WHEN the facts change, I change my mind” — this was the brazen acknowledgement from Pat Rabbitte, the communications minister, of how loose politicians can be with their beliefs and promises to fit into the political mould of the day.
It appears that the Labour Party, more than any other, has taken quite easily to the art of making big pledges when they are demanded from the public, only to renege on them as soon as they learn that they are too hard to keep.
Asked about the list of broken promises by his party — which just got longer after last week’s budget, Rabbitte confessed, without hesitation, that: “At this stage of the lifetime of the Government, clearly we have to find money somewhere and clearly some of them are a breach of the promises.”
But didn’t his party know full well before the 2011 general election that economic circumstances would limit its ability to follow through on its brave commitments, he was asked on RTÉ’s The Week in Politics.
“Yeah, well, I mean, isn’t that what you tend to do during an election?” he replied with a shrug of his shoulder.
Rabbitte has become the second Labour minister to admit the party made unrealistic promises in the height of an election campaign when Fine Gael was threatening to keep them out of power by securing an overall majority.
Ruairi Quinn, the education minister, has accepted that the pledge he signed not to increase third-level fees was done so because the election battle got more intense in its last days.
Rather than reverse a €500 fee hike, Quinn announced a series of increases in college fees — bringing the annual cost of college to €2,500 in 2013.
This is, as the two ministers suggest, just what parties tend to do during election campaigns.
But Labour has far many more hostages to fortune than its Fine Gael counterparts and therefore it now risks losing far more in terms of public trust than its senior coalition partners.
One thing that has become symbolic of its list of broken promises is a poster or newspaper ad — produced in the final days of the election campaign — warning about what might come to pass if Fine Gael got an overall majority.
This included: A cut in child benefit, higher prescription charges, increased student fees, and even a rise in the price of a bottle of wine.
All of these came to pass last week when Labour brought in precisely the measures it had warned against.
Defending the €10 cut to child benefit in last week’s budget, Rabbitte said: “The debate has been running for a long time on whether the best-off people in society should be in receipt of child benefit.”
He is right, but the debate was also running just six days before the general election — on Feb 19, 2011 — when his party leader, Eamon Gilmore, insisted that retaining child benefit payments would be a condition of going into coalition with Fine Gael.
“The Labour Party will not agree to having child benefit cut any more and Fine Gael need to drop their plans to cut child benefit,” said Gilmore.
Labour was also more blunt in its promises on banking debt and burning bondholders than its Fine Gael counterparts — even when it had the information available to them on what the troika and the ECB would allow.
In what became one of the most famous soundbites of the campaign, party leader Eamon Gilmore declared, “it’s Frankfurt’s way or Labour’s way”, referring to the home of the ECB.
He was just weeks in office when he was forced to eat his words. The Irish taxpayer was forced to shoulder the debt.
Rabbitte argued on Sunday night that: “We — against all of the odds — protected core welfare rates.”
While Labour did manage to achieve this objective in last week’s budget, the party is finding it difficult to convince the electorate that worse might have happened if it were not there.
The argument usually fallen back on by the junior coalition party — “it would have been a whole lot worse if we were not there to put some restraint on the main party” — did not really wash because of the scale of what they had originally promised.
“We have to deal with the economy we inherited,” Rabbitte argued, adding that Labour has to “deal with the world as we find it, not as we would like it”.
The problem with this argument is that the bailout was already in place and the troika already in town when they made the promises they made.
In doing so, they must accept that if they stick through the hard times, they might just reap the rewards if there is a turnaround in the economy.
And if the facts of the economic recovery change, then maybe the electorate might change their minds about Labour.
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