John Downing: ''Auctions' were good for getting votes - and may yet work for FG'
Back in what now seems a time of relative innocence, as an election campaign kicked off, this writer phoned a veteran Fianna Fáil politician with a blunt question: "Is it true you are bringing forward the payment of farmer grants because of the election?"
There was a long pause on the other end of the line, followed by a hearty laugh.
Then this reply: "Ahhh… we were thinking of keeping the grants until after the voting. But then we thought about it again…" followed by still more laughter.
The incident comes into focus as we think about Leo Varadkar's expected approach to the Local Property Tax (LPT), suggesting he will campaign on a promise of cutting the tax. The draft Fine Gael manifesto for local elections, to be held in conjunction with the European Parliament contest on Friday, May 24, will lay stress on how their councillors will work for reductions.
With one stroke the Taoiseach is setting aside a key recommendation in an expert report revealed earlier this month - that individual councils should lose the power to reduce the tax by up to 15pc, keeping powers only to increase the tax by up to 15pc.
Mr Varadkar and his colleagues have already shelved the expert report with no moves to impose new property values, vastly inflated since the LPT first hit us in the property recession back in 2013. Nothing will be decided until 2020, and not implemented until 2021, definitely beyond the time for council, European or even a general election.
Fianna Fáil was more usually the one who specialised in dispensing only lollipops before elections.
Fine Gael was often the one accusing it of "cynicism and naked political opportunism".
Now the shoe is on the other foot. Fianna Fáil is the one accusing the other of cynicism. Maybe it's simply because Fine Gael has been in government since March 2011, or eight full years.
It must be said, however, that Fianna Fáil does have arguments. Its Meath East TD Shane Cassells is a straight shooter who avoids showboating. He argues the councils simply will not have the money for services and people are entitled to know where they stand.
Mr Cassells calls it "voodoo mathematics". Already Fianna Fáil has pointed up several anomalies, including an exemption for 60,000 people who live in houses newly built since 2013.
Enough people, it argues, as would fill the Aviva Stadium.
The quality of services argument served Fianna Fáil well in the last general election in February 2016. Maybe that still holds good.
But, as local and European election posters go up, let the bidding begin.
At vote-counting in precisely 31 days time we'll find out whether Leo Varadkar's and Fine Gael's old-fashioned auction politics gambit on local property tax will work.
Or will Fianna Fáil, more usually the political auction bidder supreme, succeed in its efforts to call out its rivals via a double-bluff?