This is my first Broadsheet column of 2018 – looking how Fine Gael and Leo Varadkar are more concerned with selling their story of governing than the actual business of government
One of the nicest things about the run up to Christmas are those chance encounters with former colleagues and old acquaintances as you frantically rush around town looking for those presents you claimed you ordered online six weeks earlier.
I had a few of those, but two may be of interest to you. Both involved high level civil servants, from different departments, who I knew from my time in government. After catching up with each on the whereabouts of mutual friends, we got to talking politics.
Both reported that there was virtually no real policy work going on within government and that ministers, specifically the Fine Gael ones, were focused exclusively on PR, ferreting out any possible item of good news that may be in the pipeline and getting it announced ASAP, courtesy of the Strategic Communications Unit, with the maximum fanfare and hoopla.
According to them (and note that these were separate encounters) the general consensus among their colleagues was that the Taoiseach and the Fine Gael ministers were now in full campaign mode which, they assumed, pointed to a general election before the summer, possibly well before it.
This last point was probably less of a firm prediction and more a pious wish.
When ministers go into campaign mode, difficult decisions get put on hold. Government goes into stasis. Problems stack up. Nothing gets done, but lots of things get talked about. Ministers become commentators on policy, more interested in posing questions and flying kites than answering any. It is a situation that can be tolerated for a few weeks, but it is not sustainable for much longer, sustainable by departments and statutory bodies, that is.
Yet is what we have been seeing for the past few months, plenty of fine talk and snappy presentations about what may happen, but very little action. Look back over the newspapers and news reports of the past month. How many times have you seen Leo Varadkar and Eoghan Murphy in hi-viz jackets and hard hats looking and pointing at handfuls of new houses and apartments, while the homeless statistics deteriorate with an unprecedented 3,300 children homeless at Christmas.
If fine words and noble intentions alone were enough to solve the housing crisis, then Simon Coveney should have had it resolved months ago. Back in March the former Housing Minister was solemnly telling us that he would end hotel use by homeless by July. He didn’t and his successor is not doing any better. When Murphy was appointed in June last the Taoiseach said:
“Rebuilding Ireland is working but it may not be enough and so I am tasking him [Minister Murphy] to review it within three months and to consider what additional measures may be required including consideration of a greater quantum of social housing build… ”
That was over six months ago. The Minister was given three months to come up with an additional plan, recognizing the the previous Fine Gael one was not doing it, and told it should include social housing new build. Yet three months after his new plan we see that Councils have only used one in three of the units identified by Nama as available as social housing. Indeed, local authorities have refused over 4,000 units and failed to take up almost 400 more that they had identified as suitable for social housing.
It is a similar story on Health. There we have another great electioneer, who is adept at getting out the message, but less sure footed when it comes to knowing what is needed in the long term.
It is not that they are indifferent to the problems, but rather that they subscribe to the political view that you can change the political reality by creating your own political narrative and then imposing it as the settled and agreed view through “strategic communications”.
It is not quite Kelly Conway’s “alternative facts”, but it comes pretty close. But it works because it plays to something within us. As Jonathan Gottschall observed in his book, humans are “storytelling animals”, we use narrative to make sense of a chaotic and unpredictable world, to imbue events with moral significance, and to define our own selves.
It is what the Taoiseach and his senior Ministers have been doing for the last few months. Driving home the image of a virtually problem free society, thanks to the new and vital “Leo” brand. The government is also sold to us as new and vital… not an easy sell when it contains the likes of Ministers Flanagan and Ring.
Lately, we have the hard selling of Fine Gael and Leo draped in the tricolor, gently humming “A Nation Once Again” as it rebuffs and rebukes the Brits. No matter that the headlines are potentially damaging to North South relations that took decades to build, they suit the current government’s current needs, and that’s all that matters for now.
And it does seem to be working, if the last few polls are correct. Fine Gael appears at last to have secured the “Leo bounce” that eluded it in his first six months. But, has it really? Could it be that this is not so much a brand new story as it is the story of a new brand? Might those polls just be reflecting the absence of a clear competing narrative that offers a better story, one based on ideas and experience? It is not that Leo’s story is better, it is just that it is the only one on offer, for now.
Whatever about the cause, the fact is that all this one-sided narrative spinning is being done at the expense of real governing. The country is being put on hold while Fine Gael tries to reverse the result of the 2016 election.
So, if the election is to take place this year, then it is better that it takes place as early as possible so that the phony campaign can be brought to an end and we can have more decision taking and less announcement making.