Tuesday 16 July 2019

Will politicians and public alike finally put short-term gain aside for long-term good?

Labour's Ray: Alan Kelly, Minister for the Environment. Picture: Tom Burke
Labour's Ray: Alan Kelly, Minister for the Environment. Picture: Tom Burke
Eddie Molloy

Eddie Molloy

When Minister Alan Kellly recently launched Irish Water's 25-year development plan, he noted that "this is the first time we have ever had a long-term plan for water in this country".

While the plan is welcome, it is also a shock to learn, for example, that it will take until 2021 before leaks are reduced to just 39pc, until 2025 to eliminate lead from the mains and five years to halve the number of pollution incidents from malfunctioning waste water treatment plants.

The bitter irony of this situation, especially for people who will have to wait years for a supply of clean water, is that this shameful situation could have been prevented. It happened for no other reason than decades of neglect by government, county councillors and public servants.

It was never a matter of money. Back in the early 2000s when the country was "awash with money", Finance Minister Charlie McCreevey conjured up SSIAs as a means of giving away this dosh. For every €4 saved the government gave you €1, in the end amounting to a giveaway of about €3bn. Meanwhile Dublin's 120-year-old water pipes were rotting away and water had to be boiled around the country.

This story of official neglect of a vital service reveals an aspect of of our political and administrative culture that is a blight on the nation, namely short-terminism, which comes in two forms, longer-fingering and opportunism. The former involves not doing something that needs to be done, a 'sin of omission', while the latter entails a decision to do something for short-term political gain that is contrary to the longer term public interest, ie, a 'sin of commission'.

The water crisis is a result of long-fingering, whereby successive governments ignored mounting evidence of a serious problem, putting off the evil day and "hoping against hope" that it would not explode on their watch.

It is now clear that this "delay and pray" attitude among senior officials and politicians preceded the eventual collapse of public finances and the implosion of the banks. The current acute shortage of social and affordable housing is another case of officialdom turning a blind eye to inconvenient facts for decades, until a man was found dead in a sleeping bag near the gates of Leinster House. Similarly, it has taken public outrage over the latest scandal to elicit an adequate response from government to years of misbehaviour in the ranks of An Garda Siochána.

Both self-serving politicians and over-deferential public servants have played a part in this pattern of denial, inertia and foot-dragging, which in essence reveals the poor adaptive capacity of the State; that is the capacity to face up to troubling information and to act on it before it becomes a crisis, a disaster, or a scandal like the mother and baby homes.

The second kind of short-termism, cynical opportunism, is especially prevalent prior to elections, when a government jeopardises the longer-term public interest in order to secure re-election, and the opposition outbids the government with potentially more disastrous promises.

Fianna Fail has a long track record of reckless political expediency for electoral gain. The elimination of domestic rates to buy the general election 1977 had consequences that reverberate today in the battle to widen the tax base.

Decentralisation, which involved the appropriation and vandalisation of the public service to enhance their prospects in the local elections of 2003, did untold damage to the public service and continues to cost the State millions every year; and the pre-election give-away budgets of the Ahern-McCreevy years have left a truly disastrous legacy.

As the country gears up for a General Election, there are signs that awkward issues are being kicked down the road, such as inadequate funding for water infrastructure; the hole in public and private pensions funding; the creeping ghetoisation of immigrant communities; the increasing prevalence of dementia and other problems associated with people living longer; the prospect of incurring multi-billion euro fines for failing to reach our carbon emission targets; or the glaring impotence of our justice system in tackling white collar crime and political corruption.

It has been said that the difference between a politician and a statesman is that the former thinks short-term and is only interested in the next election, while the mark of a statesman is that he is interested in the next generation.

Of course, the conundrum is: how can a statesman possibly get elected when a battered electorate are being tempted with the bait of an end to austerity, payback time for public servants, lower taxes, better public services, free water and free everything else, depending on which party you listen to? Independents are promising far and away the best package, an end to all our woes, effortlessly.

The next General Election will tell us a lot about our politics and just as much about ourselves as voters. Will it be politics as usual with election manifestos offering a pain-free road ahead, paved with the kind of false promises that Pat Rabbitte said politicians routinely make before an election? And will it be voting as usual, with the public falling for the same old deception?

Will the curse of short-termism continue to bedevil our capacity to manage our affairs without yet another catastrophic cycle of boom and bust? Or will we be blessed with a government genuinely commited to longer term, sustainable economic and social progress?

The Taoiseach's pledge over the weekend to plan for the future so as to avoid another boom and bust is reassuring. However, only time will tell.

Irish Independent

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