In Defence of Politics

30th November, 2009

The Orders of Business were very bleak last week. Tragic tales of floods, devastated communities and despair permeated many of the contributions. The future of our economy prompted equally gloomy interventions.

All of this prompted me to intervene on Thursday morning with a quote from the novelist Joseph O’Connor – “Hope is a habit you have to acquire”. I blogged about it that day.

However after that shaft of light in a murky atmosphere I reverted to type and bemoaned the performance of banking executives and the ignoring of parliament by social partnership. The light of interest in the eyes of fellow senators prompted by a glimpse of hope was quickly doused by a trickle of gloom.

If I could have left the chamber afterwards I would have. The sharing of those thoughts left me feeling flat. Unfortunately the delights of the Company Amendment Act 2009 and the Public Transport Regulator Bill 2009 left me in my seat for the morning. In between contributions on these bills I reflected on my mood.

The Irish Republic is facing a fiscal crisis of historical proportions. This provides the backdrop to the despair over recent flooding where everyone is asking ‘Why only €10 million?”. The emergence of a structural budget deficit, a crippled tax system and the return of chronic unemployment pose real and substantial dangers to the economic security of our state.

All of this is occurring in the environment of growing budget deficits in most mature democracies. Even if we wanted to borrow our way out of this crisis there is no guarantee that we could.

The words of Jim Callaghan that rang through in 1976 ring true again when he said “We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession, and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting Government spending. I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists”.

I am not making this statement because of any ideological obsession but simply to make the practical point that the supply of cheap money on the international money markets is rapidly dwindling. Witness the difficulties of Dubai and Greece this week.

This means that the pressure on politics is intense. We are now in the era of austerity economics. But the appetite for austerity politics is slight, at best.

And yet, all the evidence suggests that people are more interested in politics than ever. Turnout at the June elections was 58%- a far cry from the usual turnout of about 40%. More people voted on Lisbon 2 than on the Good Friday Agreement.

As a constituency politician I am now dealing with policy questions every day. The monthly arrival of such a question a year ago was a cause for celebration.

To me, there is a simple lesson here. People want to engage. All they need is a political system to engage with. This desire to make politics work should give us great hope – and hope is central to Ireland’s success.

So, how do we square this circle? People want more from politics at a time when its capacity for delivery is in question. I think the beginnings of an answer to this question has three elements.

Firstly, we need to defend politics. Political decisions got us into the mess we are in. It is time now for political decisions to get us out of it. Let us all recognise the value of a choice been made, even if we vehemently disagree with the choice. Paralysis for our country is terminal.

Secondly, even if we struggling to change the content of politics we need to change the tone. Let the Government know a good idea when it sees one and act upon it, regardless of whether the bright spark who suggested it is wearing a green, blue or red rosette. And let that bright spark- and his/her political masters- resist the temptation to crow about it and claim a monopoly on wisdom afterwards.

Thirdly, modest changes to our political system could yield huge rewards. As an opposition politician, it is a frustrating truth that when it comes to power, the winners take it all. Over the years we have developed an adversarial political system where the ruling party hoards information, views knowledge as power and believes compromise is weakness.

To achieve this, we should accompany question time in the Dail with a mechanism whereby every Minister meets every few months with his or her opposite number to discuss the difficulties facing their Department, the opportunities that lie ahead and most importantly the plans they have to deal with both.

Is this naïve? Pointlessly idealistic? Maybe. But two years into the Oireachtas, worried about my country’s future and terrified for that of my children I have never been so aware of the need of my profession to be defended and change at the same time.