Friday, September 07, 2012

Free Travel More Dangerous than the Government Realise

Even though the budget isn’t actually due for another three months, and even though Dáil Éireann isn’t even due to sit again for another fortnight, a year’s holidays in some countries, the sky is dark with kites being flown.

As the kites bob and weave on the breeze, there is a highly-remunerated government advisor in a shed somewhere with a squealometer, registering the level of howls each proposed cut makes. The louder the howl, the more the minister is likely to moonwalk back out of trouble before the dread blade falls. If there’s no discernable howl, into the mulcher she goes.

This blind-man’s-buff school of economic policy is worrying when you consider that few governments has had as long to formulate their agenda before taking the reins of office. When you consider that not since WT Cosgrove had to form the very state itself after a bloody civil war has a government had so clear a task before it, the shirking of that responsibility is staggering.

There is no precedent in Irish electoral history for the kicking Fianna Fáil, the perpetual party of government, received in the last election. The electorate has been cross with Fianna Fáil before, and sent them to bed with no supper. This time, Fianna Fáil have been thrown out of the house entirely, and told be damned to them.

The government was elected on a bill of reform. Reform of public finances and reform of public life, to ensure that the recent calibre of disaster was never visited on Ireland again.

Everybody knew that this is what the government had to do. Everybody, that is, except the actual government themselves. A dread terror stole over the heart of the nation when Enda Kenny did not go into government on his own, and dare Fianna Fáil to support their own policies. Instead, Fine Gael opted for politics as usual, going into coalition with a Labour party with whom Fine Gael agree on nothing except that they are neither of them Fianna Fáil.

The government sat on their hands for the first year of their five year term, content to blame Fianna Fáil, Europe, the IMF, the church and anybody but the people for the country’s woes. Even though Enda Kenny went on television to tell the nation that the debt is not the nation’s fault, it does still seem to be the nation that’s footing the actual bill. It’s hard to have it both ways.

And now, having long-fingered manning up in their first year, the coalition finds itself with a hard budget to implement while about to be bogged down by the two biggest oil-and-water debates of the past quarter-century, abortion and children’s rights. Those two kraken circle the island, waiting to come ashore and wreck havoc, while in the meantime the cabinet desperately fly kite after kite.

Yesterday’s kite was a hinted suggestion that the government were “looking at” free travel for pensioners in the same way Charlotte Corday looked at Jean-Paul Marat. Reform of the public service – and pay deals are only a part of that reform – is what the government should be about but the combined absence of both vision and bottle mean there’s no way that’s getting touched. And as such, the kites go up to establish who’ll squeal the least.

However. If the government think that that zapping free travel for the elderly is a free shot, they ought to think again. Not only do they not understand the mandate they were given by the people, neither do they understand just how the country has changed since any of them last had to look at a grocery bill and wonder if the household could afford it.

Free travel for the elderly began as a relatively cheap perk for pensioners in the 1970s. It was nice to have it, but it’s unlikely it was used all that much. Most pensioners would use free travel to visit their children and grandchildren, and in the 1970s and 80s those children either lived locally or abroad. Free travel didn’t come into it, and once you’ve seen Lough Key Forest Park once, that’ll do you ‘til you’re called.

But that’s changed now, as Ireland’s grand plan to not export her youth was to build concrete jungles around the cities to house them instead. As such, couples with young families now find themselves trying to raise children as children were never raised before, with both partners working and out of the house from the early hours until the dead of night.

Childcare in such circumstances works out at about a grand a month I’m told. You know when there’s a mortgage rage decrease of 0.25% and we’re told it’s great news for mortgage holders as they save €500 a year? You’d want to lop more than twenty times that off the bill before those mortgage holders would break even on childcare. And that’s forgetting that they’re paying off on values that do not exist any more, on the basis of trying to keep in some ways sane.

How do these twenty-first centuries families, who will be celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Rising in three years’ time, cope? How do they make ends meet?

Because all over Ireland, the Sunday evenings that used to only see students on buses and trains on their way back to college now see those students being joined by grannies who will be staying in their children’s box rooms in Lucan and Clonsilla and Blanchardstown and Louisa Bridge, wherever in God’s name that is, trying to help them make ends meet until this storm passes. And one of the reasons they’re able to do it is because they have free travel on buses and trains.

That’s a very delicate ecosystem that relies on a lot of factors in balance. It’s hard on granny, it’s hard on the parents, it’s hard on everyone. If the government pulls the rug on that, a much bigger house of cards may come crashing down with it. And it’ll make abortion look like sorting someone for false teeth in comparison.