Bertie needs more than the SSIA bonanza to secure another term

IN almost exactly a year’s time — probably on Thursday, May 3, 2007 — the Taoiseach will go into the Dáil, with the permission of the Ceann Comhairle, and say something like this:

“I wish to inform the House as a matter of courtesy that I intend to proceed to Áras an Uachtarán at 9am tomorrow to advise the President, pursuant to Article 13 of the Constitution, to dissolve Dáil Éireann and to summon the incoming Dáil to meet at 10.30am on Thursday, June 14, 2007. I wish those members of the House who are not seeking re-election every success and happiness in the future. I wish all other members well in their endeavours to return to the House. Go n-éirí libh go léir i bhur n-iarrachtaí.”

Now, it’s possible that I have those dates wrong, maybe by as much as a week. But unless there’s some dramatic accident — and that’s always possible — we are either 51 or 52 weeks away from the dissolution of this Dáil and the formal start of a general election campaign. The Taoiseach might surprise us all, and go early — the dates I’m predicting are pretty well the last possible dates he can choose.

After all (and here’s another prediction) in the budget at the end of this year his Government will have brought the old age pension to €200 a week, surely a psychological barrier in political terms, and a certain way to protect one very important element of the electorate.

But if the Taoiseach goes to the country before the dates I have predicted, he will be acting very much out of character. Full five-year terms, devoid of unpredictability and excitement, are a key part of his long-term political strategy.

By accustoming Dáil Eireann, and the country, to the notion of a five-year gap between elections, he has taken a lot of the hunger out of politics, and especially out of opposition politics.

It’s not that long ago since members of the Opposition were virtually always in a state of psychological readiness for an election.

Now members of the opposition spend four years in every Dáil term in ‘post-election’ mode, and are only now beginning to think there may be an election on the horizon.

And that has worked hugely for the benefit of the Government. Apart from occasional set pieces, the Dáil has become a stale old pantomime. It is no longer a place where the Government of the day could be destabilised or wonder what’s going to hit them next. Nobody misses the Dáil any more during its long recesses and many breaks, and of course when all these interruptions are happening, the Opposition finds it impossible to keep any kind of profile going.

You only have to look at the latest opinion poll, conducted during the Easter recess, when the Government benefited from all the publicity surrounding the 1916 anniversary. Fine Gael went down several points, largely because when the Dáil isn’t sitting they’re entirely absent from the airways, and Labour would probably have suffered too except that they got some publicity from their annual conference.

And of course there’s another reason why the Taoiseach won’t want to go early. The SSIAs are shortly going to start maturing, and in April of next year, the month before the election campaign will take place, a staggering €7 billion worth of SSIAs will hit the economy — 40% of the people who took out SSIAs only decided to do it at the last minute, and every one of them will collect in April 2007.

I’ve written here before how that represents an extra €1,800 spending power for every man, woman and child in the country. It would be enough to empty out every department store, every electrical goods outlet, every car dealership, every off-licence and every DIY shop in the country.

And that’s just the spending power the last month of the SSIAs will generate.

If the SSIAs enable people to go on a spending spree, the VAT and tax receipts generated as a result will in turn enable the Government to crank up its spending capacity significantly.

There is, quite literally, the money available on a once-off basis to build three or four new universities, several hospitals, a new town of houses, or 100 miles of motorway.

Of course, building facilities like these, and running them into the long-term future, are two different matters. In its spending plans between now and the election, the Government will favour, as much as possible, the sort of projects that won’t require a long-term commitment. (So the private hospital, for instance, will get the nod where the public beds won’t).

THERE is, however, one primary reason why the Taoiseach will go the whole way, why he won’t call an election any earlier than the dates I’ve predicted. And the reason is this — he hasn’t figured out yet how to win the election.

Yes, there’s all the money in the world. Yes, he can make any promise he likes and probably keep it, too. Yes, he can virtually monopolise the publicity between now and then, and control the flow of politics through the Dáil.

But the Taoiseach is a keen student of human psychology. He may not be familiar with all the theory behind, for instance, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but he fully understands the concept. All of us have basic needs, and we need to satisfy them in an ascending order. We must eat and drink before we find shelter. Once we’ve found shelter, we look for warmth and comfort. When we’re warm, we search for security. When we’re secure, we need love. When we’ve found love, we look for fun, and maybe for recognition. When we’ve achieved all that, we have time for ideas. And finally we have time for others.

Because politics is, in the end, about winning hearts and minds, it has to try to understand human nature. And oddly enough, because of the hierarchy of needs, there comes a point in politics when the appeal to our basis instincts is no longer enough. Offering us food and water, if we’re looking for fun and romance, simply won’t work.

Most of the Government seems hell-bent on offering us food and water. The Taoiseach is talking instead about active citizenship.

You know what that means? It means he recognises that we have moved on, further up the hierarchy of needs. We’ll pocket the SSIAs, all right, and the €200-a-week OAP, but we won’t be grateful because we came to accept them as something we were entitled to a long time ago.

And we don’t actually feel we need the further tax cuts that some of them are still talking about. In fact, so many of our basic needs have been met by the prosperity of the past few years we really are more concerned about others than we are about ourselves.

Elderly people on hospital trolleys might not have determined the outcome of an election when we needed our tax cuts. Right now, they can. That’s how the hierarchy of needs can lose an election for the Government.

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