodies, they want things fixed. It may well be the case -- one hopes it is -- that the voters are about to choose a government on different grounds and are not paying much attention to the promises.

If so, they are getting the economics right. The infantile politics of the past 10 years has left the country's systems largely incapable of supporting a successful, export-driven economy.

The essential task of restoring the public finances through a broader, less generous tax system, and a public service that costs far less to run, will have to be accompanied by the urgent task of repairing and renewing the administrative system and uprooting the more parasitical elements of the private sector.

While the jobs and taxation pages of the manifestos may have to be consigned to the bin, the governing parties' ideas on reform have much to recommend them.

They should be re-examined, improved upon, and implemented.

It was a bit surprising to see that the group that set up a system to score the parties on reform proposals (reformcard.com) ranked Fine Gael ahead of Labour. Reform, one would have thought, should be Labour's core message.

But as the organisers admit, the system is subjective and opinions can vary on what is most important. My own view, as you might expect, is that open government is the single most vital reform. It is also the one that politicians in power and civil servants hate most.

Yet it is naive to expect efficient, honest governance from a system so shrouded and protected by secrecy. To make matters worse, other EU countries continue to open up their systems, on the grounds that it makes for better performance as well as more democracy, leaving Ireland further behind in its old, discredited ways.

It is already far behind in the slimming of the public sector to core activities and the application of harsh regulation which sweats suppliers of essential services rather than cosseting them, as Irish regulations -- and Irish judges -- do. Then there are the 110 or so local councils, with their 37,000 employees, inadequate budgets and, as a consequence, crippling business taxes.

These are the power bases and nurseries of the political parties and it is hard to see a Mayo politician doing much about them. We can but hope.

We can but hope as well for action on accountability, the measurement of performance in the public sector -- with accompanying bonuses and demotions -- evidence published in advance of major policy decisions, proper resources and powers for Oireachtas committees, and lots of other things that should have been taken for granted long ago.

Do some of that, and it might even be possible to make some credible promises in a few years time. Sink into the comfortable old inertia as previous Irish Governments have done, and in five years' time we will -- to quote Brian Cowen -- be where we are.

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