Collins on the nail again.

Political leaders must stand up to vested interests

Our political system would benefit if politicians start telling voters the facts, writes STEPHEN COLLINS
THE UNEXPECTED jump in population revealed in Census 2011 poses a challenge for Government and policymakers but it also offers a beacon of hope. The surge in the birth rate and the decision of more immigrants than expected to stay here shows that the broad mass of people have more faith in the country’s future than the prophets of doom who so often dominate the public discourse.
It is a cause for celebration that the population of the country is now at its highest level since 1851. It is a far cry from the dreary 1950s when the population declined to just over 2.8 million and many people began to wonder out loud whether independence had been a huge mistake.
When the next deep recession struck in the 1980s the mood was not quite as dark but a sense of pessimism did grip the country for a few years and the population actually fell between 1986 and 1991. Following a baby boom in the early 1980s, there was a view that there was no prospect of most of those young people finding jobs in the country.
Yet a decade later the Celtic Tiger economy began to flourish and full employment arrived in the country for the first time.
Despite all the doom and gloom of the past few years the atmosphere today is not nearly as hopeless as that which prevailed in the 1950s or the 1980s, and living standards are immeasurably better.
The census has shown that, unlike most of our EU neighbours, we don’t have an ageing population but a vibrant and youthful one. The dependency ratios are looking good for the future when we come out the other side of the current crisis.
Of course, the challenge involved in getting the country to that happy state when the economy is back on an even keel should not be underestimated. Nonetheless, it can be achieved as long as our political leaders have the courage to stand firm in the face of vested interests who seek to put sectional advantage ahead of the common good.
The problem is that vested interests of all kinds often put forward hard cases to cloak their aspirations and tend to win media sympathy in the public relations battles with government. Identifying the common good and pursuing it relentlessly is an extremely difficult task that will demand courage as well as resolute action to see it through.
The tendency to blame the EU and the International Monetary Fund for our difficulties has become a dangerous trend which only obscures the fact that swingeing cuts in Government spending are necessary for the country’s survival.
In opposition Fine Gael and Labour fostered the notion that we had become victims of some malign conspiracy by the EU or the European Central Bank designed to punish us. Since confronting the reality of office, the Coalition has dropped that kind of talk but it has taken on a life of its own fuelled by the needless row over the interest rate the country is paying on the bailout.
The fact of the matter is that were it not for the EU-IMF bailout our public services would have already been slashed to the bone, the salaries of all public servants drastically reduced along with welfare payments and all other forms of State spending.
The bailout has given us time to plan a phased reduction in spending in tandem with a gradual increase in tax revenues. A widening of the tax base is an essential component of that plan, and the sooner people realise it the better.
In order to achieve a political consensus on the kind of action required, the Government needs to ensure that the measures taken are fair and perceived to be fair.
One of the biggest differences between the current Coalition and its predecessor has been the way it has managed to communicate with the public through its actions.
For instance Leo Varadkar’s confrontation with the board of the Dublin Airport Authority over its chief executive’s pay was a public demonstration that the rich and powerful elite in the public sector is not immune from the sacrifices being demanded from people with a fraction of their incomes.
Similarly, Alan Shatter’s no nonsense approach to the incomes and pensions of judges has struck a similar chord.
That, however, is the easy part. The real challenge will be the hard decisions that are going to impact on almost every family in the country over the next couple of years. Ensuring that those at the top are seen to take a hit is very important in paving the way for a consensus on the wider budgetary action.
Another vital building block in creating a broad consensus is to convince people the Government is telling them the truth, however unpalatable, about the problems.
Enda Kenny’s new popularity has come about not just because he has presented a smiling optimistic face but because he has promised to tell people the unvarnished truth and to date has made a fair fist of doing it.
Senior Ministers charged with vital reforms like Brendan Howlin and Richard Bruton have also given the impression they mean business, although in both cases they will be judged by results rather than aspirations.
Our entire political system would benefit if politicians took a leaf from the same book and started telling voters the facts. It has been standard procedure for opposition politicians and government backbenchers to give the impression they agree with every lobby group with an axe to grind and demands to make on the exchequer.
If the promise of a genuinely open committee system that will involve TDs and Senators in the process of legislation and government is actually realised it might encourage all of those elected to the Oireachtas to behave responsibly and stop fostering unrealistic expectations.