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That poll in the Sunday Business Post… and the new Green Fine Gael ‘plan’ for economic recovery… November 25, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics.
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Let’s start with Fine Gael. Got to say I had to smile when I read about “Varadkar’s plan to beat the recession” in the Irish Times yesterday. Would it be akin to the NEP? Or perhaps the New Deal or…. Well no, not quite.

His soundbite was fascinating…

“We cannot tax our way out of recession. Because of the deficit we cannot spend our way out of recession. And we certainly cannot borrow our way out of recession,” he told delegates.

We can argue about the deficit. Other states with vastly more eye watering deficits are prepared to spend. But…let’s take his argument at face value… what is left?

“But we can trade our way out of recession. To do this we need to make Ireland a good place in which to invest and do business once again.”

Hmmm… the phrase ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps’ comes to mind. The details?

1. Provide tax breaks to businesses to take on new employees; 2. Recapitalise the banks on condition that they provide credit to viable businesses and home-buyers; 3. Re-examine the national pay deal to make Ireland competitive again; 4. Redirect the €1 billion budget of Fás, the state training and employment agency, to offer high-quality training to the tens of thousands who have lost their jobs; 5. Refuse any new increase in gas and electricity prices; 6. Oppose any increases in Government charges and local authority rates and levies; 7. Cut red tape and the cost of regulations for businesses; 8. Use the National Pension Reserve Fund to invest in infrastructure like roads, railways, broadband and alternative energy.

Well, maybe. Consider that tax-breaks don’t just appear unbidden in the air. One person’s tax break is another person’s cut in services. Ditto with the recapitalisation of the banks. And the idea that re-examining the national pay deal will in and of itself ‘make Ireland competitive again’ is near derisory. Then let’s consider Fás whose function has, at least in part, been to keep people off social welfare. Redirecting their focus to the newly unemployed is no harm, but what of those already in system? Where do the funds come from to support them? And what of opposing increases in charges. No harm per se, I prefer centralised taxation and expenditure, but where do the monies come to fund this stuff? Cutting red tape and regulation is pretty much boilerplate, but what on earth does it mean? Ireland isn’t, as it happens, anywhere near the most highly regulated economy in Europe, and yet somehow we’re doing markedly worse than our comrades across the continent, which suggests that over-regulation is far from being a pivotal aspect of the problem. And the obvious counter-argument is that the example of the substantially less regulated US economy hardly gives comfort.

As ever we’re seeing a fudge. Fine Gael can’t really speak to their essential instincts about public sector ‘reform’ so they are forced to avoid the issue for fear of scaring off their new found polling support – and somewhat more distantly their prospective Labour party coalition partner.

I’m also intrigued by the modish reference to funding ‘alternative’ technologies. I wonder if polling reveals that the public by and large likes that element of the current government’s programme – and by extension the Green Party policies in this area. Hard to see it mentioned otherwise.

And this is underlined by Phil Hogan, as unlikely an environmental warrior as one will find – well, after Dick Roche that is – arguing that “Instead of the environment as an elite concern of the urban middle class, we will turn it into a national obsession.” Very good. Who is he talking about? And what an interesting line of attack. Yes. Damn those pesky elite urban middle classes and their ‘environmental concern’… far better that it should become the focus of … er… the Fine Gael voting urban middle class and call it an obsession instead. Or perhaps not. Obsession. Concern. Concern. Obsession. It’s an odd word to choose.

It’s not that his attacks on the Green Party are not entirely without foundation as when he notes that:

“The Greens are for medical card withdrawal. They support withholding vaccines from 12-year-olds that would save their lives. They go along with pulling teachers out of schools.”

But these ring a little hollow when we also hear their Health spokesman Dr. James Reilly arguing that in the HSE…

“Fine Gael will seek to retrain those who are no longer required in management or administration roles in frontline services. Voluntary redundancy will be on offer but involuntary redundancies will be and must be an option”

And while that’s not entirely contradictory – it is possible that the sort of ‘reform’ FG envisages does necessitate redundancy – it does display an uneasiness of tone that typifies their gathering. Are they left? Are they right? Are they Green or are they not?

It’s almost as if they seek to occupy the political space on the right the government hasn’t – yet – but also to throw out a few left of centre bones.

That said Enda Kenny’s speech at the weekend was rather clever (if one ignores the one word sentences… Such. As. ‘People watching us against a background of misery and fear. Yes. Misery. And fear.’) . Again, instead of directly saying that public sector ‘reform’ was necessary he hedged it by talking in the following language…

Unemployment will continue upwards. Our borrowings will continue upwards. The quality of our front line public services will continue downwards. It’s time for someone to stand out front and tell the painful truth.

The country cannot afford the national pay deal. It is as simple as that. This deal must be suspended for 12 months and reviewed after that. It was negotiated in a different context with different expectations.

I am calling on Government and public service unions to implement a complete pay freeze for 12 months.

He may well be not far wrong in that prognosis, but note that he doesn’t talk about the public sector, but instead about public ‘services’.

And then he says:

If we want to be masters of our own destiny, we have to control our spending and ensure that we regain our competitiveness. Let’s be clear on this: if we manage our finances prudently there should be no need for damaging tax increases that undermine our future growth.

That has to be a mite contradictory, not least because we face the worst economic context in a generation. One can fault the current government on many issues, but they are hardly alone or unique in facing dismal – and potentially catastrophic – economic events.

Then there are some stray Obamaisms creeping in. What to make of the following?

When this Government is replaced by Fine Gael, we will deliver the universal healthcare plan being finalised by the Policy Commission chaired by Alan Dukes. We will create the change, the old, the young and the sick need so badly; a change to a health system where the patient is at the centre and the money follows that patient. A health system where service is delivered because you need it, not because you can pay for it. Fine Gael will drive that change in approach and ensure that fairness is at the core of Irish society.

Universal healthcare you say… and then…

We will banish the notion that Education is a cost. It is not. It is a need. It is an investment in our nation’s future and an investment in our children’s future. As Churchill [natch] said “the empires of the future will be the empires of the mind”. Fine Gael will invest now to build those empires.

Now leaving aside the chutzpah evidenced by quoting Churchill there is the small matter that whether we see Education as a societal cost, the reality on the ground is that education is no small cost. No word though on how that will be ameliorated.

And then, more on Green issues.

Tax relief on bicycles and banning light bulbs won’t build the Green Economy. Our approach must be based on innovation and creativity. It will draw investment from around the world. Give farming a new lease of life.
Renew and refresh our tourism offering. It will radically change and strengthen our industrial base.

That requires investment in wave, wind, biofuels, pumped storage and gas. An investment that will pay dividends and create jobs. An investment that requires radical change. That radical change that will see government acting to prevent problems. A government with the courage to act. And act Fast. And act fast we would have done to prevent the meltdown of the banking system.

Indeed the more I think about it the more I suspect Fine Gael are worried that the Green Party might play the role that the Progressive Democrats did in the past, of leeching a Fine Gael inclined vote towards de facto supporting Fianna Fáil. That this did the PDs no particular good over the years, as seen in their declining percentages at the polls is not entirely relevant. It only took a small number of PDs to be elected to guarantee Fianna Fáil returning each time. I wonder if in that context reaffirming the bona fides of the philosophical basis of the GP, while decrying their implementation, is such a great idea. That’s a very fine line to walk and for a party as unsurefooted politically as FG one that is quite a risk.

Incidentally one can also note the new much stronger pro-EU tone of Fine Gael comments. No chance that in a rerun of Lisbon we’ll witness the flakiness that they demonstrated last time out, or as Kenny put it ‘To get there, Ireland must be restored as a central and influential member of the European Union. I am committed to playing my part in ensuring that the current uncertainties about Ireland’s relationship with Europe is ended.’

And, naturally, the reality is that they remain far from power, faced with a government that is still solid. Kenny may say that ‘Soon – maybe sooner than people think – the people of Ireland will give us the opportunity to change this country for the better.’ but it remains unlikely.

And so to the poll.

The Sunday Business Post/Red C
figures are interesting because they parallel some of the trends evident in the last Irish Times polling data.

Fine Gael are up now to 35%, an increase of 2%, Fianna Fáil have moved up 4% to 30% while Labour, Sinn Féin and the Green Party have all registered small declines in their vote (-1, -2 and -1 respectively). The Independents figure remains static at 8%.

The most obvious aspect of this is how fluid the Fianna Fáil vote is, which may well be a comfort to them. To regain 4% is no small feat in the aftermath of the Budget. Not so great for them is the seeming attachment of some former FF voters to the Independents. But, they might well count on some of that 8% coming back to them. Fascinating too to see that Sinn Féin was a port of call of a few percentage points of the FF vote given the chance. Is that good or bad for either party? It may be proof that there is now an FF vote there for the taking, if not in first preferences, then in second and thirds for Sinn Féin. For Labour this has to be disappointing, even given the margin of error of the poll. Gilmore had a great couple of weeks but that initial impetus may well be fading, and the serendipity for Fine Gael of a party conference at this time may well cause further problems. Mind you, soon enough Labour’s day in the sun will come. But, the next Red C poll is, I understand, not going to be released until January (that may be incorrect, so please feel free to disabuse me of the notion). That’s a long time away.

For the Green Party we’re probably seeing them hitting bedrock, but it’s far from the worst rating they could have and might even cause them some relief. 5% is a reasonably strong position from which to continue forward. That may well steady some nerves.

As a bloc the left is at or about 27% of the vote. Far from awful, close enough to Fianna Fáil, but Fine Gael retains a – for now – commanding advantage.

There’s an interesting spin on this in the SBP by Pat Leahy. He argues that:

The political situation is now more favourable for Fine Gael than it has been in a generation. An opportunity exists for Kenny to consolidate that support, which would make a victory in any medium-term election certain.

Paradoxically, the opportunity also presents a threat for the Fine Gael leader: he has failed to impress the public and many in his own party, particularly on economic issues.

If his poll ratings slip in the first half of next year, his own party may begin to think it is wasting an historic opportunity.

I like Leahy’s analysis in general but I think here is is underestimating the empirical situation, or rather he may be right that this dynamic will play out inside Fine Gael, but that party would be wrong to think this is an ‘historic opportunity’. There is no easily discernible process by which Fine Gael can capitalise on the current situation to their immediate benefit. The opportunity presented was a grievous misstep by the Coalition, not a fundamental (or at least not yet) shift in the nature of Irish politics. There is near nothing Fine Gael or Kenny can do to much improve the Fine Gael situation, relatively little he or they can do to maintain their poll rating and an awful lot that the passage of time itself will do that will allow the memories of this budget to fade.

As ever they are pinned down by circumstance. They and he, have done remarkably well – although let’s not overstate it, two weeks ago it was Gilmore who looked the more commanding figure – no other leader could do much more, if anything. It will be no small achievement to retain Fine Gael support above 30% over the next year, let alone the next three years.

Beyond that, the big question exercising Brian Cowen, in particular, is whether this fracturing of the Fianna Fáil vote is now embedded, despite the small gains by them, or whether those voters can be pried back. And the larger picture of local and European elections – and Lisbon redux – offers only a world of pain over the political year. He might well have cause to reflect on just how the Green Party may well be his ticket to electoral victory. Keeping them sweet may occupy rather more of his time from here on out.

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Comments»

1. Jim Monaghan - November 25, 2008

They have to and should do a variant of what the UK is doing.
It should be slanted towards the poor as they spend because they have too. Capital projetcs like the DIT in Grangegorman should be fasttracked etc.The extra spending should be careful to maximise what is spent in the economy.
What we will get is the banks sold to even worse predators than we already have. Think of the Eircom debacle, even from a capitalist point of view it was and is a disaster.
A shambolic government with no ideas and an opposition not much better. What do people think of Fintan O’tooles effort to distance Labour form G.

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2. D. J. P. O'Kane - November 25, 2008

I think Fintan O’Toole is wasting his time by having that column in the IT in the first place (I presume that’s what we’re talking about – or is it something else?). Who on earth among the IT readership does he imagine is going to be influenced or persuaded by what he writes?

His latest effort about the hidden subsidies private health insurers receive from the state was quite devastating – but in terms of shaking the sense of entitlement among the Irish Times reading classes, it will be as ineffective as everything else he’s ever written.

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3. Tiny Planet » Links o’ the day 25/11/08 - November 25, 2008

[...] Gael’s economic ‘plan’ dissected in far better fashion than I can [...]

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4. Dan Sullivan - November 25, 2008

“not a fundamental (or at least not yet) shift in the nature of Irish politics.”

I believe the fundamental shift occurred in the early 00s with the significant rise in the convincibles or floating voters as we used to call them. Their rise was very much at the expense of both FG and FF as catch all parties but the FF drop in core dyed in the wool support was masked b their greater ability to attract the convincibles.

So it looked like only FG were affected by this change which was primarily demographic and cultural, with far, far fewer people under 45 being interested in being core supporters of either of the larger parties than heretofore. FG were rudely exposed in 2002 but it is only now that we’re seeing the extent of the retreat in the FF vote really exposed.

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5. Jim Monaghan - November 25, 2008

“FG were rudely exposed in 2002 but it is only now that we’re seeing the extent of the retreat in the FF vote really exposed.”

But is it going anywhere else. Gilmores Labour are trying to distance themselves from both FF and FG but will it work when everyone knows that a gov. will be based on a core of either Fg or FF. A big danger is a “national” gov of FF and FG to push through “reforms” in ahem, the “national interest”.
All the minor parties including Labour are prepared to do the coalition waltz. The far left prefer their monastic isolation to providing even the shadow of an alternative.
The more things change the more they stay the same. Cannot remember the French original even though I am studying it.

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6. D. J. P. O'Kane - November 25, 2008

Plus ca change plus c’est le meme chose.

I’m sure ejh will be along in a moment to critique the absence of the correct diacritical marks there.

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7. Joe - November 25, 2008

That would be “Plus que ca change, plus que c’est la meme chose”, Jim.
I would say a national government of FF and FG would be a good thing. It would just be a reflection of the right wing consensus in the Dáil and in the country. It might force Labour to offer a left-wing opposition to it and it might even tempt the far left out of their monastic isolation.

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8. CL - November 26, 2008

The appalling prospect of a government led by Enda Kenny is made plausible by the appalling reality of the government led by Brian Cowen.

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9. WorldbyStorm - November 26, 2008

:) or to take Joe’s thoughts the appalling thought of a government led by Enda Kenny and Brian Cowen…

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10. ejh - November 26, 2008

I’m sure ejh will be along in a moment to critique the absence of the correct diacritical marks there.

In truth I’m fairly forgiving where keyboard deficiencies are concerned, having for instance no sign for pound sterling on my own.

It wouldn’t surprise me if we got a few “governments of national unity” across Europe over the next couple of years. Loud will be the praise of the metropolitan media and large will be the cuts in public spending that they introduce.

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11. ejh - November 26, 2008

Did I say “large”? Sorry, I must have meant “brave”.

(What’s “you are posting comments too quickly, slow down” all about? If it starts saying “chill” I shall punch my screen.)

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12. Dan Sullivan - November 26, 2008

wbs, needless to say I’m not at all appalled at the idea of a government led by Enda Kenny. Truth is Cowen leading a government in and of itself doesn’t appal me either, what genuinely appals me is what the rest of the government consists of. Anyone who saw Martin Cullen on the WiP in his regal pose dismissing out of hand the idea of universal health insurance as talked about by Brendan Howlin and Leo Varadkar would know what I mean.

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13. WorldbyStorm - November 26, 2008

I actually like Enda Kenny, I think he’s a broadly decent person, but I’ll retain my right to have political differences with him ;)

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