TODAY’S the day. We’ll discover if the Government has a chance of making history, and of becoming the first coalition in our history to be re-elected. Today’s Budget will be the first of two tests.
The signs aren’t great. The by-elections at the weekend were a loud and passionate cry from an angry people. The results reflected no hope, no confidence in the future. Never mind, for the moment, what happened to other candidates — the two government parties were wiped out.
Fine Gael and Labour got a miserable vote in one constituency — Dublin South West — where they had held three seats out of five after the general election in 2011, and in another — Roscommon South Leitrim — where they held two seats out of three. In neither constituency would they come within an ass’s roar of a seat on last weekend’s figures.
Of course, there were particular local factors, and, of course, the water charges were the dominant issue. I can just imagine how voters received government politicians whose basic message was “look how we’ve rescued the economy, and clap us on the back for all the great economic figures we’re seeing now, and by the way, here’s a bill for the most basic necessity of life”. If they’d been knocking on my door, I don’t think they’d have got away lightly either.
So, it may be an understatement to suggest that they have a huge mountain to climb. If they’re going to climb it, as I said at the start, they have to pass two tests, and they have to pass them with flying colours.
They have to prove they can manage an economic recovery. And they have to establish that they are politically competent.
Let’s take the latter point first. Since the start of the year, the Government has bumbled its way through a series of crises entirely of its own making. Shattergate and the medical-card fiasco were just two, and the Government was roundly punished for those at the local and European elections. You might have thought lessons had been learned.
But, since then, we’ve had the McNulty affair, a tacky bit of stroke politics that was avoidable. We’ve had the Tánaiste, Joan Burton, appearing to sneer at water-charge protesters over the quality of their mobile phones. I didn’t understand that at all. Has anyone ever sneered at her over her mobile phone? What has a mobile phone, in this day and age, got to do with anything?
I work in communities where people struggle to make ends meet, but everyone has a mobile phone. People — not just well-paid politicians — tweet all the time, and post on Facebook, and use their phones as cameras. I hope the sneering was just an off moment.
But, to be honest, if there has been one example of political mismanagement, above all, it has been the set-up of Irish Water and the construction of the water charges.
I’m in favour of water charges, and I’ll pay my bill when I get it. But I find two things shocking. The first is the absence of any real effort to relate the charge to ability to pay.
That’s utterly unreasonable and wrong, and will do more to discredit the charge than anything else.
But just as bad is the disgraceful bonus culture that Irish Water has adopted from the moment of its inception. This is a public utility, staffed in the main by former public servants.
Why has it been allowed to introduce precisely the kind of culture that has caused so much trouble in the past? What are the bonuses for? Their job is to deliver clean drinking water and to protect and develop the water supply. They’re well-paid to do it. Nobody in Irish Water will lose pay — or lose their jobs — if the water isn’t safe to drink in parts of the country, or if it has to be rationed in other parts.
It feels as if a bunch of public servants suddenly decided “Yippee! We’re in the private sector now. At last a chance to start creaming it off!”
And the Government has wrung its hands and decided it can’t micro-manage. They say they don’t like it, but they’re not going to do anything about it. That’s what I mean by political management. A government has to hold the ground and defend the public interest. It has to seek the common good at all times. If the Government continues to make a bags of the things of which it is in charge, and continues to pretend it has no control over things that clearly offend the common good, not only has it no chance of being re-elected, it won’t deserve to be.
The second test is the management of the economic recovery. Traditionally, in Ireland, the people have always preferred to leave the good times in the hands of Fianna Fáil, and that party is no doubt secretly hoping that psychology will kick in again, because they’ve offered nothing else since they ruined the country.
The really worrying thing is that the Government could make them a present of it. All the signs are that Fine Gael, in particular, is hell-bent on playing to its own core constituency in this Budget and the next. The emphasis that has been placed on reducing the top tax rate — an emphasis that I haven’t seen much challenged in the media — will yield very large dividends for very highly paid people.
But it will offer nothing in the way of hope to the huge numbers of people who were, on the one hand, entirely by-passed by the Celtic Tiger and, on the other, have had to bear a disproportionate share of the austerity burden. If there’s a couple of hundred million to spare to give the better-off a break, the Government needs to take a long hard look at the new inequalities that will create.
What starts today, with the announcement of the Budget, will be a process by which we’ll be able to judge the Government’s commitment to all the people.
The Government must address the housing crisis. It must address the real poverty that is preventing children from growing up as they should. It must address the needs of people working for miserable wages. It must address the inequalities in our education system. All those things matter more than tax breaks for the few.
I’ve been criticised a few times for supporting this government. I want to see it succeed. But, more than that, I want to see it prove that a coalition of this kind can really, transparently, govern in the interests of the whole people. I want to see it demonstrate that with skill, but also with compassion and a commitment to greater equality. I want to see it learn from mistakes and start to put things right.
That’s why today’s the day. From the Government’s perspective, it’s either the first day of the rest of their political lives, or it’s another heavy nail in their coffin.
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