Thursday 19 September 2019

Lucky-bag politics and sloganeering moulding us into a banana republic

Ivan Yates

Ivan Yates

It was jarring to hear the boss of one polling firm claiming pundits and bookies were blindsided by the demolition of Fine Gael as the campaign closed.

I would argue such a view is just self-serving nonsense. A full week before polling day, Paddy Power's seat index for Fine Gael was 50.5 (bet above or below). My own prediction gave it 51 seats.

In fact, the destiny of most of the 158 seats could be gauged from the local election results in May 2014. The outcomes were pretty much a mirror image of the pattern from the city/county councils.

Given the similarity of candidates in both contests it is easy to conclude that Dáil Éireann is morphing into one giant national county council.

For a multitude of reasons I regard the race for the 32nd Dáil as the most depressing election campaign in history.

Having battled through all the party manifestos - relative to reports/studies on international policy development and best practice across a whole range of economic and societal problems - none of them meaningfully engaged with the complexity of modern challenges. Invariably, they simply sought to throw money at health, education, crime, welfare and housing.

Glaringly absent was any insight or serious response to the conundrum of housing construction costs. Currently home-building is uneconomic by about €20,000 per unit.

There has been no planned provision for the additional 20,000 old-age pensioners every year right up to 2036.

Nor is there a blueprint to facilitate the auto-enrolment to a pension scheme for 50pc of private sector workers who have no savings plans.

There were no value for money reforms to make health services more efficient. No targets for improved educational attainment outcomes underpinning the third-level sector. It all added up to so much populist, short-term, lucky-bag politics.

Even the socialist parties didn't appear to look beyond short-term protest politics. In the UK a mansion tax was advocated by Labour and the Liberal Democrats on high-value homes. Here, Anti-Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit promised to abolish taxes on residences (Local Property Tax). The plush homes of the wealthiest are to be tax-exempt; they will be treated the same as those who do not own a home.

The political "ideology" if it can be called such in Ireland today doesn't really rise beyond simplistic sloganeering.

Fianna Fáil's "fair recovery" versus "keeping recovery going" are cases in point. Our policy platforms are dumbed down to the level of being Dutch auctions.

One of the most disappointing aspects of all was that no party acknowledged, understood or even attempted to alter our electoral system. We seemed ensnared by Tip O'Neill's maxim that "all politics are local".

Recent trends over the past 12 years have spawned a super-culture of clientelism.

TDs subsidised by the taxpayer can employ both a personal secretary and a PA.

This was initially intended to facilitate a more professional approach to research on parliamentary responsibilities and to develop knowledge on policy, economics, legislation, etc.

But what actually happened was that many TDs opened at least one full-time constituency office, staffed for the purpose of dealing with the enquiries and problems of voters.

Thus they become bogged down in the minutia of individuals' welfare entitlements, housing applicants, planning permissions, tax queries, farmer payments, job hunting, education grants, hospital admissions, medical cards, etc.

So the role of national parliamentarians has been reduced to running errands for constituents.

However, there were some spectacular results. In Kerry Michael and Danny Healy Rae garnered more than 30,000 first preference votes.

In Tipperary, three independents won more than 31,000 votes. Virtually every one of the 24 newly elected Fianna Fáil TDs are councillors elected in 2014, whose almost full-time occupation is 'public representative'. The same might be said for the additional nine Sinn Féin TDs, many of whom topped the poll in local electoral districts and wards. All Fine Gael's new TDs in Dublin - Kate O'Connell, Noel Rock, Josepha Madigan, Colm Brophy and Maria Bailey - have beavered away as councillors.

Meanwhile, TDs who were working hard in the Banking Inquiry (Ciaran Lynch and Kieran O'Donnell) trying to perform national functions, lost their seats.

The public opts for pleasant personalities, hyperactive on the ground, visibly present at functions and funerals. Meanwhile, the national parliament chamber is empty for debates.

Those TDs who assiduously scrutinise legislation at committees get little reward for their travails.

Too many of our politicians are savvy self-interested careerists. We must alter the system if we want able, articulate, well-informed leaders.

Fundamental change is needed to the composition procedure of the Dáil. Abolition of the dual mandate has actually worsened the situation.

We could reduce the Dáil size to 150 TDs. The Boundary Commission could devise 30 constituencies to elect approximately 80 seats.

On voting day, electors could be issued with two ballot papers: one comprising names of local candidates for each constituency; the other to choose a nationwide party or political grouping of choice.

This would facilitate new small parties garnering votes where they don't have the infrastructure, organisation or financial resources to run candidates.

If any party secured 5pc or more of the national vote, they'd be entitled to a share of the remaining 70 seats. Such a system would be fair in allocating TDs directly proportionate to the percentage vote share. Skilled people (with expertise/qualifications) would enrol, no longer required to be social workers.

All TDs elected by this list system would have the entire country as their constituency, thus they would literally be serving the national interest.

TDs are increasingly reaping the benefits of prioritising constituency work. Reforming the system is the only solution. The unpalatable truth is that we're hurtling towards a banana republic of gombeenism.

An all-party approach of electoral reform is the only bulwark preventing the Oireachtas from becoming Frank Hall's Bally-magash central.

Irish Independent

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