| 16.3°C Dublin

Colette Browne: 'Parties hiding policies from voters should be treated with suspicion and scepticism'

Colette Browne


In the spotlight: Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou MacDonald at the Mansion House, Dublin yesterday. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

In the spotlight: Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou MacDonald at the Mansion House, Dublin yesterday. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

In the spotlight: Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou MacDonald at the Mansion House, Dublin yesterday. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

After two successive polls showed them haemorrhaging support, the blame game has already started for some within Fine Gael.

If they lose, it will be the fault of pinko liberals in the meeja who refuse to give Fine Gael "a fair crack of the whip". That's according to the party's director of elections in Dún Laoghaire, Paddy Hayes, who sent a tirade lambasting the media to local volunteers.

Unfortunately for Mr Hayes, he appears to have problems more pressing than a vast media conspiracy - as a mole in his midst immediately leaked his incendiary comments to the journalists he had just excoriated.

Shooting the messenger is one way to react to disappointing news, but it is unlikely to do much to bolster Fine Gael support. Attempting to make a convincing case for the party's continued stewardship of the country would be time better spent.

After one week of campaigning, what has become apparent is the election race is wide open. Fianna Fáil is in the lead, Fine Gael is on the backfoot and Sinn Féin is making gains - but the three parties were all hovering within four points of each other in the 'Irish Times'/Ipsos MRBI poll published on Monday night.

With the Greens on 8pc nationally and 15pc in Dublin, they will be hopeful of being kingmakers in any future Dáil.

While Fianna Fáil is presenting itself to voters as the natural successor to Fine Gael, voters don't yet know very much about what that alternative would entail.

Fine Gael has derided the party for its delay in publishing its policy proposals in a range of key areas and there is merit to that criticism.

Yesterday, when the party briefed the media on its housing policy, it failed to provide a written copy of its policy proposals before the event. How does it expect journalists to ask informed questions when it refuses to give them advance sight of its policy document?

More importantly, given it has had four years to come up with its housing measures, why is it being so cagey about releasing them to the public now? Eventually, the party published a one-page summary of its housing proposals on its website.

In contrast, Sinn Féin published its much more comprehensive housing policy the day before, while Fine Gael is sticking to its Rebuilding Ireland plan.

Fianna Fáil is not the only party keeping voters in the dark. There are just 18 days left in this campaign and not a single party has published its manifesto. Policy proposals in individual areas are being released on a piecemeal basis, often in skeletal form, with headline-grabbing promises being favoured over detailed analysis. The electorate deserves more.

If parties believe they have devised policies that can truly resolve intractable problems in areas such as health and housing, then those policies need to be scrutinised before people go to the polls.

As it stands, the first head-to-head debate will take place on Virgin Media One tonight between Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin before either leader has bothered to publish their manifesto.

It's hard to avoid the feeling policies are being made up on the hoof as the campaign progresses, with little advance preparation having been done.

This is especially the case when it comes to what has turned into a huge election issue - the rising retirement age.

Revelations that measures were put in place as far back as 2014 to insulate public sector workers from the financial hardship of the reforms, while private sector workers are expected to sign on the dole between the ages of 65 and 68, will ensure it remains a potent topic.

Part of Sinn Féin's seven-point bounce in Monday's poll could well be due its savvy in identifying this as an issue, along with Labour, which was bubbling under the surface with a large cohort of voters and promising to revert the retirement age back to 65 if elected.

Labour, for its part, has promised to make halting any further increases in the retirement age a precondition for entering government.

In contrast, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were caught by surprise by the intensity of public anger on this issue, with the latter now promising a review before the retirement age increases to 67 next year and Fine Gael mooting a transitional payment so retirees - many of whom are contractually obliged to retire at 65 - are spared the indignity of signing on.

For voters who want to make an informed choice there remains a problem. None of the parties has costed their proposals, meaning no one can credibly explain where the money for these changes will come from.

This election has been framed by some as a presidential-style contest between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. But, due to our system of proportional representation, the electorate can wield enormous power if allegiances are switched.

If political parties over-promise without providing the fine detail to back up their commitments, voters are unlikely to be swayed. Similarly, a reluctance to publish policy proposals should be met with suspicion and scepticism.

The stakes in this election - the ability to find a home, receive appropriate healthcare, the protection of communities from criminality, to be treated with dignity in old age - could not be higher. The electorate deserve an informed debate and serious analysis of competing policy proposals before casting their votes.

Irish Independent