What’s left for the Greens in Government?
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It must have seemed like perfect timing for the Greens when Bertie Ahern came calling to their door after the 2007 election; a once in a lifetime political opportunity.
True, the Greens hadn’t done as well as they might have hoped in the election itself; but their environmental agenda was popular especially among younger voters. Public anxiety about climate change was at its peak in Ireland as throughout the rest of the Western world, providing an umbrella under which a range of policy options, ‘green’ energy’, ‘green jobs’, ‘green taxes,’ ‘green agriculture’, sheltered patiently waiting for their moment in the political sunshine.
This green agenda was also uncritically accepted as the only realistic prescription for a sustainable future by the media and by the main opposition parties whose appropriately credentialed spokesmen in Fine Gael and Labour were rushing to out-green the Greens in policy terms. Their prospective government partners, Fianna Fail and the truncated PDs, had long been painted, probably unjustly, as environmental ‘bad boys’. Fianna Fail’s environmental record was represented by the main opposition parties and the media as patchy, as well as tainted by their love affair with developers and fast track developments and the lack of priority assigned within national planning to so-called sustainable environmental policies.
Because Bertie needed them – or perhaps, needed to be sure that they would stand by him in the event that certain personal difficulties he faced over his own personal finances ever came to a head – it was a foregone conclusion that he would grant the Greens the portfolios they most coveted in government , Energy and Environment, as part of any deal. As indeed he did.
On the day Bertie Ahern’s career imploded, and with it his decade of dominance of the Irish political scene, the Green Party leader, John Gormley, appeared in the doughnut surrounding the Grand Maestro on the plinth of Leinster House as he relayed the news of his imminent departure to the media throng. The Greens early months in government had been dogged by the controversy surrounding the soon- to- be- former Taoiseach’s personal finances. They’d had hurdles of their own to cross too in those early days, not least the duckegg of a parting gift that Gormley’s predecessor, Dick Roche, had left on the ministerial desk precluding his successor from doing anything to stop a motorway hurtling through the ancient site of Tara. The shadow of a massive incinerator for Dublin’s waste in Poolbeg, in the Minister’s own constituency, and which he had publicly sworn to stop, was also looming ominously.
But all that was before the international credit crunch; and with it the explosive burst of Ireland’s property bubble, the collapse of the Irish banking system and the worst of hard landings for the Irish economy and its bemused citizens. Amid the wreckage, the Greens’ ambitious environmental agenda was no longer such a high profile priority, either in the media or amongst the general public. Senator Dan Boyle, well-respected finance spokesman for the Green Party in the previous Dail, was outside the loop of Cabinet, diluting both his influence and authority as a spokesperson on economic issues. Neither Gormley nor his Ministerial colleague, Eamon Ryan, had either the expertise or experience to properly fill the gap. Worse, the opposition had found another excuse to make the Greens their favourite whipping boy; taunting the Green Ministers for propping up a Fianna Fail government whose leader, and most of his hapless crew, had presided over the policy choices, they alleged, that had turned a boom into a bust.
From the start, the Greens might have walked away from government on any number of issues, some of arcane interest only to their own membership, others of greater national significance. Voters have the tendency to tar all parties in government with the same brush, regardless of the level of responsibility individual parties may bear for the turn of events. Citizens look to what’s hurting their pockets and who’s around to trash for that, not necessarily those who ultimately bear the real responsibility for their economic woes.
So the Greens found out in the local elections, as their numbers in local government were slashed from eighteen to three. Some private opinion polls, it is said, suggest that if an election were called now, it is not just Fianna Fail that might face a stint in the political wilderness; the Greens might be looking at total representational wipeout.
Last weekend, John Gormley cut a lonely figure as he fought it out on the airwaves with Dublin City Council and its business partners over the Poolbeg incinerator. His opponents’ trump card was that they were implementing government waste management policy.
Things might have gone from bad to worse had the rookie Dail Deputy, George Lee, not stepped up to the plate with the most egregious display of petulance in the history of Irish parliamentary politics. In the heat of the main opposition party’s PR debacle, the statement of Cabinet support for its beleaguered Minister for the Environment – what one astute political observer described as ‘tea and sympathy’ – that seeks to lift him out of his incineration/waste management quagmire failed to attract the media attention it properly merits, either in terms of what it says about established government policy or its broader implications for continued political stability. For regardless of how stable the government appears to be, however on course to completing a full five year term to 2012, it is clear that volatility constantly lurks beneath its seemingly becalmed surface.
Whatever else will be said about the Greens when the history of our times is written, it should be acknowledged that they have displayed political courage and sticking power. Where other junior parties in previous coalition arrangements ran for the door and headed for the hills when tough decisions and a shower of media opprobrium beckoned, the Green Party leadership have displayed grit and determination. But the question now is: what’s in it for them from here on in?
True, they have secured a carbon levy in the last Budget, but arguably because the measure fits with a general policy of broadening the tax base away from taxes on employment and providing a much-needed additional revenue stream for the exchequer. The same might be said for water charges and some form of a property tax, two other policy objectives for the Greens in government, in next December’s budget.
What has also begun to change remarkably in a short space of time is the climate of public opinion on climate change. Throughout the western world, the climate change agenda is collapsing and public support for climate change policies is tumbling.
Even before the ill-fated Copenhagen Conference, public support for climate change measures had taken a dive in Holland. In the US, support has also dipped and the US President’s climate policy agenda looks likely to be pushed aside, at least until after the mid-term elections. Closer to home, in a recent BBC News sponsored opinion poll only 26% agreed that climate change is happening and is a result of human activity, down from 41% in a similar poll in November of last year.
The Irish public mood is also in flux. In a recent Euro barometer poll, Irish respondents downgraded their concerns about global warming with only 38% citing climate change as an important issue for the EU, a much sharper decline than experienced in other EU countries. “More than 60% of Irish people answered “Yes” when asked whether “Economic growth must be a priority for Ireland, even if it affects the environment,” according to the EU Commission office, compared with 44% in Spring 2008.
The credibility of the UN IPCC has been damaged as a catalogue of mistakes and reliance on dubious sources for key claims in their 2007 Report have been progressively exposed in recent weeks. The EU, marginalized and blithely ignored by the key players at the Copenhagen Conference, notably including the US President, Barack Obama, are hanging on by their fingernails to their own climate change strategy with its 20% reduction target by 2020, or 30% in the event of global binding commitments to carbon reductions. This policy may yet founder on the objections of Eastern European countries and possibly also the UK , depending on the outcome of the General Election there later this year.
On Ireland’s behalf in 2008, John Gormley enthusiastically signed up to a 20% reduction in Irish emissions by 2020 over 2005 levels, an ambitious and challenging target that sent a shiver down the spines of many in industry and the business world who feared its implications for our fragile economy. In his Carbon Budget speech to the Dail in December, Gormley set out the outline for a Climate Bill, which, he said, would include “ambitious statutory targets”, namely:
o a 3 per cent average annual reduction in net greenhouse gas emissions as outlined in the Programme for Government, but extended out to 2020, and
o an eighty per cent reduction on 1990 levels of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050
There has been scant coverage in the Irish mainstream media of the controversies engulfing the IPCC and climate science in recent weeks. Likewise, our political class appear to be holding their noses and studiously averting their gaze from unfolding events in the international arena. As the Dail record shows, the Minister has faced only a pitiful number of desultory written parliamentary questions from the Opposition on his climate change agenda since the confused outcome of the Copenhagen Conference, and none at all on confidence in climate science or the IPCC.
The shift in Irish public opinion though can hardly be ignored for much longer by the commentariat or by the government and opposition parties. Even if there were some signs of recovery in the Irish economy over the next twelve months, the appetite may no longer be as strong at government level to shower a quaking electorate with expensive climate change policy measures that might not be well received by the public, particularly in the countdown period to the next general election.
Arguably, the Greens may have got most of what they’re ever going to get from this experience of participating in government. Though what their ‘tipping point’ might be and when, remains uncertain at this time.
UPDATE: This morning Senator Deirdre De Burca has announced her resignation from the Green Party in protest at what she perceives as the party leadership drawing the Greens too close to Fianna Fail. Must be something in the air these days!