Sunday 18 August 2019

They're making new laws but it's best not to look

'New politics' was on show during the rare sight of a policy debate, but it wasn't pretty

'Maybe Bismarck was right. It's best not to look.'
'Maybe Bismarck was right. It's best not to look.'

Eoin O'Malley

The great German statesman Otto von Bismarck is reported to have observed that "laws are like sausages - it is best not to see them being made". Well, last week we saw a law being made. It was 'new politics' at work; something Gerry Adams likened to his own derriere.

I don't know the state of Gerry Adams's arse, but the process of legislating the Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Bill 2016 wasn't pretty. Mistakes were made and admitted. It revealed the convoluted way legislation gets made. Amendments can't really be read on their own, but are affected by other pieces of legislation. If you don't know what they are, you can't see the full impact of the legislation. At times the process seemed a bit haphazard, something not lost on the TDs themselves. Richard Boyd Barrett dragged himself from his sickbed - not since Cuchulainn has Ireland seen such a brave warrior - to "move our amendment to the Government's amendment No 54, our amendment No 66 and amendment No 2 to the Government's amendment No 68 in this complex group of amendments".

Maybe Bismarck was right. It's best not to look.

But new politics did mean we were exposed to something we don't often see - a policy debate. This stuff usually goes on behind closed doors, and the Dail limits itself to shouting abuse at one another. The debate last week wasn't that sophisticated. Simon Coveney appeared to misunderstand basic ideas like a return on investment and rent increases.

Landlords were painted as uniformly greedy, forgetting that many landlords are not there by choice. Some are emigrants renting out their old home, many failing to cover the mortgage.

The legislation was rushed, and it showed. Some TDs seemed to think that you would need a PhD in mathematics to understand the simple formula for controlling rent increases which Coveney proposed. It didn't help that Eoin O Broin could point to an error in the legislation, and then more errors emerged in the attempt to fix the original error. But at least we could see our TDs legislating.

That we could see a Fine Gael minister introducing rent controls shows us two things. One is how bad the rental market has become. There are estimates that rents in Dublin rose 12pc last year, and that they are now higher than the pre-crash peak in 2007. Any attempt to lure post-Brexit companies in search of a home will be hindered if their employees can't afford the rent.

Most people are wary of rent controls - myself included. The main argument is that they will reduce supply. If the market can't set the rent, then landlords will be reluctant to enter the market, further increasing pressure on rents. Like many measures, introduced with good intentions, its impact might be less positive. But when there are just 1,400 units available for rent in Dublin at any one time, any further restrictions on rent can hardly do much more harm.

The second thing it showed us was how difficult it is for a minority government. It's not that the government has no control. Coveney, as minister, has what is called agenda-setting power. He was able to bring the legislation through, and could effectively veto Dail amendments by threatening to pull the bill.

And even though he was introducing rent controls Simon Coveney got the juices flowing in the Fine Gaelers. He stood up to Fianna Fail. Better than that, he stood up to the hated Barry Cowen, a man who enjoys Blueshirt-baiting as his primary hobby.

The fight centred on whether a 4pc annual rent rise should be allowed or not. Fianna Fail wanted 2pc. Coveney only targeted Dublin and Cork, but Fianna Fail asked about Limerick and Galway, and the commuter belts in Kildare, Meath and Louth. Fianna Fail was true to form. It was also on the side of landlords, for whom it sought tax breaks. It can be all things to all men.

Coveney allowed other regions to be included in the legislation, but he stood firm on the 4pc issue. He delighted his party, and Fianna Fail was forced to take the loss. After many months of conceding to Fianna Fail, this win, even if it was in the context of introducing legislation which it did not have its heart set on, was important for the Fine Gael backbenchers.

This may have helped him in the race to succeed Enda Kenny, but I suspect Coveney wasn't primarily concerned with that. He is a sensible politician who appears to want to do the right thing, in a situation with no obvious right answer.

We can see that the debate only really centred on Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. It was the two parties' proposals that got coverage, and the Sinn Fein and Labour proposals of linking rent rises to inflation, and the Alphabet left's call for rent freezes weren't part of the wider debate.

Some don't help themselves to be taken seriously by opposing a bill that improves the policy from their standpoint. Even though there are many other voices out there, the 'new politics' actually narrows the terms of the debate.

The ability of the two major parties to oppose each other and simultaneously work together to hammer out changes suited both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael last week. They crowded out the others while still maintaining the sense that they were opposed to each other.

Even though it lost on one point, Fianna Fail could still claim in the Dail on Friday morning that it had forced concessions from Coveney. For most commentators, Coveney was suddenly back in the race for the leadership. Everyone was a winner, except the other parties. And Leo.

Should we expect fireworks from him in the new year?

Sunday Independent

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