Earlier this week I had the great honour of speaking at the MacGill Summer School, on this nebulous idea of ‘New Politics’. I wanted to lay out the context for New Politics – why we need it, and what on earth it is.
New Politics – What is it, and why do we need it?
We have a lot to be proud of.
I’d like to start from the following premise – Ireland is a fantastic country. We are a small, damp island on the edge of Europe. We don’t have big deposits of gold, diamond or minerals; our oil and gas fields are difficult to access. We don’t have the epic architecture that comes with an imperial past. And yet we have a rich and vibrant cultural heritage. When it comes to donating to disasters and to developing countries, we are one of the most generous nations on earth.
The Good Country Index measures what each country contributes to the common good of humanity, and what it takes away, relative to its size. Using a wide range of data from the U.N. the World Bank, WHO and other international organisations, it gives each country a balance-sheet to show whether it’s a net creditor to mankind, a burden on the planet, or something in between. Out of the 125 countries ranked in 2014, Ireland ranked number one – we are the ‘goodest’ country on earth!
In 2013, Ireland had the highest rate of third-level degree attainment in the EU, with just over half of all 30 to 34-year-olds in Ireland completing third-level education; Ireland ranks 12th out of 162 countries in the Global Peace Index. Ignoring this year’s growth figures, we have had the fastest growing economy in Europe for some time now; our economy is now rated as one of the most competitive on earth.
We have a vibrant community sector, from cancer support groups to sports clubs to volunteer organisations like the scouts and guides. We don’t do ugly right wing extremism. We’ve made headlines around the world for writing gay marriage into our constitution. The UN’s Human Development Index – a composite of GDP per capita, life expectancy and education – ranks Ireland 6th out of 188 countries.
Incredible social and economic progress has been made – and credit for that, in part, must go to our political system. The Democracy Index ranks the effectiveness of the democracies of 167 countries – this is based on the electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture – Ireland ranks 12th .
AND – it’s getting better. The imbalance in power between the executive branch of government and parliament is being addressed. Parliament now orders its own business. TDs have far greater opportunities to table their own motions and legislation. Parliament will shortly have its own budgetary office and legal office. The budgetary cycle is being redesigned to ensure parliament has far greater input ahead of time. AND will have far greater access to information. AND budgets will be equality proofed.
But we live in turbulent times, and have much unfinished work.
Let’s start with the international context. The world is becoming a more turbulent place. The global economy is far more connected that before. Ireland’s economy is growing, but it’s fragile – recent growth has come, in the main, from foreign multinationals located here. One of the reasons they’re here is our taxation system – and that system is under increasing pressure. In fact, having to declare GDP of 26% for last year has just painted a huge target on Ireland.
Global wealth is far more consolidated than ever before. Today, the richest 65 people on earth now own HALF of all global wealth. Europe is becoming more fractured. Brexit is the most recent example. Ultra-nationalism is on the rise: Golden Dawn in Greece; Alternative für Deutschland in Germany; The National Front in France; True Finn Party in Finland; The Freedom Party in Austria – the list goes on. Many US citizens are considering voting for a man who wants to build a wall on the Mexican border and ban Muslims from entering the country. Global warming is already leading to regional tensions and climate refugees.
I did my long hair and sandals travelling around the world when I was 21 – at the time, there was no talk of countries that weren’t safe to visit – that’s no longer the case (and yes, I had long hair…and sandals).
And then there’s the domestic context. We have one of the most expensive healthcare systems on earth, staffed by some of the best-trained clinicians on earth – and yet our system is rated as one of the world in Europe. We have a pension time bomb coming, that without serious planning could be more damaging than the banking collapse. It has just been decided to privatise our new fibre optic network (watch this space!) An entire generation has been financially destroyed by negative equity and forgotten. We are experiencing homelessness, rental and home ownership crises all at the same time.
At least some of the vulture funds that bought distressed loans from NAMA, IBRC and elsewhere appear to be engaged in tax avoidance on a scale never before seen in the Irish State. Working conditions are being eroded, childcare is some of the most expensive on earth, car insurance premiums are exploding, Irish SMEs are paying far more than their European counterparts for loans. Three quarters of a million people in Ireland now live in poverty – this is defined as “their income and resources being so inadequate as to preclude them from having a standard of living that is regarded as acceptable by Irish society generally”. One in seven children in Ireland live in poverty.
Our Republic should be one in which every child grows up with the opportunity to achieve their potential. It should be a Republic in which every person can lead a life of dignity – from birth, into school, through work and onto retirement. It should be a Republic that champions both economic strength AND a decent society. And THAT is why we need new politics – because old politics is not suited to this new world. Because old politics will not deliver us the Republic we are capable of creating.
So what is ‘New Politics’?
For now, the Dáil numbers are such that those in government need the support of those outside government. That’s the ONLY reason things are changing. And so there are two challenges: One, make the necessary changes quickly; And two, lock them in so that if the Dáil algebra changes, the political reforms don’t get washed away.
So what changes are needed? You can track much of the challenges we’re facing back to the same political shortcomings: We need vision and long term planning; We need to base decisions on data and evidence; We need to challenge the status quo; We need technical capability; We need transparency; We need a strong parliament.
In the short term, the politicians seem to be stepping up, with a wide range of changes being introduced. However, the study of behavioural change tells us that, while organisations are pretty good about changing how they do things in the short term, they’re not so good at changing how they do things in the LONG term.
For that, people need four conditions to be met. First, they need to see their senior colleagues acting in the new ways. Second, they need to understand why the changes are needed. Third, they need to be capable of making the required changes. And forth, they need to be rewarded for making the required changes.
Who needs to be involved in locking in ‘New Politics’?
Meeting these conditions requires political leadership. Senior politicians need to make the case in their own parties. For why politics needs to change. For why we need to focus on the long term just as much as the short term. And then these senior politicians need to behave in this new way. It requires many of the technical changes that are underway, like the parliamentary budgetary office. But we in politics need help from other places too.
The media has a role to play. For example, a discussed with a minister in the previous government the need for TDs to have continuous professional development. We wouldn’t dream of leaving those who care for us when we’re sick, or who teach our children, with only the training they had when they started their jobs. And yet that is exactly what we do for those who we entrust to run the country. The minister agreed, but noted that the media would make mince meat out of such a proposal. New politics needs the media to cover more diverse voices. For example, in the general election there were four televised debates – three of them precluded all parties other than FF, FG, SF & Lab. In the political polls, other parties don’t even get mentioned – they just lumped in as ‘others’.
Academia has a role to play – there’s far too much sitting in splendid isolation! Academics need to become more vocal – they need to engage more with politicians to help drive policy agendas. Academics need to speak out when they see politicians clearly distorting the facts.
The business sector has a role to play. During the election, business groups called for many important policy changes – including investment in education and infrastructure, and funding to make childcare affordable. But some also called for sweeping tax cuts, in the full knowledge that these would work AGAINST the State’s ability to deliver on needed investment.
Public servants have a role to play. It is they who know where many of the opportunities for improvement lie – they need to speak up more about these. For example, I have spoken with many healthcare professionals who will, privately, point out examples of some really bad things going on in our healthcare system – but they will not speak publicly about them.
Finally, the public have a role to play. Ultimately, it is the public who choose the politicians – and the politicians will behave how they public want them to behave. It is very hard to convince politicians to invest their time in policy development and long term planning if they receive votes for delivering locally. I sat on the Finance committee in the last Dáil – very important work was done, including in tax policy, NAMA, the banks and the mortgage crisis – but many members simply didn’t turn up, or if they did, they turned up unprepared – Why? Because there are very few votes in doing solid committee work.
If Ireland is to navigate the modern world. If we are to build a Republic that looks after all of its children, a Republic that champions opportunity for all, and dignity for all, a Republic with a strong economy, thriving community sector and great public services…then we need new politics.
For now, anyway, I believe the politicians are stepping up – but if we’re to achieve meaningful and lasting change, then we need your help.