Policies fuel healthy debate as minister says: ‘If I can’t do it, it can’t be done!’

ONE of the worst legacies from the 2002 General Election was its hot air and empty rhetoric.

For in truth, it was a non-event when it came to ideas, to policies, to ideology. Fianna Fáil held the whip hand from early on and the opposition found itself unable to fight toe-to-toe on the key areas of health, crime and the economy. The reason? Their approach and policies lacked coherence. And each party attacked on its own, leading to fragmentation, making it easy for FF to pick them off.

We are looking at a transformed landscape. For one, the media had a sense of being duped last time and its approach has been more aggressive (sometimes overly so).

Secondly, the Mullingar Accord has presented itself as a credible alternative with strong joint proposals for Government.

On many of the fundamentals, there is broad agreement between Government and opposition, but there are appreciable differences in the fine details.

Take the economy. Every party (and that now includes Sinn Féin) agrees with the 12.5% corporate tax rate. Most agree with the lower personal tax rate. And most now agree with stamp duty reform, albeit with variations.

Health is the only policy area where there is a marked difference of approach, policy, of philosophy. Yesterday, we had a good-old fashioned slagging match on the respective health proposals.

Fine Gael was first off the mark as Richard Bruton paid tribute to the film Groundhog Day, where the same day is repeated over and over again.

He said FF’s 2002 and 2007 manifestos repeated the same (broken) promises. FF, he claimed, had failed on its medical card promises, its waiting time commitments and its promise to increase the number of beds by 3,000.

Health Minister Mary Harney came back with her deconstruction of the Mullingar Accord’s commitment to provide 2,300 beds in five years. Impossible, she said. Can’t be done. Best rate the Government had was 200 per year, she said. Even the private sector took three years to build the Beacon. And now FG and Labour are saying they’ll provide €153 million worth of beds in year one.

And besides, she added, they say they will use some of the money from the €6 billion allocated to capital health projects in the National Development Plan. But that is already earmarked for the Mater, for the new national children’s hospital, for the new rehabilitation hospital, for 400 extra beds and improvement in hospitals.

FG riposted that Mary Harney should not be expecting others to follow her standards.

Bruton said that their first priority would be to take €850 million out of €2.6bn capital envelope from health, ahead of everything else. That would be used for the 2,300 beds. They would be delivered in the five years, no matter what.

It was a first for this campaign. A real row. That was something.

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