Opinion Columnists

Thursday 23 January 2020

Colette Browne: 'Lessons must be learned from the century's terrible teens to give the world a clearer 2020 vision of the future'

Ireland had pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 20pc by 2020. Instead, the level of emissions will actually rise. (Stock photo: Getty Images)
Ireland had pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 20pc by 2020. Instead, the level of emissions will actually rise. (Stock photo: Getty Images)
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

The dawn of a new decade is an opportune moment to pause and consider - what lessons have we learned from the past 10 years that could transform politics in the 2020s?

Back to the future

In 2010, controversy surrounding political expenses resulted in the introduction of a "fobbing in" system to determine TDs' travel and accommodation allowance. Ten years later, that regime has now been called into question with the Taoiseach criticising it as "too easy to get around" and "too lax".

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The rules require TDs to fob in for 120 days to get their full entitlement. However, there is no way to confirm the identity of those fobbing in or the length of time they remain in the Houses of the Oireachtas.

The allowances given, without any requirement to produce vouching documents, are extremely generous. Those living within 25km of the Dáil receive €9,000 a year, but this increases enormously, to €25,295, for those living within 25km and 60km of Kildare Street. The highest allowance, €34,065, is awarded to those who live more than 360km away.

Politicians undoubtedly travel a lot as part of their job, but there is no reason their reimbursement of expenses should be any different from self-employed workers, who must rigorously keep receipts to justify every kilometre they claim.

The payment of €25,000 to TDs who live within average commuting distances of Dublin city centre is also gratuitous and cannot be justified, particularly in the absence of receipts which document the need for such bumper payments.

Politicians had the opportunity to reform their expenses regime 10 years ago and make it fully transparent, but they failed. If they want to avoid the inevitability of further scandals in the future, a new system should be put into place in which vouching becomes the norm, not an exception.

Social media needs to be tamed

The past decade has seen social media rapidly evolve, becoming entwined with every aspect of our lives. More than 50pc of us now get our news from social media, which is unsurprising considering behemoths like Facebook attract 2.6 million active users in Ireland alone.

The unrelenting rise of largely unregulated social media companies, and the manner in which we now consume information online, has left our political system vulnerable to attack. We know there was Russian hacking and interference in the 2016 American election, but little has been done in the interim to curb the ease with which bad actors can weaponise social media to derail campaigns.

In this country, legislation to regulate political advertising online, and to outlaw the use of bots in pushing political messages, must be prioritised. Thus far, the Government has been happy to allow tech companies to self-regulate. But given the huge amounts of money poured into online advertising and the proliferation of disinformation and fake news, this is no longer acceptable.

Social media users who see ads popping up on their screens should know if they are being specifically targeted by a campaign, why they have been targeted and who has paid for the ad. Limits to regulate the amount of spending during elections, similar to those which already exist for traditional campaigns, should also be urgently introduced.

Social media companies have enjoyed their wild west existence for too long and politics and public debate have suffered as a result. It will be difficult to get this genie back into the bottle, but politicians have to at least try.

Environment takes centre stage

The coming decade will test our resolve in combating the climate crisis as urgent action is now required to mitigate its worst effects.

No one, other than cranks and oil barons, denies the reality of climate change any longer. In Ireland, the Environmental Protection Agency has stated we are at risk from rising sea levels, more intense storms and rainfall events, an increased likelihood of flooding and water shortages during the summer.

Ireland had pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 20pc by 2020. Instead, the level of emissions will actually rise. This abysmal failure is not just bad for the environment. This year, the Government will spend €150m on carbon credits in an attempt to compensate for missed targets. The EU is also set to impose huge fines if greenhouse gas emissions are not significantly reduced.

For more than a year, schoolchildren across the world have been leading campaigners when it comes to tackling climate change. It's now time for the adults in Leinster House to follow their example and step up. All of our lives depend on it.

A new world order

Those who viewed the election of Donald Trump as an aberration confined to the United States have been proved wrong. The election of Boris Johnson last month has demonstrated that even the most liberal of democracies is vulnerable to the contagion of strongman politics.

Exemplified by their cult of personality and eschewing of democratic norms, Johnson joins leaders like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Viktor Orban in Hungary and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, who are intent on reshaping the international world order from globalist to isolationist.

The coming decade will be a test of whether that world order can endure.

Since his election, Trump's protectionist trade policies, virulent criticism of the EU and incessant undermining of international institutions such as Nato have been chipping away at this world order.

The next month will see the unprecedented exit of the UK from the EU, casting Britain adrift from its allies and into a prostrate position as it seeks to replace trade deals it once held by virtue of its EU membership.

The impact of this unravelling of institutions will be felt across the planet, perhaps most acutely in this country, which stands to suffer most from Brexit, particularly if the UK leaves the EU as promised at the end of 2020. If the old world order is to survive the onslaught of Trump and his acolytes, it must reform.

Trump and Johnson swept to power by tapping into the deep disaffection of those who blame globalisation for the loss of traditional industries and their jobs, the unskilled workers who read about the fabulous wealth enjoyed by those who live in cosmopolitan cities while their home towns are ravaged by unemployment, drug addiction and deprivation.

These voters are tired of being ignored. They want political leaders to acknowledge their concerns and to provide solutions that can offer some hope.

Strongman politicians may not have credible answers to these societal problems, but they speak to these voters in a clear way that doesn't patronise or offend.

Unless centre-ground politicians can find a way for globalisation to work for the bottom 40pc as well as the top 10pc, those on the losing side of the equation will continue to vote for those who promise to dismantle its entire edifice. And it will crumble.

Irish Independent

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