Friday 22 November 2019

Let's resist pouring scorn on those ready to risk all to give real choice

The legal blockades facing Lucinda Creighton and her new party, Renua, are formidable fortifications erected for and by the establishment party elites
The legal blockades facing Lucinda Creighton and her new party, Renua, are formidable fortifications erected for and by the establishment party elites
Ivan Yates

Ivan Yates

Back in the bad old days, choice and competition were restricted. The biggest losers were the ordinary public. Once upon a time, your television viewing and radio listening was restricted to RTE or sketchy BBC reception. Sky and BT have joined TV3, UTV, Today FM, Newstalk, 2FM, Lyric, more than 30 local radio stations and a myriad of satellite options to provide a platform for innovative information and entertainment.

Aer Lingus combined with British Airways to operate a duopoly of air transport services between here and the UK, resulting in the highest prices on the busiest routes. In the 1980s, former Transport Minister Jim Mitchell pioneered aviation competition authorising routes for Ryanair, City Jet, British Midland and Aer Aran. CIE monopolised all public transport routes.

Why is it necessary to state this 'bleedin obvious' logic?

When it comes to politics, it's easier to urinate on new arrivals than perceive the long-term benefits to voters of more competition.

Queues of cynics form round the block to deride Ireland's newest party, Renua. They cannot wait to demonise this embryonic democratic project. On Saturday week (March 28) Shane Ross, Michael Fitzmaurice, Finian McGrath and John Halligan will hold an inaugural launch in Tullamore, Co Offaly, of the Independent Alliance.

They can also expect a chorus of criticism. Despite any reservations about sustainable solidity (not being a disciplined party rather than a flag of convenience) surely any cohesive new entrant only gives the voter more options.

Next Saturday's Right2Water (R2W) national march looks like the forerunner to a left-of-centre political grouping involving trade unions, Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) and academics, stretching beyond the water charges issue into policy in areas such as housing and healthcare. Fledgling political ventures will inevitably make lots of errors, misjudgements, media brain freezes and incomplete policy pronouncements. They will appear amateurish, even inconsistent. The easiest option for fence-sitters, naysayers, closet cronies and hurlers on the ditch is to deride their limitations.

All of the above groups lack a big political jungle beast, with past Cabinet experience. Instead of joining orchestras of cynicism, let's focus on the real inequality of our politics. The gates of Leinster House represent the most 'closed shop' syndrome in Irish life.

Let's start with money. Each year in this 31st Dáil, taxpayers donate €12.6m to four established political parties. Fine Gael nets €4.8m; Labour trousers €3m; Fianna Fáil cops €2.8m and Sinn Féin receives €1.8m. Over a full Dáil term this represents unprecedented booty: FG €24m; Labour €15m; FF €14m; and SF €9m.

No amount of presidential dinners, nationwide church gate collections, corporate lunches or national draws could ever amass such riches. The 1997 Electoral Act confers massive resources to incumbent parties to maintain a stranglehold on their market share of parliamentary seats. All funding is based on past election results. It is a "flexible friend" for organisational development, personnel, training, policy research and party administration. Outsiders get nothing.

The Parliamentary Assistance Allowance is only the beginning of discrimination. If a new party wishes to raise funds outside the state purse it is legally limited. Firstly, there's the disclosure rules. Any candidate receiving more than €100, or any party obtaining more than €1,000, must declare it. Secondly, an absolute ceiling applies to any contribution beyond €200 for a candidate and €2,500 to a party. These prohibitions effectively neuter private fundraising.

So for Renua, Independent Alliance or R2W to play on a level playing pitch with FG, they would need 9,600 donors. Imagine the scrutiny and subsequent allegations of potential "strings attached" mudslinging that would follow disclosure and receipt of contributions.

The four main insider parties legislate and regulate this unequal financial arrangement. When the regulator is a competitor, there's a blatant, inherent conflict of interest.

Discrimination in favour of the status quo is compounded across all constituencies by financial supports conferred on existing TDs. They enjoy grant aid of €20,350 to establish and run full-time constituency offices plus additional vouched expenditure refunds. Parliamentary Standard Allowances are separate to their personal salary, travelling and accommodation remuneration.

Along with a full-time secretary and parliamentary assistant, it amounts to feather-bedding of their re-election operations on a full-time basis. These resources confer huge advantages in servicing the needs of a parish pump, clientelist-orientated voting system.

Even if new entrants overcome the resource imbalance, a final barrier awaits them during the election campaign. The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland is obliged under various Broadcasting Acts to ensure "fairness, objectivity and impartiality" through codes of practice for television and radio. These promote air time in favour of status quo parties.

Don't expect to hear or see extensive official party political broadcasts from new standard bearers during the next election.

The legal blockades facing Lucinda Creighton, Shane Ross or Richard Boyd Barrett and others are formidable fortifications erected for and by establishment party elites.

In any other sector, it would be patently obvious that this stifles innovation and delimits open competition to new personnel.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil prefer a cosy culture of complacency. These rules cement 'politics as usual' in perpetuity. Irish politics desperately needs fresh ideas and outside energy.

Surely we deserve better than more nepotism, whereby "family seats" are handed down to the next generation.

The current party landscape reflects history, instead of the contemporary needs of modernisation. It promotes a culture of cronyism - appointments based on who rather than what you know.

The road ahead for the founders of new parties and alliances is hazardous and steeply uphill. Chances of even short-term success are screwed by a system that has been constructed by Machiavellian masters of self-preservation.

Resist pouring scorn on those who knowingly risk all in (probably vainly) providing us with a choice of right, left or centre. Without them we are left with Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

Closed shops operated by professions, cartels or unions are inimical to the public interest. An establishment political oligopoly can only be dismantled by voters taking risks.

Irish Independent

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