Another week, another glimpse of ‘new politics’ at work in Dáil Éireann. The Green party’s Waste Reduction Bill, (co-sponsored by Labour as the Greens are short on number in the chamber), passed to committee stage late last night. It did so with the support of Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, the Social Democrats and a host of Independents. Its supporters argue that it’s by far the best way to reduce waste by putting the onus on companies to reduce packaging while rewarding consumers for good behaviour and recycling properly. The carrot appears the best approach rather than the stick of charges the Government seemed to favour in the Bill Charges debate. We’ll have to wait and see how this develops in committee next. For now, this does represent a big win for the small parties in the Dáil and ‘new politics’ as a whole. However, it can only last so long surely.
Before all that, the week seemed to revolve around rain. And no, I’m not talking the change in weather that has seen everyone put the sunscreen away once more. There was a lot of talk about rainy day funds and how best the country can plan financially for the future. Fianna Fáil started slamming the confidence and supply deal off the table when Leo Varadkar intimated that he was going to put the idea of such a fund on the back-burner. Fianna Fáil believed this to be “yet another breach of [their] agreement” as one party official put it. The Taoiseach, however, wanted to take the proposed €3 billion over 3 years and pump it into infrastructure projects. There is merit to this idea. There are some projects that the country badly needs, not least the Cork – Limerick motorway and Dublin’s Metro North to name but two. The argument being that investment in this infrastructure will have a Keynesian multiplier effect and the return on the public investment will be substantial. This is before we even approach the issue of housing.
That said, with Brexit on the horizon, getting a tighter handle on our national debt is also a prudent move, as is having money in the kitty should we hit any financial pumps along the road. With interest rates low and the success of Public-Private Partnerships (PPP’s), it may be a better option to invest in infrastructure by approaching the European Investment Bank or borrowing directly via the National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA). The latter is already planning to borrow this year in order to fund bond repayments via the low rates currently available in order to lessen the financial burden on the state. Needless to say, this is a complicated matter and one where the parties and financial experts rarely agree with one another. It would appear that Fianna Fáil have rained on Leo’s parade for now though and the Rainy Day Fund looks set to come into effect from 2019, but at a much lower level that was previously thought.
Rainy days won’t be on most politicians minds as they head for the Summer recess though. Although constituency work and some Dáil committee work will continue over the next 2 months, there won’t be any action in the chamber after this Friday. With unanimous support, the Dáil rises on Friday not to reconvene until September 20th. That meant that the order of business for the remaining few days included the rush for legislation concerning the 2023 Rugby World Cup bid, allowing our Naval service join the UN backed mission in the Mediterranean and a bill to close a loop hole in legislation from last year that could have seen large number of construction sites closed due to old planning permissions. This made for some frenetic scenes and more than a few hissy fits from opposition benches, bar Fianna Fáil who’s support allowed the Government to proceed to pass the bills in question speedily. Hope for ‘new politics’ yet perhaps?
The real challenges for the Varadkar administration will begin in the Autumn. With the Alcohol Bill, Drink Driving Bill and the Budget all to come, there are troubled waters on the horizon. The Taoiseach faces a back bench revolt on Shane Ross’ Drink Driving Bill and the Alcohol Bill has now been delayed three times with intense lobbying for and against the bill, and certain measures therein, continuing. These have the potential to damage his administration’s cohesion. On the Drink Driving Bill alone, both Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance are fractured on it, Fianna Fáil are against it, Labour and the Social Democrats are reserving judgement, meaning the only support Ross and Varadkar currently enjoy are Sinn Féin and Solidarity/PBP along with some few Independent TD’s like, Dr. Michael Harty of Clare. Strange bedfellows indeed. A loss on this Bill would certainly hurt the Independents’ credibility in Government but not allowing Fine Gael a free vote could hurt Leo’s leadership more. Either which way, the biggest rock in his path is the budget and, for his administration’s sake, he cannot lose sight of that. If a Leo led Fine Gael are to have any credibility with the electorate, he needs to get at least one budget passed.
With opposition parties either getting ready to select candidates, or already in the process of doing so, as Labour and the Soc Dems have been doing, it looks as if they don’t have much confidence in Leo making it far into 2018 as Taoiseach. If RedC poll numbers, the company political parties pay the greatest heed to, are to be believed, such an election is something Fine Gael (down 2 to 27%, with FF up 3 to 24%) will need to avoid in the short term. If they can’t avoid it, expect Leo and co. to come back from the break all guns blazing, playing to their base and goading the opposition to pull the plug. Something tells me we’ll need the umbrellas for some rainy day canvassing over Winter yet. Politicos better soak up as much Summer sun as the can in the interim.