The Fine Gael ard fheis: Are political conventions redundant?

During the Fine Gael ard fheis on Saturday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he did not plan to call an election before Christmas. He insisted his objective was not “electoral advantage”, but national stability. To this end, he has asked Fianna Fáil to extend the pact that sustains his administration and to agree to a general election in summer 2020. It remains to be seen if those keep-your-powder-dry proposals can be realised.

Indian politicians do not have the luxury of waiting another 20 months or so; they are knee-deep in election campaigning. The Irish electorate, regularly belly-tickled to believe we are the “most sophisticated in the world”, might not be as easily charmed as their Indian peers.

There, politicians are distributing largesse in five states. This ranges from free rice, cooking oil, kitchen utensils, school bags, saris and bicycles to mobile telephones, tablets and laptops and internet connections. Female labourers in Chhattisgarh have been given “durable” slippers by the ruling, Hindu nationalist, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. In Rajasthan, the BJP-led government has given tens of thousands of poor people smartphones and six-month internet data packs. In Madhya Pradesh, in a bid — literally — to stay in the race, the opposition Congress Party has promised to establish the commercial production of cow urine, as many Indians believe it has medicinal properties. The BJP, Congress, and others promise to waive debt payments for farmers and provide them with free electricity, seeds, and fertiliser.

We would, naturally, reject such base seductions. Mr Varadkar has dressed his blandishments differently. He promised to lift the threshold for the top tax rate to €50,000 and cut taxes over five years. He told his Citywest audience that Fine Gael must go further than recent moves lifting the 40% tax rate threshold and accelerate the pace of tax cuts, as recent budgets have been tilted towards spending.

Fine Gael sources have suggested

around 920,000 taxpayers will benefit from increasing the standard rate cut-off to €50,000

This is the never-ending dilemma — how best to balance spending with impositions on income. The stretched circumstances of public services — health, housing and education, policing and weak regulators — suggest there is little room to cut taxes, especially as Brexit advances like enfilading artillery. The ‘fiscal space’ is hemmed in by a growing sense of apprehension that we are living in changed times and that it is necessary to prepare for unprecedented disruption.

That climate change protestors marched in London, Copenhagen, Berlin, Stockholm, New York, Madrid, and in Dublin and Cork, too, just as Mr Varadkar spoke, underlines this. That this issue, the greatest challenge facing our world, got the usual box-ticking tokenism at the ard fheis, just deepens that apprehension and questions the value of these jamborees. It is all too easy to be sceptical, but the sense that this was, like nearly all political conventions, a self-congratulating echo chamber rather than a milestone along the road to real progress, is, all too sadly, unavoidable. It also raises a valid question — in this second-by-second digital age, have these set pieces outlived their usefulness?


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