Consensus is the right path
If the Taoiseach wants to know what the Irish people think about the difficulties he is facing right now, he could do worse than study the results of today's Sunday Independent/Quantum Research poll.
He probably knows that most people would like an election sometime soon -- 65 per cent, as against the 35 per cent who are content to have this Government finish out its term. He may be pleasantly surprised, however, to find that a huge majority -- 73 per cent -- believe he will be able to get a Budget through the Dail in December, despite the nervousness of independents and semi-detached Fianna Fail deputies.
He will probably view as helpful the 80 per cent support for the idea that the Government has no choice but to try to increase the tax take in the Budget, as well as achieving savings elsewhere; and that their preferred method of doing this (43 per cent) is through widening the tax net to include those who heretofore have not paid any tax. Support for increasing certain tax rates such as income tax and VAT stands at 32 per cent which, again, seems to be a recognition by the people of just how desperate our economic situation is.
But given Mr Cowen's devotion to the Croke Park agreement, the news that big majorities favour compulsory redundancies in the public service (73 per cent) as well as pay cuts (54 per cent) and pension reductions (57 per cent) will not be so welcome.
Right now the Taoiseach has two priorities -- getting a Budget passed before the end of the year and coming up with the essential ingredients of three succeeding Budgets which will be acceptable to the EU Commission. After a couple of weeks of dithering, the Taoiseach has finally accepted that he needs to bring the Opposition into the process of planning for the long term. This is the correct course, not least because it seems inevitable that it is some combination of the present opposition parties that will be responsible for introducing some or all of these later Budgets. And following Mr Cowen's belated decision to send a written invitation to the opposition leaders, it seems likely talks on a consensus approach will take place. But talks about consensus are not consensus.
It will now take a courageous leap of faith by Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore for the people to get their wish. Mr Cowen, too, will have to show genuine goodwill towards the process. So far, the signs are not encouraging.
There is even less of a sign that there will be any common ground on the December Budget. Fine Gael and Labour would see this as giving the Government a free pass on an issue that could cause the General Election they say they want.
The Taoiseach says: "While the Government has the constitutional responsibility to propose the fiscal strategy and the budgetary measures that are necessary, it does not have a monopoly on wisdom. We are at a point where every sensible and viable proposal needs to be heard and considered."
All of the party leaders would do well to take note of another significant finding in today's poll: 81 per cent of those polled support the idea of consensus talks between the main political parties on an economic plan for the next four years; and almost as many (79 per cent) want to see similar co-operation on the forthcoming Budget.
That's a pretty clear message.