When thinking about ways in which the Government’s climate action plan could be publicised and discussed by all who will be affected by it, the environment ministry had an inspired idea: An old-fashioned town hall meeting.
These meetings are public gatherings at which, traditionally, citizens meet to question politicians on topics of interest, such as proposed legislation, and to debate or protest. What a pity it was, and what an indictment of this administration’s barefaced lack of interest in transparency, that the “town hall” meeting organised by the ministry in Cork was nothing at all of the kind.
It differed from what might have been expected in a number of startling ways: It was publicised via notices sent to newspapers, television and radio channels only one day before the event; the notices did not reveal the location and time of the meeting; journalists who were able to discover the venue could attend, but only to report the opening speeches by Environment Minister Richard Bruton and Tánaiste Simon Coveney, after which they would be shown the door; attendance was by invitation only, and the lucky few invited were asked to let the department know if they would be attending; it wasn’t held not at a central location easily accessible for members of the public, such as City Hall, but at a building deep inside the UCC campus.
Joe Public would have had a better chance of gate-crashing a Cabinet meeting in Dublin or a gathering of the College of Cardinals in Rome. While Mr Bruton’s department says that members of the public were welcome (once they had found out where and when the event was happening), what was planned, and what took place, was in fact a strictly private forum, invitations to which, says the ministry, were sent through “stakeholder networks”.
Allow us to translate that from corporatespeak: A stakeholder is a person or an association with an interest in something. Those deemed, rightly, to have an interest in the Government’s climate change action plan were Irish Rural Link, the Union of Students in Ireland, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, Cork GAA, and, of course, the meeting’s hosts, University College Cork. Some of these groups will doubtless cascade information to their members; Irish Rural Link represents more than 600 community groups and a total membership of 25,000.
It was, though, a highly selective guest list for a supposedly consultative forum to discuss a challenge on which the Environment Minister has pulled no punches. He has said the public must understand that changes will have to be made to their lives if Ireland is to tackle global warming. The adjustments, he has told us, will affect “every home, every enterprise, every farm, and every community”.
The “stakeholders” in this, therefore, are house-owners and tenants, businesses and employees, public service organisations and their workers, the self-employed, unemployed, elderly, and the disabled. That adds up, roughly, to all of us, few of whom were at this town hall meeting to question ministers and give them the feedback they say they want to hear.
If the Government is serious about mobilising the country in readiness for a carbon-free future, it will be taken seriously when it’s clear that it comprehends the difference between a public meeting and a public relations stunt. Or is it content simply and conveniently to gets its proposals rubber-stamped by its favoured “stakeholder networks”?