Friday 15 November 2019

Enda: Here's what you need to do to win the next election

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Finance Minister Michael Noonan: their ‘Spring Statement’ won’t win them the Election
Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Finance Minister Michael Noonan: their ‘Spring Statement’ won’t win them the Election
Ivan Yates

Ivan Yates

The 'Spring Statement' was a classic example of abject political non-communication. It failed to set the context or parameters for the next election campaign. We're on the countdown to the hustings and the chosen battleground for the next Dáil and government. This set piece confirmed that governments govern in prose, but do election campaigns in poetry.

Turgid, macroeconomic and fiscal plans could have been issued by the departmental technocrats, EU commission bureaucrats or ECB Eurocrats as a Stability Pact Programme update.

Contrast Barack Obama campaigning to his pontificating as president. The former was full of hope and conviction, the latter is lacklustre, boring, ineffective and soulless.

During the last election, Enda Kenny reiterated ad nauseum Fine Gael's 'five-point plan'. Bits I vaguely recall: new politics, abolition of the Senate, ending patronage/cronyism, a new era to create 70,000 extra jobs through new state companies and the Universal Health Insurance plan.

Fine Gael got its highest ever returns with 76 TDs. We got: zero reform of the Seanad, jobs for the boys, Irish Water, lifetime community rating, an aborted universal health plan and a ministerial casualty.

The outcome is irrelevant to my point. Winning votes is all about connecting with people's aspirations, sating the hunger for perceptible change.

If ministers expect their record and economic stability will suffice to secure re-election, they're delusional. The next 'five-point plan' needs to be formulated right now to become repetitively ingrained.

The Taoiseach tried to put some specifics on the Noonan/Howlin monotones, promising a 1pc cut in PAYE and making 500,000 workers exempt from the USC. In itself, it's small potatoes.

Promises of €5-10 net gains per week won't win seats. Ministers protest that this new non-drama was always going to lack specifics, being merely a framework for future budgets. While they remain peeved at this anti-climax, they're missing the key point of the criticism. Economic "atmospherics" are external factors that dictate growth, irrespective of who's in government or their policies.

Low global interest rates, cheap crude oil, extra liquidity from the ECB's quantitative easing and a devaluation of the Euro have all enhanced our competitiveness, stimulated demand for our exports and ensured prosperity. But none of these confer any kudos to government politicos.

If circumstances were to abruptly alter, all five-year forecasts of 3.25pc automatic growth would disappear. Government ministers can't control global economics any more than Evelyn Cusack or Jean Byrne can control the weather.

Instead of bemoaning negative media analysis, Kenny and Burton should sell us their "to do" wish list of Government measures to improve ordinary lives, in plain, campaign-speak.

Here's my strategic scenario:

1. Debt: A fresh start for those with legacy pain directly attributable to the banking crash. This means households with unsustainable mortgages and owner/manager/self-employed individuals with unresolved debts from costly boom-time investments.

Up to 60,000 individuals are still ensnared on treadmills of threats, litigation and distress from financial institutions which won't cut workable deals. The Personal Insolvency Act 2012 must be rewritten to favour debtor deals to compel bankers to negotiate. This means removing secured creditor vetoes and reducing the bankruptcy period to one year.

2. Housing: Meeting the emergency housing targets with €4bn social housing programmes. New house construction targets of 25,000 annually won't be met if the construction industry isn't fit for purpose.

Outside our cities, building firms are currently laying off people, due to the inactivity from price differentials between the costs of new accommodation relative to prevailing house prices. The 'wedge' of tax costs between building and buying a house amounts to 30pc through VAT, local authority levies and red tape. Infrastructural planning permission blockages need to be ironed out. The 2020 plan, launched last May, must be replaced - it's not working.

3. Reform: Behind the self-congratulatory backslapping, reform of public services in the austerity era mostly meant voluntary/early retirement personnel reductions. Pay cuts will gradually be reversed beyond 2016, through the dismantling of FEMPI. We will have wasted the crisis in terms of fundamental change. 'Jobs for life' instead of fixed-year contracts remain a reality for new entrants to the civil service. Unearned increments still universally accrue, compulsory redundancy is still taboo. Let's try again.

4. Pensions: Despite four years in office, more paperwork and a 'working group' is all we have to show for the predictable requirements of unfunded pensions for up to 1.1 million people over 66 by 2036. An auto-enrolment national scheme requires legislative implementation, co-financed by employers, employees and the State. The National Pension Reserve Fund, stuck on a paltry €6bn, must be the recipient of bank share sales and the proceeds of a new privatisation round.

5. Social: Predicted population growth, demographic developments and societal urbanisation necessitate a planned approach to the provision of economic and social infrastructure. The uniform delivery targets of healthcare in hospitals and GP surgeries, in terms of waiting times and treatment, remains elusive. A transparent provision of accessible schools with maximum class sizes and measurable teaching standards is remote as ever.

The €17.5bn costs of modern water/sanitary services remains unfunded; rural broadband roll-out promises have been broken. Political patronage, through ministerial constituency preference rather than objective priorities, determines project progress.

A charter of delivery for citizens should espouse meaningful timetables and outcomes for all of these issues. In 2011, there were no options; only the implementation of the four-year troika bailout programme.

In 2016, we can espouse a post-austerity vision for Ireland Inc and living standard goals.

If the 'Spring Statement' marks the starting point on this journey, we're already mired in technocratic mediocrity, devoid of imagination, ambition or dreams.

Irish Independent

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