Op-Ed: Time for a change


The question of whether Fine Gael are well prepared for the challenges that lie ahead in government is still a contentious one, writes Elizabeth O’Malley

As I write this article the count is underway. The exit polls are further evidence of what we’ve all come to expect for a long time now: the next government will be Fine Gael led.

What does it mean for us as students? From my point of view, notwithstanding a collapse of government, this government will be in place for the rest of my undergraduate career so this is of some importance to me. After perusing Fine Gael’s five-point plan and their website, this is the impression I got of the future.

The main issue in this election has been the economy. At a domestic level, Fine Gael has decided to cut spending in a greater proportion to raising taxes. While specific plans for the cuts in each department have not been outlined, the general theme of the five-point plan has been ‘cut down on the red tape’.

Fine Gael say they will require all regulation-setting bodies to publish a plan for achieving a reduction of 10 per cent by the end of 2011 and 25 per cent by the end of 2012. They want to abolish 145 quangos and 20 state bodies. They also want to reduce the public service by 10 per cent, in other words try to get 30,000 voluntary redundancies ‘without undermining key frontline services’. It remains to be seen whether this indiscriminate cutting of state agencies will be a stroke of brilliance, or if it will materially affect people, not just those losing jobs but also those relying on the services.

The next government will need to try and renegotiate the EU/IMF deal in order to lower the interest rate. If, as is predicted, Fine Gael will attempt to build a coalition with Labour then this will likely be a key issue of the negotiations. Labour wants to extend the deadline to meet the IMF requirements to 2016, saying that 2014 date will only serve to depress the economy by forcing the government to put in place further austerity measures. Fine Gael, on the other hand, are firmly set on keeping the specified deadline saying that Labour’s date will require more borrowing and that debt is not the answer to debt. The two plans would have very different effects on the economic landscape.

The important issue for students was the cost of university and whether they will have to emigrate after graduating due to a lack of jobs.  The party proposes a “graduate contribution” of roughly one third of the cost of their course, to be paid once graduates reach a defined income threshold. This would be about €11,000 for an arts degree.

Dental students would face massive debts of around €64,000 when they graduate and other courses such as medicine and veterinary would cost more than the average. This is compared to the average cost for a four-year course currently which is around €6,000, going by last year’s registration fees. However, this could fall by the wayside in negotiations with Labour as it looks like a deal-breaker for them.

The plans for graduate jobs include 45,000 training places and new work placements such as classroom and nursing assistant positions and other placements in the private and public sectors. IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland will be explicitly mandated to develop 5,000 work experience placements in the companies that they support. However, if you are on the dole and under 25 you will be expected to keep a jobs diary with sanctions for unreasonable rejections of training and job opportunities.

Fine Gael’s main platform has been “time for change”. A positive aspect of Fine Gael’s planned time for government is tackling perceived forms of cronyism. They want to replace all non-executive bank directors who sat on boards of banks before September 2008. They also plan on closing tax loopholes for the rich, registering all lobbyists and banning corporate donations. Legislation to strengthen the Freedom of Information is planned and Fine Gael want to enact a bill to ensure CEOs appointed to state boards are approved by the Oireachtas.

The political landscape looks like it will change significantly. They want to extend Dáil sitting times and vouch all expenses. Ministers of State will have a car-pooling system. Fine Gael also plans to cut the number of national politicians by 35 per cent by reducing the number of TDs by 20 and abolishing the Seanad.  However both initiatives would need a referendum, as they require a change in the constitution. When the time comes I’m not sure that the country will vote for less representation but that remains to be seen.

At time of writing, Fianna Fáil look set to fall from 41 per cent in 2007 to just 16 per cent. The public have spoken. It’s time for change. Ireland under Fine Gael has an ambiguous future, which could be mostly out of our hands thanks to the EU and the IMF. However, this fatigued country needs a jolt awake and if Fine Gael sticks to its word, working for day one, then hopefully we’ll get just what the doctor ordered.