Lessons from Eire

Ireland, as a good many white people are proud to point out, is a source of much of Australia’s original immigrant population and (almost entirely imported) national culture. It is also, as anyone who’s looked at economic news in the last year or so could point out, in deep economic shit.


The source of the problem has been discussed at length, with varying accuracy, elsewhere (twitter-level summary: low corporate taxes which attracted business and economic growth while putting nothing back into the economy and leaving the country with nothing when those same businesses took advantage of the same mobility of capital that brought them to Ireland in the first place and getting out as the shit hit the fan, what’s recently been referred to by some as the “Stuffed Tiger” approach in a parody of the “Celtic Tiger” tag given to the Republic during the boom). What’s really grabbed my attention in terms of relevance to folks here in Australia, and particularly Tasmania, has been the recent election.

First of all, there’s the electoral system at play. Tasmanians may find it familiar-looking, and with good reason – it’s basically Hare-Clark, which I happily promote as probably the best and most representative democratic electoral system in the world. For non-Tasmanians, it combines proportional representation across, in Ireland’s case, 43 multi-member (between three and five) constituencies with a single transferable vote to elect 166 members to the Dáil (the Irish name for the lower house, like Australia’s House of Representatives or Tasmania’s House of Assembly). The advantages it has over standard single-member electorates, whether preferential like in Australia or First Past The Post like in the United Kingdom, should be obvious: electorates are not monolithic entities and multi-member electorates allow greater representation. In a borderline, swinging electorate 45% of the population at any given time is represented by someone opposed to the platform they voted for; in a five-member electorate they would have two representatives. It also gives minor parties a much greater chance of success and electoral results reflect public opinion much closer. In the Australian Federal Election last year the support for the Greens was 12-18%, depending on the poll, yet they only got one seat out of 150; in the Tasmanian State Election a few months earlier support for them just before the election was at 22% and they walked away with 5 seats of twenty-five – a figure which almost exactly matched their public support. So, it’s a pretty good system.

Like most Anglosphere countries, Ireland has something of a two-and-a-bit-party system: there’s only two parties who stand a chance of forming government, but one or both of them often need the help of junior parties providing support or governing in a coalition. Fianna Fail, the dominant party (in power for 61 out of the last 79 years, and until this election, the largest party in the Dáil) since the Republic of Ireland gained independence and had been the ruling party since 1997. It had also only spent about two years in opposition since 1987, so they’d been able to claim credit for Ireland’s stunning economic growth from the early 90s to the Global Financial Crisis. Of course, its chickens have come home to roost in the most devastating of ways, and the party who’d been encouraging Ireland to keep pumping helium into the economic balloon to make it even bigger is quite rightly being saddled with the blame for blowing so hard the balloon burst. The other major party is Fine Gael. If you demanded that I used the left-right spectrum, they would be considered to the ‘right’ of Fianna Fail due to their commitment to free enterprise and ‘fiscal responsibility’. But on the other hand, they’ve never been in power without the support of the social democratic Irish Labour Party, which just goes to show how dumb plotting everything on a single sliding scale is.

The 2007 Irish election saw a slight loss for Fianna Fail, but still enough to comfortably form government with assistance from the Greens (just so the traditional left-right spectrum gets even more messed up) and the Progressive Democrats (classical liberal conservatives, who effectively broke up during the last term, presumably because they saw the writing on the electoral wall). The Greens had given their support to Fianna Fail’s bid to form a majority in return for certain Green-based legislation being enacted. Ireland’s Green Party does not have the strong social democratic/socialist background we associate so strongly with the Australian Greens, and thus had fewer dramas entering a coalition with a free market neoliberal party like Fianna Fail than one would imagine. The Greens, as mentioned, entered into a coalition with the promise of environmental reform. However, they were able to achieve very little, and on the civil rights part of their platform, only managed to achieve the introduction of rights for same-sex couples. They were punished by voters at the recent election, and hard: they lost every single one of the six seats they held in the Dáil.

Fianna Fail’s loss was almost as bad (or even worse depending on your point of view). As mentioned, even when not in power, they had always been the largest party in Ireland. Now, they have been relegated to third party status, behind not only Fine Gael, but also Labour, with Sinn Fein (Irish Nationalists, though without the nasty racist connotations usually associated with that tag, rather their chief goal is the the unification of all of Ireland within the Republic) nipping at their heels. If Kristina Keneally and the rotting beast that is New South Wales Labor can take one thing away from their inevitable defeat later this month, it will be that at least someone else has already taken the “most historically savage political mauling” prize for the year. Fine Gael have made massive gains, though still not enough to form a majority government on their own – it is not yet certain whether they will again join forces with Labour (a less than certain proposition, since Fine Gael are supporting the austerity measures which ensure that Ireland won’t be getting out of its economic bog any time soon and Labour are opposed due to a variety of reasons which can probably be summed up by that great Einstein quote about the definition of insanity), but it is likely due to the fact that without Labour’s votes, a majority is impossible without the support of a number of independents, who the party has ruled out working with due to the fact that they are “too high maintenance” (as Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott could almost certainly attest to). Beyond the obvious (try not to lead your country into a financial crisis so devastating it requires you to be bailed out by friggin’ Germany), there are a few lessons here for Australian people, media and politicians.

Lesson 1: Getting into power doesn’t mean you’ll have any.
I mentioned during the Australian Federal Election that one of the things holding Australia back is an attitude that gaining power is more important than enacting policies, or at the very least, that gaining power is seen as the only way to enact policies. It is a mindset that discourages cooperation and enshrines the two-and-a-bit party system (or “Coles and Woolies democracy”, as Bob Katter described it in one of his less insane moments). It’s incredibly easy to forget that the Nationals are a party, at least in name – though a few of them may be asking themselves what they’re doing when two rural independents got more for regional Australia out of one election than they did out of the eleven years they, apparently, were in a ruling coalition. Ireland’s Greens, too, apparently forgot that they were a party: they supported Fianna Fail on the basis of some unfulfilled promises, largely because it meant that they would be in power. If the Greens had operated as Australia’s Greens have on the federal level and simply promised support on supply and opposing motions of no confidence, they would have been able to use their position holding the balance of power to influence the Fianna Fail government to create Green-friendly legislation, probably moreso than they were able to as a part of the coalition. And more importantly for them now, they wouldn’t have tied themselves to a sinking ship when they would have been better off swimming, because now the party is, for all intents and purposes, well and truly drowned.

Lesson 2: Green politics count for nothing if not backed up by broader sustainability.
Incongruous as the combination may be, it’s entirely possible to imagine a hard-line Christian Green party, who opposes gay civil rights, is not overly sympathetic toward the plight of refugees and supports prayer in parliament and public schools (the sales pitch would probably be something along the lines of preserving God’s wonderful creation in all its forms). This is because the primary aim of Green politics is sustainability, and these things, while in my opinion abhorrent, are consistent with that ideal. But sustaining the physical environment is only one aspect of sustainability, and a Green party who forgets that fails as a Green party. This goes double in a country such as the Republic of Ireland, where the small landmass and even smaller population mean that, in the absence of a truly contentious issue such as those which have defined environmental politics in Tasmania (the Gordon-below-Franklin Dam, Lake Pedder and more recently the Gunns Pulp Mill), such issues have little large-scale impact. Such issues must be bolstered by seeking to promote sustainability across multiple dimensions, and the capitalist system is of course inherently unsustainable. This is why the world’s successful Green parties have all made social democracy, or in a friendly political climate, socialism, a core part of their platform. Regulations are easily stripped away in a capitalist system because they are seen simply as barriers to the growth of wealth; making a tokenistic investment in green energy sources which the government – Fianna Fail or Fine Gael – will forget about the second it is no longer relying on Green Party support to retain government are an even worse use of what little influence the Irish Greens had. Tokenistic or idealistic petitions to preserve a beautiful green land (often with a mildly nationalistic tone) may work for parties such as David Cameron’s Tories in the United Kingdom to grab casual or lifestyle Green votes, but they are no way to run a Green party. The Greens wasted their time in a ruling government and have been punished by supporters because they took too narrow-minded a view of sustainability and thus of Green politics in general.

Lesson 3: If you take all the credit for inflating a bubble, prepare for a backlash when the bubble bursts.
Fairly logical I’d think, but you never know…


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