Punch, Judy and the politics of the schoolyard

I have seen a number of people express extreme dismay over the past week about the abysmally low turn-out in the Dublin South West by-election last weekend.

The turnout was disastrously low, but unless people are forced to vote, such low participation should come as little surprise to anybody.

The majority of politicians do themselves no favours with their behaviour.

I would be the first to admit it is a horrendous life, where participants are forced to sell their souls to the electorate and be at their beck and call 24 hours per day, seven days a week and 365 days per year.

For the amount of hours they put in, they are not paid well, yet certain people will do anything to get elected and participate in the legislative process. Where the system fails, in my view, is in relation to how they interact in the Dáil and how most engage in opposition for the sake of opposition.

The budget last Tuesday is a case in point. The behaviour of deputies during the budget speech was pathetic in patches, but then the Government benches virtually emptied as opposition spokespeople reacted.

The two ministers with responsibility for the budget could be excused for leaving the Chamber, as they have to run the gauntlet of doing media interviews.

For the rest however, manners — if nothing else — would suggest that they should stay put and endure the budget reaction from the opposition.

By leaving, they display bad manners and a total lack of respect for the democratic process.

I could go on and on, but suffice to say, if schoolchildren behaved as many of our politicians do, they would — or at least, should — be severely reprimanded.

Later on in the evening, we were then treated to a string of opposition politicians doing their utmost to rubbish the budget for reasons which in some cases made no sense whatsoever other than to score points.

The reality is that in an economy where we will spend almost €8bn more than we collect this year, and more than €5bn next year, the scope for the minister to deliver anything more than a paltry budget offering is seriously limited.

This time last year, we were facing into the prospect of a budget that would take €2bn out of the economy in fiscal adjustment in 2015.

The fact that the two ministers were able to deliver a net tax package of €418m and a spending package of €639m was quite extraordinary.

This represents a turnaround of more than €3bn from what could have been. Yet, opposition politicians went straight into attack mode.

Some have accused the Government of introducing a boom-bust budget in order to buy the next general election, yet at the same time are critical about the limited nature of the budgetary package.

If the ministers had decided to ignore electoral considerations and go for a €2bn adjustment, as the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council had suggested, the same opposition politicians would be out there berating the Government about austerity policies. It is a case of “damned if you do and damned if you don’t”.

There is nothing the Government could have done to please the opposition. If an extra €5bn had been allocated to pensioners and the unemployed, the rest would be moaning.

It is a totally no-win situation, that for rational sensible people just fuels the growing sense of deep disillusionment in relation to the political system.

The problem, of course, is that the last politician who tried to adopt a constructive approach to political opposition, Alan Dukes, was rewarded for his endeavours by losing his job as party leader. One wonders if our political system, as currently configured, is actually capable of delivering a good policy outcome?

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