Recovery for the mainstream parties is not about PR palaver of ‘better communications’ or ‘getting the message out’, it’s about having a credible message in the first place.
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Stephen Collins is a quality political analyst of long-standing and deserved repute. His analysis in today’s Irish Times,( 31 May, 2014) however, makes the classic mistake of (a) blaming ‘media negativity’ for the drubbing taken by the coalition parties in the local and EP elections and, consequentially, (b) exhorting the government parties to up their communications game as a means of addressing it. He assumes that we, the people, take what we see, hear and read in the media as gospel and that we’re so undiscriminating in our intelligence that we’re capable of being beguiled by political ‘spin’. He’s wrong. The expectation of the electorate, and rightly so, is that the government elected in 2011 would get the economy and fiscal policy back on track, that it would safeguard the provision of public services and that it would radically reform its own governmental and regulatory processes to ensure such calamity could not befall us again. The mid-term election results are a verdict on that performance; nothing more and nothing less.
In Ireland, the Troika was not reviled by the populace. The general public, especially those who think about politics or the state of the country at all – and in Ireland it’s difficult to avoid political discussion and engagement even if it’s only at the level of the bar stool variety – understood that the Troika team was not here to be nice to us. Their job was to set the parameters of government action under the rescue programme to support a return to fiscal stability within the three year timetable of the bailout programme and ensure that the money they were loaning us to keep the country afloat would be capable of being paid back in due course. The government’s job was to negotiate the precise conditions of that programme and, as best placed to appreciate what the effect of particular austerity measures might be on the most vulnerable sections of our society, to make appropriate choices and decisions to fulfil the programme criteria without inflicting irremediable damage on those most likely to be badly affected by the ravages of our economic collapse.
That the government parties have failed in their stewardship of vital public services, particularly the health system, education, justice, environment, energy, employment and labour market policies, is a result of their own incompetence, lack of any vision and creativity, individual burgeoning arrogance and the anti-democratic proclivities of certain members of the current Cabinet. The failure of this government is not the fault of the previous administration. It is not the fault of the Troika. And most assuredly, it is not the fault of ‘media negativity’. Recovery for the mainstream parties is not about PR palaver of ‘better communications’ or ‘getting the message out’, it’s about having a credible message in the first place.
Our traditional mainstream parties are resilient. They are deeply embedded in the fabric of our society. They have resources and experience in abundance. What people want is a clear and honest articulation of the social democratic principles that will underpin the policies and choices of this government and the next one. They want to know the representative basis of those policies.They want to know their cost, both short and long-term. They want to know whether the party proposals are realistic or purely populist, misleading or duplicitous for purposes of self-interested political gain. They want the respective choices of the parties to be subject to public scrutiny and debate in some forum of public accountability well before we the people are asked to vote for, or against, them in the heat of an electoral contest.
As to what that forum might consist of – there’s the Seanad, lying as idle as ever despite the wishes of the people, as made evident in the recent referendum, to have it made operational as a vibrant forum for democratic discourse. There’s also the possibility of an all-party Oireachtas Committee, which might be established for the purpose of scrutinising proposed party policy and chaired by SIPO, for example. Such a Committee would also be in a position to submit party policy proposals to the scrutiny of independent economists and experts as well as costing by the Department of Finance. As for coverage of the proceedings, first we’d be able to judge for ourselves on the Oireachtas channels and identify ‘the pigs in a poke’ as they trundled into the arena. Further, standard media coverage of such proceedings would not be so vulnerable to the vagaries of political spin or the pursuance of a particularist media agenda.