PFG: A Cynical Power Grab By The Right

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The programme for government (PfG) is a cynical attempt to steal the result of the last election from voters demanding progressive change. The backdrop to the document is a historic defeat for Fine Gael (FG) and Fianna Fáil (FF), who between them, received just 44% of the popular vote. This was the first time that Ireland’s two right wing parties got less than 50% and their difficulties are compounded by a health crisis that has exposed the bankruptcy of austerity politics and a climate crisis that grows increasingly ominous. Ireland entered the Covid-19 pandemic with among the lowest levels of intensive care beds in the OECD and among the worst hospital waiting lists in the European Union. Nurses recently had to strike to meet the cost of living, while the country is at the very bottom of European league tables in spending on public services and in the fight against climate change. These facts help to explain the disastrous election for Ireland’s two main austerity parties, as hundreds of thousands voted for a government without them in it. Sworn enemies when they could take turns at managing Irish capitalism, this has forced FF and FG into an alliance designed to protect the interests of the establishment. It has also forced them to create a PfG that cynically uses progressive rhetoric to chart a pathway back to office. The PfG presents itself as a ‘new social contract’ to ‘improve the wellbeing of everyone who lives here’. In reality, it is a strategy by the Irish establishment to hold on to power using the Green Party as political cover.

Right-wing parties regularly make a virtue of campaigning in poetry and governing in prose. In other words, they make promises to secure their place in government and then pull back on them once firmly in office. There are two important reasons why this is likely to be the pattern that unfolds over the coming months. The first is the scale of the economic crisis associated with Covid-19. The Irish government projects a shortfall of €22 billion in the public finances, making it extremely likely that they will renege on many of the more progressive measures in the document – claiming a lack of funds. For example, the document explicitly ties the upcoming pay deal with public servants to the state of the public finances, which is another way of pulling back on previous commitments. Secondly, the underlying economic framework maintains the same slavish adherence to the neoliberal policies that created the climate damage, inequality and deprivation in the first place. In the years after the Great Recession, Irish governments strategically used austerity budgets to reduce the size of the public service and reduce social welfare provision. They also forced through regressive pay agreements that helped to increase labour productivity by 34%, at the same time as nominal unit labour costs fell by 17%. This resulted in Ireland having Europe’s fastest growing economy from 2013-2018, with profits more than doubling and private household wealth increasing by an amazing €350 billion. In other words, working people paid for the last crisis while businesses reaped the rewards from increased competitiveness. This time around, the government claims it will do things differently. There is talk of a Recovery Fund to stimulate the economy and a National Recovery Plan to promote development into the future.  Yet throughout the PfG, the same neoliberal priorities come through again and again. Instead of using the vast wealth built up since the last recession to chart a course out of this one, the PfG commits Ireland to its ultra-low corporation tax rate and promises to keep the tax and regulatory framework ‘stable and sustainable’. Ireland is now one of the world’s major corporate tax havens with the PfG confirming that this policy will not change at all under an FF-FG-Green coalition. There is also an ongoing commitment to a ‘pro-enterprise policy framework’ to ‘increase competitiveness’ and ‘encourage entrepreneurs’, meaning more handouts for business owners and further wage restraint for ordinary workers. The document also claims that “climate change is the biggest threat currently facing humanity” at the same time as it continues to pursue capitalist growth for its own sake and fails to impose any binding targets on corporate polluters in agriculture and aviation.  

People Before Profit agree with the PfG when it states that the “actions taken over the next five years will define this nation’s future direction for decades to come”. But on the basis of the evidence presented in the document, the incoming government will set Ireland back in terms of its climate initiatives, erode public services and undermine the solidarity shown since the outbreak of Covid 19. If we are truly all in it together then now is the time to use the vast resources built up since the last crisis to tackle the aftermath of this one. This means putting the costs of Covid-19 onto millionaire households and major firms most able to afford it – but we must go further, much further. Capitalism is a deeply destructive system that is wreaking havoc on the world’s people and the planet. A programme for government that remains wedded to a neoliberal version of capitalism will do nothing to solve the problems Ireland currently faces, as we seek to explain in the following pages.

A Renewed Assault On Workers

The Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated many of the existing problems in our society and has triggered a massive global recession. Yet at precisely the time that workers need to be protected from the fallout, this Programme for Government is set up to facilitate further attacks on workers.

  • There is no provision for union recognition.
  • There is no provision for equal pay for new entrants into the public service – they will still be paid less than those who started before 2011.
  • There is no provision for mandatory sick pay. The rate of sick pay is now €203 – the third lowest in Europe. Workers in the private sector must also wait 6 days (twice the EU average) before being paid state benefit
  • There is no guarantee that a Living Wage will be reached over the term of this government.
  • There is no protection for workers made redundant through liquidation, like the Debenhams workers and many others.
  • Workers will be made to pay more regressive taxes such as carbon, sugar and plastic tax. There are no substantial proposals to tax wealth or profits.
  • Public sector workers will be squeezed again. The PfG wants a new public pay deal, which will seek “general productivity gains and effectiveness based on measurable outcomes” – in other words, this will mean increased work hours without extra pay.
  • The increase in the State pension age to 67 will be deferred – but this deferral is only guaranteed for a year, when a commission on pensions reports back in June 2021.

These proposals are being made at the same time that the High Court has removed the Sectoral Employment Order for electricians, paving the way for the further undermining of workers’ wages and conditions – a portent of things to come.

All of this indicates that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will look to pay for the Covid-19 crisis in the same way they paid for the 2008 financial crash – by piling austerity onto workers, by further deregulating the workplace, and by maintaining the tax haven policies that is the underlying cause of the vast inequalities in our society.

Greenwashing, Eco-Austerity & Non-Binding Targets

The cudgel being used to beat Left Green Party members at the moment is the fact that Climate Emergency and that we have very little time to take radical action. This is highly ironic, because there is no discernible radical action to be found in the Programme, and much of the action promised will be left for the next government to deal with.

  • The Programme says it is targeting an average of 7% cuts in emissions over 10 years, but says that most of this will happen in the second 5 years – after the term of this government. This, as Green Party Cllr. Lorna Bogue has said, is “kicking the can down the road”.
  • Agriculture, which accounts for 30% of all emissions, is barely touched. The Programme will not challenge beef barons like Larry Goodman or reduce the national herd. The Mercosur deal will continue unopposed.
  • The programme will not stop the building of LNGs. It only commits to withdrawing the Shannon project from the list of EU Projects of Common Interest. Varadkar himself has said that the project can still go ahead if it receives planning permission from An Bord Pleanála.
  • It will not stop the growth of Data Centres. It is estimated that these will consume 30% of all electricity produced in the state by 2030.
  • It leaves a mass retrofitting programme to the private sector to deliver – this will mean retrofitting will be unaffordable to many and will not be rolled out at the level required.
  • Just as Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael gave away the state’s oil and gas, now they plan to give away Ireland’s renewable energy. This will mean that reaching targets will be decided not by the science of what is necessary to combat climate breakdown, but by profit needs and investment choices of private companies.
  • There are no figures for the number of extra buses or trains that will be provided and no commitment to free public transport – merely a review of the fare structure. A greater role is promised for the NTA, which has already sought to erode state public companies like CIE and privatised bus routes to UK-based private operator GoAhead.

A genuinely transformative programme for government would map out emission reduction targets for the next 5 years and a pathway for doing so. This could include:

  • The nationalisation of the major agri-corporations
  • A Just Transition for small and medium farmers that would see them transition some of their land away from beef and dairy and lift them above poverty incomes.
  • Free and expanded public transport.
  • The establishment of a State renewable energy company that would massively scale up offshore wind production.
  • The establishment of a State building company for the mass retro-fitting of homes.

However, implementing these kinds of changes would require a challenge to the corporate power of the major polluters – the agri-corporations and the fossil fuel industry. This is something that this government will absolutely not do.

Healthcare: Back to the Bad Old Ways

On the first page the proposed programme claims that our public health system ‘responded well’ to the Covid Crisis.  We entered this crisis with half the bed capacity that we should have had. Our intensive care facilities could cope with just 5.6 people in every 100,000 needing to be hospitalised, the lowest level in Europe according to European Centre for Disease Control.

The health system ‘responded well’ only insofar as it had to radically alter the way our health service was run. It was forced to switch overnight to a one-tier public system to meet the challenge of the crisis. 

The programme for Government declares that it will consider how best to ‘reshape our public health system to ensure an agile and well-planned response to future epidemics’.   ‘Implementing Sláintecare’ is its policy. In other words, it is reverting to pre-crisis policy. Nothing has changed.

Worse, it has watered down the stated aim of Sláintecare, of universal healthcare, to ‘affordable’ healthcare’ (p.46). This means a continuation of the two-tier system and the continued underfunding of the public system:

  • The Programme will “create partnerships with our private hospitals to avoid placing increased pressure on the public system”. This will mean the kinds of deals that lined the pockets of health profiteers like Larry Goodman and Denis O’Brien over the past few months.
  • The Programme proposes ‘a continuation of the Nursing Agreement’. This means that despite hailing nurses as heroes for months, this government does not see fit to tackle the poor contracts and pay that have caused a recruitment and retention crisis in the profession.
  • There are no concrete targets for increased capacity in the public system.
  • Staff recruited through the “On Call for Ireland” initiative and other channels to deal with the Covid-19 crisis will not be retained, despite short-staffing in almost all health professions. 

The Covid-19 crisis showed more than ever that we must urgently move towards a properly funded, single tier health service. Professor Paddy Mallon has said we “got away by the skin of our teeth” with the crisis, and that we cannot operate safely with the current staffing levels. Yet the PfG makes it clear that rather than learning the lessons from the crisis, the new government will revert to the status quo as quickly as possible.

The Housing Crisis Will Continue

The PfG does nothing to address the disastrous failures of FG-FF housing policy and Re-building Ireland, which have left us with an unprecedented housing and homelessness crisis.

The PfG re-commits to the failed policy of relying on private developers and corporate landlords, particularly with its focus on the Land development Agency, which is nothing more than a vehicle to privatise public land.

The target of 50,000 social houses is simply a re-statement of existing and inadequate targets and there are no targets at all for affordable housing or definition of what actually is affordable.

There are no new or radical measures to deal with extortionate rents, evictions, property speculation, land-hoarding or the behaviour of vulture funds.

What we need is:

  • A commitment for the state to directly build at least 100,000 new social and affordable homes on public land.
  • An immediate halt to any sales of public land and property.
  • Real rent controls, rights for tenants and an end to economic evictions into homelessness.
  • A definition of affordable housing that is genuinely affordable based on income not market prices and affordable housing built on public land must remain affordable in perpetuity.
  • An end to all property speculation and land-hoarding and the expanded use of compulsory acquisition powers to bring empty properties and vacant building land into use for social and affordable housing.
  • Establish a state construction company which directly recruits building workers, tradespeople and apprentices to deliver and maintain social and affordable housing in conjunction with local authorities.

Education: Boxes Ticked, But No Commitments

The section on education is highly general and vague. There are references made to the many problems in our education system, but this does not disguise the lack of real commitment for improvement:

  • There is no commitment to reduce class sizes in primary schools, merely the vague ‘seek to make further progress’. Ireland has one of the worst teacher-pupil ratios in the OECD.
  • There is talk of encouraging ‘critical thinking’ but no commitments for investment in science or proposals on how to reduce rote learning.
  • There is reference to the need to help ‘gifted and talented pupils’ but few specifics on how to help students to overcome disadvantage, particularly in relation to the digital divide.
  • The Programme says it will ‘increase the capitation grant’ – but gives no commitment to move to 100% funding of schools.
  • There is reference to an audit of school buildings, but no policy to stop use of bogus self employment in construction or end the policy of Public Private Partnerships.
  • The Programme only commits to a pilot scheme for free school books. Despite rising costs, there is no move to stop publishing companies bringing in ‘new editions’ to prevent transfer between pupils. There will be no state scheme for free books for all.
  • The Programme commits to a small target of 400 multi-denominational schools by 2030 – long after this government is gone. This will still leave the vast majority of schools in the ownership of Catholic church.
  • It advocates for ‘a  curriculum of multi-religious beliefs’, but gives no defence for students who do not want any religion. There are no moves to stop the Catholic Church using schools to push its own religious ethos.
  • It places emphasis on teachers delivering ‘measurable improvements’. This will mean teachers will have to spend even more time on paperwork, rather than focusing on teaching.
  • The Programme states it will “support continued investment in our Special Needs Assistants”. There is currently a severe shortage of SNAs, but there are no figures given for any kind of increase.
  • It says it will ‘improve access to supports for positive mental health in schools’. Yet without substantial and sustained investment in youth mental health services, there can be no improvements.

Higher Education

  • There is no commitment to abolish fees or even a commitment to reduce fees when higher level education moves online due to Covid-19.
  • There is no commitment to a reduction in the outrageous level of fees for international students, which can be three times the EU rate for those outside the EU.
  • The Programme emphasises upskilling, but makes no specific arrangements for education leave for workers.
  • It commits to expand apprenticeships to 10,000 a year. However, there is no commitment to ensure apprentices get proper rates of pay.
  • It states that the new government will ‘Expand linkage between  research and enterprise’  Research in universities is already too business focused – we need more impartial research in public interest, particularly in areas such as pharmaceuticals.

Protecting The Elderly?

Simon Harris said in April that “at the end of this pandemic there’s going to be the need for a real policy discussion about how we care for older people”. This appears to be forgotten now. The PfG will leave intact the provision of elderly care by private for profit companies. In Ireland, long term residential care is run overwhelmingly (80%) by private firms. Similarly home care hours are increasingly provided by private companies. This means many workers on poor pay, long hours and precarious contracts. It also means the service suffers and staff ratios are lower than they should be. The massive death rate from Covid-19 in our nursing homes shows that the state has abandoned many of our elderly and that leaving elderly care to for profit companies is a disaster. Once again, this Programme shows that Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Greens have learnt nothing for the Covid-19 crisis.

Childcare Costs Will Remain Unaffordable

The PfG attempts to spin the policy on early childcare and education. In reality it will maintain the system of largely private early childcare and education. This system failed miserably to provide affordable childcare for parents. The Government itself failed to even provide childcare for our front line workers because of this fragmented private system. This failure comes from the privatised nature of the system. Ireland has the highest level of private provision of Early Childhood Care and Education (ECEC) in the OECD, along with low Government investment, low wages for educators and high fees for consumers. We spend less than any other EU country on early childcare. despite the relatively high fees, the wages of workers in the childcare industry remain low. The average hourly rate for Early Years Educators (Assistants) is €11.44 which is below the living wage of €12.30 per hour. There is a huge turnover of staff in the sector (over 23%) because of poor pay and conditions. Public provision in other countries shows childcare tends to be more affordable, accessible, and of higher quality than in countries where it is reliant on private provision.

The PfG means we stick to neoliberal, for profit provision of childcare, health services and care for the elderly.

Disability: A Rehash Of Old Policies

The disability section of in the PfG is a rehash of policies that the state has failed to implement over the past 10 years. Nowhere in the Programme does it offer a solution to the fact that 36.5% of people with disabilities aged between 20-64 are unemployed compared to 73% of their able bodied counterparts. The PfG makes reference to the promotion of awareness among employers to help them engage people with disabilities. However, there is very little substance and very few solutions as to how that can be achieved. There are references to the development of initiatives like “remote working”, which could further exclude and isolate people with disabilities who wish to participate in society as equals.

The long awaited personalised budget scheme is mentioned, but once again there is no timeline given for its implementation. Rather than a state led system the PfG talks of using “service brokers”, once again monetising people’s medical needs to benefit the private sector.

There is the brief mention of recruiting the additional supports needed to fulfill the state’s responsibility for tackling the issues around assessment of need. Previously it was stated that up to 400 Occupational Therapists would need to be recruited to meet the waiting list in Munster alone, but the programme only looks to meet a one year target. People with disabilities are isolated and vulnerable due to the continued under-resourcing of the sector. Lack of recruitment compounds the situation, but the PfG offers nothing in the way solutions to rectify this. Overall, the PfG actions in relation to PWD are more about than real substance. Those struggling with disabilities will once again find themselves wanting when it comes to inclusion and equality.

More Lip-service On Arts & Culture

More than ever before during the Covid-19 crisis, our society relied for its well-being and mental health on the arts, music, books, film, TV and culture generally. The health crisis reminded us that life would be unthinkable without art, music literature and culture.

Yet like every previous government in recent years, the new PfG simply pays lip service to the need to support the arts and culture without making any tangible commitments to address the dire underfunding of the arts sector and the income and employment insecurity faced by the majority of artists, performers, arts workers and crew.

Incredibly, the document actually drops the commitment of the previous government (which it never delivered) to double arts spending.

Instead the new PfG recycles vague commitments and aspirations seen many times before with no tangible commitments on the funding, resources and legislation needed to make any of it happen.

What we need:

  • An immediate commitment to double arts spending and a rapid move towards increasing overall arts spending from the current 0.1% of GDP to the EU average of 0.6%
  • A guaranteed living income and legal minimum payments for artists, performers, arts workers and crew.
  • Retention of the €350 pandemic payment and its extension to all unemployed arts workers at least until the arts and live performance sector have fully recovered.
  • A minimum requirement on broadcasters for 30-40% of output in music, drama & cultural output to be domestically produced.
  • Major increased investment in community and youth arts programmes and expansion of arts education in schools and increased employment opportunities for arts workers in these areas.
  • Payment of artists and performers for on-line output and restoration of residuals and royalties for repeat showings and broadcasts.
  • Establish a proper training, accreditation and qualification structure for all categories of arts workers and crew, strengthen employment rights and career pathways and set up an artists and arts workers pension scheme.
  • Impose a special profits tax on digital companies & on-line media & broadcasting corporations to fund arts, culture and public service broadcasting.

Conclusion

Far from being the transformative programme we urgently need, the PfG is a cynical attempt to paint the same old Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil policies with a Greenwashed, progressive tint. Moreover, it is clear that these parties intend to pay for the Covid-19 crisis through the same old methods of borrowing on the bond markets and inflicting austerity on workers and the poor in order to pay back the loans. There will be no effort to tax the enormous wealth in this country or to challenge the power of the agricorporations, the investment funds and the corporate landlords.

The one positive note is that if the PfG is voted through, there will be no honeymoon period for this government. Workers and those who are struggling have no illusions over what FG and FF are about and know that the presence of a Green mudguard will do nothing to protect them. It is imperative that workers get organised – in unions and on the streets – to resist the coming attacks, to protect the most vulnerable and to fight for a decent society that looks after us all.