Monday, June 07, 2004

Stroking the pork barrel

In America I think they call it 'pork barrel' politics. In Ireland it is called the 'stroke'. And I'm sure there are words for the thing in the language of every country in the world where there is anything like parliamentary 'democracy'.

We've been good at it in Ireland. Or certainly the party that has dominated our political system since the foundation of our state in the early 1920s has developed it to almost an art form.

It is all about giving the voters 'something for nothing', regardless of the cost. Something that will make them feel grateful and cough up votes even though somewhere in the back of the same electorate's mind they have this terrible suspicion that they're being screwed anyway.

Examples that come to mind include the scrapping of local council property taxes, which we called 'rates', in 1977. The Government that did it promised that the money would be more than made up by direct payments to the councils from the central exchequer (taxpayers' funds). The result was an immediate emasculation of the same local councils, no longer able to raise their own funds.

And the long-term legacy has been a chronic underfunding of our local authorities and in recent years a slow re-emergence of some kind of local taxation in the form of service charges for refuse collection and other things.

Then there was the scrapping of annual car tax that same year of 1977, which also sucked in votes at a crucial time for the Government that did it, and left its own legacy in an appalling roads building and maintenance situation that was only alleviated with the arrival of European Union structural funds and, of course, the eventual reintroduction of car taxes to penal rates.

Another 'stroke' was the amnesty given to several hundred thousand provisional driving licence holders in 1987 because the waiting list for the driving tests had got too long. We paid for that by the dumping on our roads of a generation of drivers who never passed any test of any kind, with a resultant abysmal quality of driving and inevitable tragedy. And yet, today, there are an estimated 300,000 drivers out there on current provisional licences, because the length of time before you get to do your test can be up to six months in many areas.

Then there was the National Lottery. This follows the system familiar in several states of the US, where the people are encouraged to gamble for a big prize twice a week. In reality it is a form of voluntary tax, which when operated by private unlicenced people is classed as criminal.

A proportion of the revenues are redistributed to sports, cultural and other community good causes. But who decides and disburses the loot? The Government, which uses the allocations in each of its electoral areas as occasions to pat themselves on the back and remind the recipients 'not to forget the party' in the next elections. Indeed, it is the Government ministers and local party public representatives who get to send out the letters.

The most recent 'stroke' was announced as part of the last Budget speech at the end of 2003, when the minister for finance announced that a decentralisation of Government departments would mean 10,000 civil servants being transported to the provinces. The locations chosen were, quite by coincidence, in country towns and cities where Government party members and ministers could benefit best in vote-catching from the extra jobs and wages being introduced.

There was little other obvious logic in many of the choices. For instance, it has only this week been learned that a mandatory move of 200 jobs from the national bus company's Dublin HQ with its move to the Midlands is going to require the hiring and training of more than 100 people there, because there are less than 90 people in the existing HQ anyway.

But to a Government now capable of writing the 'pork barrel' manual for the new millennium, the prospect of liquidating the value of prime properties in Dublin and giving itself a nice cash injection was reward enough, not to mention the potential business which many party cronies might be ready to do in providing and building new state facilities in the new locations.

This one might backfire. Indeed, it already has in a number of instances, and the minister charged with implementation of the policy - cleverly it was dumped on a key figure in the Government coalition's smaller party - has already had to roll back his expected completion date. His excuse is the time needed for planning, tendering and the provision of new facilities.

But the main stumbling block is a massive antipathy to the idea from the civil servants themselves. Relatively few of them see the prospect of uprooting their Dublin lifestyles, and their families from their friends and schooling, as appealing. And if they don't want to go en masse, there's really little the Government can do, because in this country it is nigh on impossible to fire civil servants.

So, even if the actual departments are moved, new people will have to be hired and trained in the new locations, leaving the expertise and experience of those who don't want to move in Dublin to shuffle decreasing amounts of paper while waiting out their time until retirement.

God knows we have enough civil servants as it is, not least because the Government hired many many more in the year prior to the last general election. For what? Well, they all have votes, don't they?

Trouble is, it's the taxpayer who pays all those extra wages, not the Government members responsible for throwing the pork to the masses.

And the other trouble is, before they're really aware of what all this decentralisation largesse is actually going to cost them, the same masses are likely to have gladly sold their votes anyway. Again.

Finally, we can look forward to the maturation of another 'stroke' in about two years' time. In 2001, our Government set up a tax-based Special Savings Incentive Scheme whereby people could invest savings regularly into bank-operated schemes which would give them a 20 per cent return after five years, the incentive money coming from Government funds. Essentially, the boys and girls in our ruling party decided to give the taxpayers a little of their own money back. All very good, even laudable in terms of encouraging savings. Except that in the subsequent couple of years the same Government reduced funding for many social and welfare programmes, citing 'no funds'. No matter in the medium term, because when do these schemes mature? Right on top of the next general election. When the Government parties' canvassers will be going door to door meeting people with a bit of extra money in their pockets.

You've really got to hand it to them. How they manage to make people feel thankful for getting back a little of their own. Cheap votes, them.

And oh yes ... we have mid-term local and European elections at the end of this week. Apart from the sprouting of a myriad of posters on every pole in every street and road, it is quite amazing how many back roads are being resurfaced over the last month or so, all over the country. Some of them have been in conditions up to and beyond 'dangerous' for years. But now the candidates who are hoping to be re-elected as councillors are giving themselves one up on those who are freshmen.

"I got your road done, Missus. Now the child can cycle to school safely ..."

Except for all those untrained and untested drivers out on those roads, who will gleefully use the new road surfaces to drive even faster on those back roads where the bends have been left because all that the people who control the purse-strings are interested in are quick fixes.

It's a good job I'm not cynical.

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