Wednesday 17 July 2019

The honeymoon is over, Mr Varadkar, it's time to get down to work

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar TD Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar TD Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

It is by now evident that Leo Varadkar is to be targeted this coming Dail term by the Opposition for the level of "spin" associated with his leadership style.

The Opposition has a point. "Style over substance" is one of the criticisms levelled at the Taoiseach, who this summer has been publicly busy running road races, swimming the Liffey, wrapping himself in the rainbow flag and wearing colourful socks.

To which he would retort, and has retorted: "Style and substance". Style, like art, it is in the eye of the beholder - the question of substance still remains unanswered. Until it is, Varadkar would be wise not to believe his own, self-generated publicity.

There is also an element of unease at the manner, or medium in which the Taoiseach chooses to communicate. To traditionalists, in politics and media, his frequent use of social media perhaps tells us more about the traditionalists than anything else.

That said, Varadkar sometimes really does seem to be more engaged on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook than on running the country. At a minimum, somebody should tell him the summer's over and his honeymoon has ended.

He also engages in a more traditional manner with politicians and journalists, of course. Indeed, nothing much has changed in that regard, other than that he has made himself more accessible than others before him, which is a good thing. But accessibility does not substance make. Far from it.

His establishment of a Strategic Communications Unit is another case in point. According to Varadkar, the unit is being set up to better communicate to the public - taxpayers and citizens - what the Government does on its behalf, and how it spends their money. By this, he says, he means the public service and sector as a whole not individual politicians of the Government.

Opposition leaders have criticised the unit, claiming it to be a "Brand Fine Gael" and "Brand Leo" ruse. It is, after all, fronted up by a marketing expert. The Opposition charge that it will be used for political purposes and could be used to promote Fine Gael activities is a serious one. But Varadkar has countered that it would be a contravention of the law to do so and has pledged no office within his department would be used for electoral purposes. All of which will be carefully monitored.

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern also set up such a unit, which was established more to quickly counter criticism of the Government policy than anything else, an idea he borrowed from Tony Blair. Not for the first time Leo Varadkar seems to be modelling his leadership on that of Bertie, be that his refusal to appoint to a ministerial position a first-time TD, or his occasional updates on his personal life. He should be advised, though, his frequent use of social media to directly communicate with the public, as he did regularly last week, will leave him open to wider critical analysis, which is as it should be, and with which he may not always be satisfied.

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Take last week, for example. Varadkar sent out a curious tweet, apropos of nothing in particular: "Even in toughest of times we linked the Luas & built new motorways. Imagine what we can do in next 10 yrs if we keep the economy on track."

This quickly evolved into an legitimate Twitter debate on the lamentable state of the health service and about this and the last government's questionable housing policies, to which Varadkar said: "Housing & Health very important. So are jobs, incomes, education & living standards. All going in right direction. Housing & Health will too."

Now, in general, this is harmless enough auld guff. But the fact is, housing and health are in a diabolical state and I dare say will remain so for a considerable period, if it ever turns in the "right direction" (whatever that may mean). You get my drift though - he leaves hostages to fortune everywhere.

What I was interested in, however, was his reference to "incomes". This is an issue which is related to the housing crisis, as well as several other crises and/or issues. Why is it that incomes have generally not increased according to the economic recovery?

Varadkar, many economists, and all manner of experts have failed to answer that question.

The answer may be contained in an analysis published over the summer by the Central Bank, which introduced a new term into the economic lexicon - "nonemployed".

These are people referred to in the analysis as "discouraged workers, passive jobseekers and underemployed workers" of which there are many.

In fact, there are 888,708 people of working age (15-64) who fall into this category. The figures show that 22.3 per cent of the working-age population, or 813,640 people, tick the "don't want a job" box when queried by the Central Statistics Office.

Now, in my humble opinion, this is a significant issue. Overall, the analysis shows that the nonemployment rate stood at 9.4 per cent at the end of 2016, at a time when Ireland's unemployment rate was officially 6.9 per cent.

This suggests there may be what is called a "high level of underutilisation" in the economy - meaning there is some scope for unemployment to fall further, before significant wage pressures emerge. In other words, that's why you're not getting a pay rise to match your ever-increasing rent.

What's Varadkar doing about it? Well, other than swimming the Liffey, it seems his Government is talking about setting up another quango. Go figure.

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So, all is perhaps not as rosy in the garden as is portrayed by some spin doctors. No surprise there.

The Opposition needs to bear this is mind when it comes to Leo Varadkar and his fondness for spin, whether directly or indirectly.

The last politician to fall in to such a trap was... well, Enda Kenny and his government (including Leo Varadkar), who would have had people believe everything was grand - or as Varadkar might say, going in the "right direction".

The point is that the public is not fooled by "spin", tweets, headlines or carrier pigeons. You can not deny the reality in people's lives, good or bad.

Varadkar will discover this too, as others have before him, probably when it's too late.

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To reinforce the point, there was a further disclosure last week which was also significant and should not pass without comment. It came courtesy of Fianna Fail's Mental Health spokesman, James Browne.

He received information which shows that 391,603 medical card holders were on anti-depressants in 2016, an increase of 50,000 over five years. This means that nearly one in four on medical cards were prescribed anti-depressants last year.

The increase since 2011 is quite significant when you consider that overall, there were fewer medical cards in circulation at the end of 2016 than there were in 2011.

Browne is hopeful the level of prescribing is indicative of a lessening of stigma around mental health, resulting in more people with mental health illnesses seeking help, and improved diagnosis of mental health illness by the medical profession. He also has no doubt that doctors are properly prescribing the medication.

However, he has concerns about how many doctors feel compelled to rely on medicated solutions to treat mental illness due to the lack of availability of other services such as counselling, and has called for investment in primary care counselling and the wider provision of talk therapies.

I am not an expert in this area, but I know this: all is far from well out there, and Leo Varadkar would want to be careful with his tweets and Instagrams and whatnot, if he wants to avoid making the same mistakes as his predecessor, who had come to believe his own publicity. As the man said, at length, the truth will out.

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