Friday 22 February 2019

The number's up for statistics in lying game

For our leaders, politics begins and ends with getting elected. Which is why the figures are rigged, writes Gene Kerrigan

In January 2006 this column claimed: "The current government is the worst in the history of the State."

Today, that's a commonplace belief. It's generally accepted that the government of Taoiseach Bertie Ahern smugly presided over a debt bubble, undermining the tax base. And that his hapless successor Brian Cowen bailed out the bankers and bondholders and sent the bill to the rest of us.

In January 2006, though, Ahern was considered some kind of political genius. His government was in its tenth straight year in office, the Celtic Tiger was roaring its loudest. It would be another 20 months before the bubble burst.

I'd love to say that the January 2006 column was written from my unique understanding of why an economic collapse was inevitable, but that wouldn't be true. To be fair, my understanding of the economy was in fact as deep as that of some of the country's top economists - by which I mean I hadn't a clue what was coming next, and neither did they.

What I did understand was how you accurately measure the performance of a government.

If you measure political success by election victories Ahern was a winner - he'd won two general elections and was about to win a third.

If you measure political success by GDP growth, the number of flash buildings thrown up or the fist-pumping of wannabe entrepreneurs slagging off the 'losers', you would call Ahern a winner.

However, if you measure a government by what it does, Ahern's government was a disgrace.

And looking around at the state of the country after six years of Enda Kenny in office, we now have a government that credibly challenges Ahern's regime for the title of worst government in the history of the State.

You measure a government by what it does - in relation to the possibilities open to it.

With the British gone, WT Cosgrave faced civil war and the settling of old scores; De Valera had to work within global depression, then world war. Various governments prior to Ahern had to deal with deep poverty and widespread slums, continuing conflict in the North, Special Courts, mass unemployment, mass emigration.

The oppressive conservatism of FF and FG didn't help, but the problems were huge, the surrounding world was in turmoil, and the potential for change wasn't great.

For over a decade Ahern governed a country thriving on EU transfers and political stability. It was awash with money, and the paramilitaries had been on ceasefire for three years when he became Taoiseach.

Despite the stability and the surging revenue take, Ahern complacently presided over schools with prefab classrooms, an A&E trolley crisis, long hospital waiting lists and persistent poverty.

There was no sense that real change was in prospect.

Obscene poverty and lack of hope existed alongside the flaunting of unbridled wealth. Those in office exulted in the company of the vulgar rich.

This current FG Government and its Independent enablers, supported by its mock opposition in FF, is every bit as complacent about such things.

After the bankers and politicians managed to collapse the economy, the rest of us - in Michael Noonan's words - "took one for the team" (the team being the European banking system). Throughout the recession, the wealthiest retained their position. The occasional poor dear had to go to the UK and have a few pints while waiting for the bankruptcy clock to run down.

More important - all the structured inequalities and unfairness survived untouched. The hidden subsidies for the well-off remain in place, as do the obstacles for those born in the wrong area.

The sick and the poor are as afflicted in 2017 as they were in 2006. And we have little reason to believe the emergency department corridors won't be clogged with trolleys a decade from now.

On top of that, the Kenny Government has contrived to undermine any vestige of confidence that those in charge care about much beyond the next election.

In this small, rich country, half-a-million people - give or take a few tens of thousands - are on hospital waiting lists. But we found out last week the lists are rigged to massage the numbers, with some patient categories not included in totals.

The Journal.ie revealed last month how patients are moved out of emergency departments before the INMO Trolley Watch count is due, and left temporarily in other places, such as the acute medical unit, thereby reducing the numbers counted on trolleys.

Just as waiting list patients are divided into visible lists and lists within lists and lists behind lists, so it has long been the practice to disguise the numbers unemployed.

Oh, those aren't unemployed, they're training. Those ones over there - ah, that's a different list.

When they're counting the numbers in emergency accommodation they don't include the people sleeping on mats on the floor. House-building? Well, compare the official figure with the completions and you get to subtract a couple of thousand fantasy houses.

When the official figures for economic growth came out last July they were ludicrous. No one anywhere had ever had 26pc growth in a year. But that's the way the dodgy figures added up, so they had to release them, blushing. Ireland's 'leprechaun economics' was greeted with laughter from several continents. The tax scams and the special arrangements for the multinationals have so thoroughly mucked up the official figures that we can't even measure how the real economy is performing.

Crime? The Central Statistics Office found that 16pc of crimes reported were not entered on the Pulse system. And gardai routinely downgrade almost half of robberies and burglaries "without justification". Some 18pc of crimes allegedly solved lack the paperwork to prove it.

No official figure or fact coming out of Official Ireland can be relied on.

All statistics are massaged. Just pluck a figure out of your backside, smile confidently and the professionals employed to help you present the figures will swallow their pride and go along with the joke.

And all of us - not just the politicians - have come to live with this as though it's normal.

The political ideology underlying the farce is bog standard centre-right. It's inherited, along with all the rest of the party political baggage. And it's lightly held. Any alleged principle can be dropped if it becomes unhelpful for electoral purposes.

Politics is about getting elected, full stop.

You might get a chance to do something useful, but you must never let that get in the way of your electoral prospects. There are people who spend 30 years in the Dail displaying no evidence that they've ever had a political thought. They go to a lot of funerals, they shake a lot of hands and they're fanatical about watering their grassroots.

Along the way, the brightest among them oversee government departments, some have occasional good ideas and sometimes even get them into legislation - but mostly it's about striking a pose.

Old Man Wisdom, in the case of Michael Noonan (an image only slightly dented by the fact that Pearse Doherty had to correct his figures last year, a fact that cannot be repeated too often).

Young Simon Harris, God love him, is the Pacino of empathy, but unfortunately has of late bumped into the reality of his department's rigged figures.

Bertie or Enda, which wins the Worst Government in the History of the State award? I'd call it a draw.

Sunday Independent

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