Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Three-Point-Plan for the Coming Election

First published in the Western People on Monday.

The Houses of Oireachtas reconvene this day week, the fifteenth of September. A leading bookmaker is currently laying odds of Burlington Bertie, 100/30, that there will be an election this year. That is a very tempting price.

We are currently in the run-up to the Budget and, as is the time-honoured tradition with these things, ministers are flying flags to protect their own departmental budgets. There’s nothing unusual in that.

What is unusual this time around is that the Labour Party have mandated a new leader to make a stronger Labour case at the cabinet table while Fine Gael continue to hold the austerity line. Eventually, something’s got to give.

Neither side wants an election, but sometimes these things take on a momentum of their own and, once the snowball starts rolling down the hill, there’s no real way to stop it.

If there is to be an election, this column is happy to announce one vote for hire in the next general election. Whatever party comes closest to the following list of demands is the party most worthy of your correspondent’s favour when exercising his democratic franchise.

Reform of the Electoral System
Everybody talks about reform, but if that talking doesn’t contain a practical suggestion it’s just so much air. Commissions to see if Ireland should lower the voting age to sixteen are all hooey. Platitudes. Deckchairs on the Titanic.

Real reform is something that shakes up the political system, and ours is a system that is badly in need of shaking up. We can’t object to Europe taking over the powers of our national parliament when our own national parliament is, for want of a better phrase, a joke shop.

A parliament exists to hold a government to account. The Dáil does no such thing. The TDs obey the party whip, which means that Ireland is an oligarchy as much as it’s a democracy – the Taoiseach of the day takes advice from his unelected but nicely remunerated advisers, and the sheep bleat their support in the chamber.

Why is this so? This is so because the Irish nation prioritises the local over the national interest. Why would we do that? Because the electoral system forces us to do that.

For example: suppose there are two candidates for election. One is someone who speaks well, understands the economy and has a vision for the future. The other is someone who doesn’t care one way or the other about visions, but will pull every string going to fix the main road into town.

If the first person gets elected, nothing changes. He or she is full of great ideas but, as discussed earlier, you’re as well off writing to Santa about them as speaking in the Dáil, because nobody is listening in the Dáil.

If the second person gets elected, nothing changes at the national level either, but you do have a chance of getting that road tarred. A simple choice for anyone who can tell the difference between half a loaf and no bread.

If the electoral system is changed, we can then change the type of politician we elect, and the new politicians can then make more radical changes to the system of Government. But without that first step, nothing changes at all. This column’s preference would be for a single-seat constituency supplemented by a list system of elections, but I’m not dogmatic about it. So long as the politicians realise a change of system is the difference between getting elected and not, that’s the main thing.

Deflating the Dublin Housing Market Bubble
How can you have a housing shortage in a city that is surrounded by ghost estates? It makes no sense, yet this is what we’re being told to believe about housing in Dublin. We’ve spent the past five years watching TV documentaries about ghost estates, and now we’re expected to believe there’s a housing shortage and we need to build, build, build?

Average house prices in Dublin are rising by six thousand Euro a month. There is no way that is not a bubble. No way. Speculator cash is driving up the price of houses, and it’s being facilitated by the National Assets Management Agency, NAMA. NAMA’s remit is to get the best price it can for the assets on its books, and NAMA is supremely indifferent to whether there’s a bubble there or not. Managing the economy isn’t NAMA’s concern.

Managing the economy is, in fact, the Government’s concern. Vote for a party at the next election who will make deflating the bubble a priority. The crash is only five years’ distant – surely we haven’t forgotten that lesson already?

One of the reasons that Dublin currently has a housing market bubble is because, post-recession, the Government has abandoned all pretence at treating all regions equally. Right now, Government policy centres on developing the capital as a hub for foreign direct investment, and letting the regions go whistle.

The theory behind the policy is that Dublin has to compete with other cities of the world like London, New York, Mumbai and Amsterdam in being attractive to a globalised workforce, and it is the duty of the rest of the country to pull on the green jersey and get behind the capital.

The theory is deeply flawed. Foreign direct investment is a false god. Indigenous industry will always be more reliable than foreign direct investment, for two reasons. Firstly, being indigenous means the company is less likely to move away to somewhere cheaper. Secondly, if one indigenous company folds, it doesn’t take the whole industry with it. All our eggs will not be in one basket.

Again, there is no rule that says Ireland can only look to foreign direct investment for its development. This is the information age – the absence of resources and infrastructure don’t hamper us anymore. We need electric power, computers and good broadband. Once we have that, we are only limited by our imagination and bravery.

Fine Gael won their greatest-ever number of seats in the last election on the back of a five-point-plan. Here’s a three-point-plan that the voters should use to decide the next government – electoral reform, financial prudence, and decentralisation. Are they really too much to ask?