Monday 27 May 2019

Gene Kerrigan: Try, fail, keep on doing the same thing over

They're bright and they do cool soundbites. So, asks Gene Kerrigan, how come they keep making a mess of basic government?

Illustration by Tom Halliday
Illustration by Tom Halliday

These days, we're governed by young, intelligent, educated, articulate politicians. And not even one of them has been caught with a dodgy offshore account.

This is a big advance for those of us who lived through the Haughey era, when the Taoiseach was widely known to be financially corrupt.

And most of Varadkar's Cabinet still have their own hair. An advance, indeed, on the Kenny era, when the Cabinet was the oldest in decades and Michael Noonan was seen as an example of fresh economic thinking.

Admittedly, the current lot are working within a straitjacket of right-wing ideas from the 1990s. They picked up those ideas when right-wing economics hadn't yet been found out, in the 2008 collapse. And they'll stick with them to the bitter end.

Nevertheless, I've a soft spot for Leo and Paschal and Regina and Simon (x2) and Eoghan and even that fella with the funny haircut who speaks so fast that no one has ever understood a complete sentence.

I truly believe this: if Ben Dunne turned up at Leo Varadkar's house with a fistful of questionable cheques, the Taoiseach would not say "Thanks a million, Big Fella", as Charlie Haughey did.

Varadkar would more likely say "Are you effing mad?!?"

And, for some of us, that's reason to be thankful.

Yes, Haughey set the bar quite low. But we take comfort where we can find it, those of us who survived Haughey, and then watched later leaders smooching the builders and bankers and bondholders who were cheerfully building fortunes while guiding the economy towards disaster.

The leading figures of the current government are aware of the failures of the past, and want to be seen as bright, thrusting, capable people.

So, tell me this.

How come these bright young things continue the tradition of making a pig's mickey of the basics of government?

Leave aside the really tricky stuff - climate change, multi-trillion global debt, the instability of the EU - let's not even go there.

Every week, we have evidence of our impressive young leaders failing at the bread-and-butter tasks of running a state. Housing, health, transport and policing.

One failure after another.

Housing? Ten thousand people homeless, including 3,500 children. The Varadkarites are cool with housing costs being pushed up. They stand idly by as land-hoarders, vultures and dodgy estate agencies reap vast fortunes, while others sink beneath oppressive mortgages and impossible rents.

Health? There are more than 707,000 of us, over one in seven of all men, women and children, on waiting lists for medical attention.

Three psychiatrists resigned last week because services for children in the south-east are "unsafe". RTE explained that there were "supposed to be 30 clinicians working in the greater Wexford region but just five posts were filled at present."

Every single person of those 707,000 is damaged by these outrageous delays. Some are simply left in pain or discomfort, enduring minor conditions.

The health of others is severely worsened, while still others have their lives limited for years by conditions that need just a minor procedure.

Transport? For decades, right-wing governments deliberately allowed public transport to wither. Targeted neglect of buses created an unsustainable use of cars.

Now, the infatuation with Luas means they've turned O'Connell Street into a train station. They've endorsed panicky and reckless proposals for tearing up GAA grounds and people's gardens. These come from a mad belief that if they spend enough on the Luas and lash in some bus corridors, the whole thing will somehow come right.

Shane Ross is in charge of public transport. I repeat: Shane Ross is in charge of public transport.

Policing? What a triumph! A whole week without a new Garda scandal. Oh, wait, what's this? "Garda fail to test for drink or drugs in nearly half of all serious collisions".

New? I don't think so, though that headline was from just last week.

These next two headlines are from August 2012: "No breathalysers for over half of drivers in fatal accidents"; and "Varadkar to seek crash scene breath test pledge".

In short, the policing scandal that Varadkar promised to end six years ago is still continuing.

All this persistent failure in routine governance is happening in a small, socially stable, economically advanced European country that's enjoyed peace for more than 20 years.

Why?

It's not simple incompetence. It's not stupidity. It's politics.

These young, intelligent, educated, articulate people grew up with and are addicted to right-wing politics that have two central fetishes. They are: one, market forces must be allowed free to work their magic, because market forces will solve almost all problems.

And two, state services must be provided as a "safety net" for persistent problems, but must be as minimal as voters will tolerate.

Politicians and state agencies become good at doing the things they care about. They become hopelessly inefficient at doing the things they don't care about.

Our leaders care about the free market and the people who make fortunes from it; they care about "safety nets" (what the rest of us call state services) only in so far as they can minimise them.

And since the two major parties share those politics, their shared right-wing politics never took responsibility for their failures. They simply passed the spoils of office back and forth between them.

Take health as an example.

Yes, it's time for my favourite Brendan Howlin quote again. I may have this tattooed on my forehead.

After Brendan spent two years as Minister for Health, the reality of what his government was doing dawned on him. In order to maximise the private health insurance market, the government "really required the public system to be inferior", explained Brendan. "Why else, if it was first rate, would people pay for a private system?"

There's one cruel statistic that shows how this right-wing dogma is ruthlessly enforced.

Many of the public health system's problems come from shortage of beds, and people to staff them.

It causes long waiting lists and clogging of A&E units. From 1984 on, about 6,000 beds were cut. The resulting trolley crisis caused Mary Harney to declare a national emergency in 2006.

At that stage, we had 527 beds for every 100,000 of population.

Four years later, as the "emergency" worsened, this had been reduced to 275 beds per 100,000. We went from 94pc of the EU norm to 52pc.

It's as though they believe the policies have nothing to do with the problems.

The same cruel, relentless loyalty to right-wing dogma slashed the building of affordable housing.

Just as the failure to defend the bus system left people with little option but to clog the roads with cars.

The clear failures have meant that panicky governments, including this one, have had to spend billions in attempts to patch things up.

In the old days, FF would point at FG failures and claim they'd do better. Then they'd come in and do the same.

In turn, FG would point at FF failures and claim they'd do better.

That roundabout came unstuck in 2016, and FG/FF had to form their current cartel, to try to preserve the duopoly.

Now, the hope is that glib soundbites will save them ("We're making progress, they're making posters").

So, Varadkar courts an election, knowing housing, health and transport won't get better, so he might as well roll the dice.

Did I mention that Shane Ross is in charge of public transport?

Sunday Independent

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