Tom Elliott kicks off campaign with UUP ideas on how to reform Stormont by 2015

Gathered for breakfast in The Mount conference centre in East Belfast, the local business representatives, UUP candidates and Young Unionists were nearly all decked out in dark pin-striped suits and dresses. Tom Elliott looked confident and relaxed as he arrived in the room and got up following Danny Kennedy’s introduction.

It was clear that the UUP were launching their election campaign as Tom Elliott stood at the perspex podium and delivered an end of term report on the past four years of Assembly and executive business as well as setting out his stall for economic policy, reforms to agree a programme of government before running d’Hondt and a roadmap towards introducing a formal opposition up at Stormont.

[The full speech is now available on the UUP website.]

Firstly, he set electoral expectations by suggesting that UUP success shouldn’t be purely measured in terms of the number of seats won. The party are clearly nervous about their chances of retaining their current number of MLAs.

An Election is about winning seats, no doubt about that, and clearly, the Ulster Unionist Party will be trying as hard as the rest to maximise our return to the 2011 Assembly. But, at this stage of the devolved government’s development, the people seek – and deserve – to measure the way they are governed in terms other than pure quantity.

Think about quantity for a moment. When it comes to numbers, Northern Ireland has no shortage. Indeed, in my judgement, when it comes to numbers, Northern Ireland is horrendously over-governed. 3 MEPs, 18 MPs, 108 MLAs, almost 600 councillors, and endless consultants, Commissioners and Quangoes. When it comes to numbers, we are very well served. When it comes to numbers, the business people here this morning will acknowledge that the input is massive!

But when it comes to outputs and outcomes, it’s massively disappointing. When we start measuring our governance in terms of delivery, Northern Ireland is, in fact, horrendously under-governed. But government shouldn’t just be a numbers game. Government is about delivery; expectation; relevance; efficiency; response and meeting the needs of the people.

Get all of that right and people will not be overly concerned about the numbers involved.

He accused the DUP and Sinn Fein of choosing “to put the interests of their own parties about the overall interests of Northern Ireland”.

The 2011 Assembly must deliver a step change in the way it does business. Because, with 36 days to go, it is crystal clear that the greatest achievement of the 2007 Assembly is that it actually survived. I don’t know about you, but when I go to meet my Maker, I hope He will judge me to have achieved a little more than just survival. I would like to be judged to have done some good, noble and honest things in my life. I want to rest easy in the knowledge that I cleared obstacles in other people’s lives. I want to help create the conditions where my children can grow up in a Northern Ireland where they can thrive and not just simply survive. I want an Assembly filled with people who can be true to themselves and their parties, yet trusted to ensure the greater good comes first.

If the 2010 mantra for local parties was “change”, 2011 seems to be the year of “delivery”.

Given that part of the audience wa made up of local business leaders, it was no surprise that be addressed corporation tax and “red tape”. Yet it’s nearly impossible to talk simply about corporation tax without getting bogged down in figures and percentages.

As you know, the Ulster Unionists have taken the lead in promoting Corporation Tax as a key element for taking our economy to the next level, generating new jobs and growing the private sector.

We have stuck with that belief as others faltered. We stuck firm when Sir David Varney reported to the then Labour Government and others threw their hands up in surrender. And we still stick firm as others speculate about what it will cost, who will pay, and what little return it will generate.

To listen to some commentators, you would think that lowering corporation tax was all about allowing fat-cat business people to keep more of their profits, and making the least well off pay for it, by taking the money out of the Block Grant, meaning less support and services for the most needy. If that was the case, I wouldn’t support it, I wouldn’t promote it. I wouldn’t be here today.

This isn’t about making a few rich people richer, it’s about ensuring we generate the wealth we – as a government and a nation – all need to grow our private sector to the point where we are no longer so deeply dependent on state aid for our survival. My vision is of an economy where employment hits new peaks, but again, not just in quantities, in quality as well. My vision is of an economy where people work not only for the money to put bread on the table, but for the satisfaction of knowing their job helps fulfil their lives.

He “saluted” public sector workers and said that rebalancing the economy was about three things:

1. It’s about growing the private sector.

2. It’s about developing the social economy, to broaden access to services and our commitment to social inclusion for all.

3. It’s about tackling waste in the public sector.

He added:

This is not the day to commit to the specifics of that incremental change process. This is the day for you and me – the Ulster Unionist Party and the business community – to agree to work together to run and monitor the business models which best predict the impacts of changes in Corporation Tax.

Along the way, we have a choice. We can be lazy and accept the thoughtless assumption that what we gain in Corporation Tax, we lose from the Block Grant. Or, we can devise imaginative methods of helping pay for the changes in the short-term.

He singled out two areas of private sector growth:

We also need to look forward and embrace the possibilities that will inevitably arise from the growth in green and renewable energies. There may be tens of thousands of new jobs generated UK-wide in the next couple of decades in this area. Northern Ireland must seize its share – and I do mean seize, not demand. This is not about handing out the begging bowl to our national politicians. This is about our local politicians, led by the Ulster Unionist Party, creating the environment in which entrepreneurs can seize the moment.

We must make the most of developing areas of opportunities. The creative industries in Northern Ireland are thriving, however, we need to focus on their needs in order to ensure they can continue to grow, continue to employ more people and continue to bring sizeable investment into Northern Ireland. With this in mind the Ulster Unionist Party will be focusing on ensuring we make the most out of Project Kelvin.

And so the speeched moved to the section dealing with reform of NI’s devolved administration.

I sincerely hope you have been more successful at your business than the Assembly has been at its over the last 4 years!

But if we are to revitalise our economy, we need a political game changer first …

Here is how I see we effect change. After the 2007 Election, the parties ran D’Hondt, divided up the government departments, and then agreed a Programme for Government that wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. Because once a party has a Department, its Minister is really accountable only to his or her Party, not to the Executive. Look at the mess Conor Murphy in DRD made of NI Water, yet he’s still in post, because he is Untouchable.

That last line about Conor Murphy being untouchable was clearly one of the soundbites embedded in the speech. Unfortunately, nearly all the sound bites were fluffed in delivery, diminishing their impact in the room, as well on today’s radio and TV s news bulletins. Perhaps the peril of a long speech …

It introduces the temptation to play party political interests ahead of the needs of the country. For example, an Education Minister can ignore the wishes of the people who want to end the 11-Plus but to keep academic selection, and try to abolish both, resulting in unregulated testing, heartache and uncertainty for families, and chaos as the state loses control of state education.

But next time – this May – lets switch things around, and agree the Programme for Government before we run D’Hondt. That way, all the parties agree what needs to be done first. We begin by sorting out the likes of education, RPA and the Maze/Long Kesh before we start wasting money disagreeing! Then we appoint the Ministers to make it happen.

We agree how much we have to spend as a government, and how we want to spend it, as a government – then run d’Hondt, to form a government to make it happen.

If the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats can do it in five days for whole of the UK, local parties should be able to manage it pretty quickly.

Others will tell you there is no mechanism in legislation to allow this to happen, that there is no time between the election of the First Minister and deputy First Minster and running D’Hondt.

I say, where there is a will, there is a way and it’s up to us as politicians to make that happen.

Tom Elliott was keen to stress that the UUP are not preparing to withdraw from the Executive immediately. Just setting out their proposals for the way forward.

So, moving from the transitional to the next phase, I propose we set a four year period, in which we agree the changes we need. Changes like reducing the number of constituencies from; cutting the number of MLAs; and cutting the number of government departments.

BUT, as I seek to cut our over-governance in numbers and inputs, and address our under-governance in outputs and outcomes, it is time to set our sights on a review of the devolved government that paves the way for the next elections, in 2015, to be about electing a Government and an Opposition.

So, the Ulster Unionists are NOT preparing our members for Opposition in 2011. We are paving the way for better government at Stormont.

They say the trouble with the original Stormont Government is that you could call as many elections as you wanted, but you would never see a change of government, because of one-party dominance.

A four year transition seems very long. Would it not be better to review (which is already part of the St Andrew’s agreement) and agree in the first two years of the next Assembly session, and then demonstrate to voters how the revised government arrangements work for the second half before going to the polls in 2015?

He drew to a close with a list of UUP committments around the “change from a mandatory all-party coalition to a system of government and opposition” and the “gamechanger” of agreeing the programme for government before running d’Hondt. One of the eleven points sums the rest up:

We are committed to providing a form of government which will encourage voters to the polls for the right reasons; and which will also encourage our brightest and best to get involved in politics.

The speech ended with the assertion:

Ladies and gentlemen, the Ulster Unionist Party is back on its feet, back in business and ready to continue the job WE started in 1998! Thank you. And a safe onward journey, in every sense.

While restating the UUP’s position on Corporation Tax, it didn’t seem to offer anything substantially new for the business leaders in the room. While it did begin to articulate what the UUP might want to be known for standing for … stating the obvious that there’s room for improvement up at Stormont and starting the debate over reform won’t win many votes?

The light at the end of the UUP’s tunnel still feels faint.

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