Friday 17 January 2020

Jason O'Mahony: 'Whoever wants to be Taoiseach has to pass test of kept promises'

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (Niall Carson/PA)
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (Niall Carson/PA)
Dodging hard questions: UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits the Kent Event Centre in Maidstone yesterday. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Jason O'Mahony

It's finally happened. As a self-confessed election junkie, the neighbours have managed to kill even my enthusiasm for an election, and that's hard.

I watch Canadian elections, Israeli elections, Turkish elections. I know that mixed member proportional is New Zealand's voting system, Antony Green is Australia's version of the late Noel Whelan, and the threshold for winning seats in the Knesset is 3.25pc.

Alright, so I might need help. I get that.

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But I surely shouldn't be bored by the British general election campaign.

They have managed to suck the absolute joy out of what should be one of the great spectacles of participatory democracy. It would be a source of despair save for the fact that in its general awfulness it is full of lessons for us about our up-and-coming trip to the polling station to elect a new Dáil.

The big lesson from the UK? Let's scrap leader debates. What are they for?

In a multi-party system, candidates don't have enough time to expand on any detail and are reduced to trying to throw in witty "off-the-cuff" remarks or po-faced platitudes.

Journalists know this and so does the public. So what is the point? We'd be just as well served letting each stand up, deliver his best lines, and let us all go and finish 'The Irishman' on Netflix in peace.

Even head-to-heads between the two or three real candidates for Taoiseach tell us little, as we all know they're just trying to avoid screwing up and instead do that forehead-tilting I'm Being Very Serious Now thing Enda used to always do when he couldn't remember a statistic.

What we want, in the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda's 'Hamilton' (via Aaron Sorkin) is evidence of a mind at work.

Give us an hour or 90 minutes of a party leader facing a panel who take him or her through their paces and show what they are really made of. No audience, because that just encourages time-wasting pandering applause lines. None of your Andrew Marr apology-demanding nonsense, but a housing expert taking them through their housing policy. A technology expert taking them through broadband. A medical systems specialist taking them through their plans for A&E.

Sure no party leader would let themselves be submitted to that, right? I'm not so sure.

Don't forget, in Martin and Varadkar we have for the first time in years since perhaps Fitzgerald and Haughey, two obvious contenders who are not short of intellectual vigour, nor self-confidence about it.

If any party refuses, RTÉ or whomever hosts it (could be online, don't forget; nothing to stop a major newspaper doing it, cough) - could always replace the party leader with an academic who has studied the manifesto and policies and will answer to the best of their ability on the party's behalf.

Sure, the parties could take the host to court, but especially in RTÉ's case that's a day out worth having. They have an obligation to provide fair and equal access, not accommodate party formats.

Would it do RTÉ any harm in the eyes of licence fee payers to see them stand up to a party-political establishment which is demanding soft interviews?

Who would watch this anyway? This all sounds a bit heavy, but there's the other lesson from the UK.

There is a public appetite for substance. Andrew Neil's rigorous questioning over Andrew Marr's touchy-feely; Professor John Curtice's in-depth poll analysis; Tony Connelly's step-by-step through the legal Brexit minefield.

It's true, you may lose viewers who just want the usual bunfight over an individual story that stirs emotion over cold, hard statistical fact.

But if you wind up with a few hundred thousand voters much better informed about the realistic choices that face us as a nation, isn't that an achievement in itself?

In fact, it would even make sense for most of the questions to be made public before the broadcast. Don't forget, this isn't a game of Gotcha!

This is about discovering whether a party leader and his/her policies have substance and stand up to tough but fair probing.

Nor should the questions be those weird "what would you say to someone sleeping rough tonight?" queries that merely test who can fake sincerity and indignation best.

Keep it policy-based and specific.

None of this vague "we will tackle homelessness" guff.

Let's ask them what metric they would use to determine failure.

After all, we spend millions funding political parties and parliamentary researchers. It's not unreasonable for us to expect them to know what the impact of their policies will actually be, especially if we give them the questions beforehand.

After three years in a new Dáil:

What's the maximum number of people who will be on trolleys on any given night under their government?

How long would you have to wait in A&E before getting actual treatment from a doctor?

What percentage of take-home pay should someone reasonably expect to pay in rent for a one-bedroom flat between the canals in Dublin under their administration?

Real questions that measure quality of life in our state.

If they can't answer them, they have no business being Taoiseach.

If they refuse to participate in what is effectively an open book exam, that in itself tells us a lot about them. Yes, they'll complain about leaving political hostages to fortune.

Or as we call it back here on Earth: Keeping promises.

Irish Independent

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