Saturday 23 November 2019

Varadkar's 100 days of political PR spin and brand building

The Taoiseach is keeping his ministers on message with secret briefings over curry in Government Buildings

On film: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on the lawn of Government Buildings last week filming his weekly video message Photo: John Dardis
On film: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on the lawn of Government Buildings last week filming his weekly video message Photo: John Dardis
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

A big cheer for Leo Varadkar. The Taoiseach has reached his 100th day as Fine Gael leader today (he has to wait another couple of weeks to celebrate his 100th day as Taoiseach).

I'm sure you will join me in offering a warm congratulations to the leader of our small island country.

After performing an impromptu standing ovation with your family on learning the good news you can return to your seated position.

Now, while sitting at the breakfast table and sipping your morning cup of tea you will be forgiven for thinking "what in the name of God has the man being doing for those 100 days?"

If you are a Fine Gael member you are undoubtedly still beside yourself over the coverage the Taoiseach and his novelty socks have received since taking office.

It's all Leo's going to do this, Leo's going to do that and Leo feels this way about this thing. It is a great time to be a Blueshirt. Especially if you're one of those more liberal Fine Gaelers who want an abortion referendum. The majority of conservative Catholic Fine Gael voters, who some would say are the party's core support base, are happy with their new leader.

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (R) walks with his Irish counterpart Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (L) during the Montreal Pride parade in Montreal, Canada August 20, 2017. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (R) walks with his Irish counterpart Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (L) during the Montreal Pride parade in Montreal, Canada August 20, 2017. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi

But there are grumblings from some Blueshirt voters, especially those of an older demographic based along the not-so-Wild Atlantic Way, about the Taoiseach attending various Pride festivals.

However, these people are living in the past and the Taoiseach should be praised for what he has done for gay and lesbian rights in this State and other countries.

Read More: Troubles can't be used to 'whitewash heinous act', Varadkar warns Adams

The Fine Gael faithful aside, many of the other right- thinking citizens of this country are beginning to wonder how they will benefit in the post-Enda Kenny era.

The first three months of Varadkar's stewardship have been mostly a brand-building exercise. The main focus has been on the Taoiseach himself - a young and fit statesman who represents people who work for a living and those who aspire to work for living.

The Taoiseach's personal promotional efforts have been overt but there is also behind-the-scenes' work on repositioning Fine Gael ahead of a general election.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on the front of 'Time' magazine
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on the front of 'Time' magazine

Take last Tuesday, when Varadkar held the second meeting of his monthly Fine Gael war council.

The ministers-only meeting was held in what was described as "the attic" of Government Buildings and those who gathered dined on chicken curry while listening to presentations from the Taoiseach, Minister for Health Simon Harris and Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe about party messaging. The top brass from Fine Gael headquarters and key advisers were also in attendance.

The meeting went on for more than three hours and reaction was mixed to say the least. "It was a load of s***e," one Cabinet minister said. Others were more enthusiastic. For his part, the Taoiseach gave ministers a sneak preview of what he is expected to say in his speech at Fine Gael's annual parliamentary party gathering this week.

Essentially he expanded on what he means by a 'Republic of Opportunity' which you will remember was the slogan Varadkar rolled out after defeating Simon Coveney in the Fine Gael leadership contest. And it looks like we are going to be hearing a lot about his Republic of Opportunity in the coming weeks and months. But what does it mean?

Well, according to briefing documents given to ministers, which the Sunday Independent got its hands on, Leo's Republic of Opportunity will be one where "everyone has an equal opportunity to be the best person they can be, where everyone gets a fair go and every child has the chance to be the best person they can be".

Read More: Taoiseach steps up and shows real leadership just in Time for hols

It will also be a republic where "every part of the country has the opportunity to share in our recovery and prosperity" and there will be "second chances for those who need them". Sounds like a great place doesn't? The Taoiseach also gave examples of this political utopia in action. This included increasing employment, allowing lone parents keep more money, budgeting for more special needs assistants and a 10-year capital plan which would see high-speed broadband rolled out nationwide.

But surely this new Republic of Opportunity would need a tag line generated by a team of public relations gurus, you say? And you're right it does.

Ireland is no longer "the best small country in the world to do business". Ireland is now, drum roll….. "an island in the centre of the world, at the heart of the common European home we helped to build". I'm sure there was lots of back slapping the night they dreamt that one up.

Other "key messages" from the Taoiseach included that Fine Gael was a party for people who not only get up early in the morning but also for those who work late.

So if you've just finished your 24-hour, or longer, shift in a hospital rest assured the Taoiseach has a political messaging he hopes will appeal to you. The Taoiseach also plans to reward you with minimum wage increases, reduced incomes taxes and more benefits in return for paying PRSI.

Varadkar also told the room "Fine Gael is making life easier for families" by introducing childcare tax reductions and subsidies. Most of you would correctly note that these childcare reforms were introduced while the previous Taoiseach was in office and have just been relaunched several times since Varadkar took over.

Paschal Donohoe spoke on Fine Gael's Budget messaging ahead of the big day in October. The Finance Minister said he would balance the books to "keep Ireland secure in a risky world". He also promised to make "steady and affordable" progress in reducing high rates of tax for low and middle income earners.

But he warned: "That means avoiding unsustainable tax giveaways, and instead reforming our tax system to further reward work and create jobs." So don't go booking that two-week Caribbean holiday just yet and you should probably hold off replacing the family car in the new year.

The purposes of these monthly meetings is to ensure the Fine Gael ethos is borne out in policy decisions taken by ministers - the Finance Minister used some of these exact lines in his speech at the Kennedy Summer School last Friday.

Over in Fine Gael headquarters on Lower Mount Street, meetings are also taking place away from public view. Last Wednesday, the party's national executive gathered to discuss an upcoming spate of selection conventions they hope will be completed before the year ends.

The central issue discussed was the need to change the party's rules around selection conventions so as to avoid another expensive legal case such as the one taken by former minister John Perry before the last general election.

It would be unfair to say the Taoiseach has spent the last 100 days entirely focused on himself and his party, but the evidence does suggest he has put a big emphasis on the next election and the public relations side of politics.

Understandably, he wants to rebuild his party's brand after last year's election and believes the best strategy is to base the repositioning of Fine Gael around himself. But he should avoid creating a Republic of Opportunities for public relations companies who can deftly create Fine Gael messaging.

The summer is over and perhaps it's time to hang up the Lycra. People want to know what's in it for them, and polished messaging and spin will only get him so far until frustration builds. For now, it's best we hold off on the celebration plans for his 200th day in office until we see some nationally focused progress.

Sunday Independent

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