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Editorial – Evidence and Vision, then Policy

Simon Coveney’s avoidance of the facts on housing completions is a metaphor for our governance

How did public policy go off the rails? Indeed how was policy always so skewed? For Village, equality of outcome, sustainability of the environment and accountability are political imperatives but – whether or not this radical agenda appeals – at a minimum Public Policy should be evidence-based and serve the public interest, conducing to improvements in the quality of life of the people.

Yet such an approach is anathema to the voguish politicians of our age: from the goldfish-attention-spanned Mr Trump to the economics – and history-illiterate stormtroopers of Brexit to the foreigner-blamers in France, the Netherlands, Poland, Hungary and beyond.

In Ireland too we eschew good policy. We lead this edition of Village with the failure of the Department of the Environment under Simon Coveney to treat seriously what his government describes as its “number one priority”, housing: they can’t even compile useful statistics on housing completions. As Mel Reynolds first pointed out on these pages, housing-completion figures for last year were – at absolute best – 7300, not the claimed 15,000. How can you make policy when you don’t even know the scale of the problem you’re addressing; when you have to lie about it?

Of course Minister Coveney is not alone. The Minister for Justice and the Garda Commissioner remain rooted in office, though the Garda recorded a million breath tests more than the actual number carried out, probably because someone’s promotion, or salary, would benefit from an indicator of commitment. The Garda also seem to have concocted the crime figures, at least on domestic violence and murders but let’s face it probably on everything else too.

Clearly the problems are not of oversight or strategy but of culture. Conor Lenihan outlines in this month’s magazine a history of delinquency. But we’re not serious about reform: sure it might wreck everyone’s head. We’ve looked into the Garda enough. From Morris to Smithwick to Fennelly to O’Neill investigations have uncovered bits and pieces but rarely the whole picture, and clearly the follow-ups have been nugatory.

Moreover, from the Beef tribunal report, which was tailored to advance its judicial author’s career, to the Moriarty Tribunal’s defanged findings on Denis O’Brien, to the vastly discredited Planning tribunal our major non-Garda investigations too have often got diverted and have characteristically been undefinitive and unreforming, though they often attracted media approbation.

While many countries have their political weak spots in these fascist-tickling post-truth times, unserious Ireland runs a particularly fragile regime when it comes to impropriety. This magazine considers that the political process has abjured action on the biggest corruption issues of our time.

If we cared about Policy and Reform we’d have some clue why our health services are in disarray and disimproving.

The central plans of health policy were supposed to be universal insurance and the elimination of fees for primary care ie GPs. A White Paper on Universal Health Insurance was published in 2014. The debate was always too much about the cost of this rather than on how a focus on insurance might actually serve the presumed goal of universal healthcare. In the end then Health Minister Leo Varadkar suspended it, likening universal health insurance to Irish Water. He claimed it would have been impossible to impose the extra fees without a backlash from struggling families. While denying the Coalition had performed a U-turn on its central health policy, he was unable to give any specific year as to when a new version will be introduced.

Varadkar also confirmed before the 2016 election was called that Fine Gael could not commit to the introduction of universal care in the next Dáil term due to a shortage of GPs. Free GP care for children under 6 and for persons aged 70 and over were implemented but of course, these changes prejudice needy patients, as opposed to ones who come within the age strictures, and anecdote suggests there has been a big increase in visits to GPs by under-sixes.

If we were serious about Policy, we’d have ensured that the religious congregations paid compensation commensurate to their abuses , we’d ensure that educational standards improve year on year, we’d be less concerned about water charges than VAT, income tax and capital taxes which yield far greater dividends. If we cared about policy we’d have dumped Michael Healy Rae and his clan; and Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and their allies in confused ‘non-ideological’ ‘centrist’ ‘pragmatism’: the swamp out of which emerges policy-based evidence making, and jobs for the boys.

We don’t even as a country have any idea of the goal of national policy. If it is quality of life then that should be measured. In default, because it is the default measure of our success as a society, we’ll continue to pursue an economic agenda of GDP maximisation even though it plunders the environment. An oil-slick-and-cleanup registers as an increase in economic activity/GDP and does not necessarily increase the happiness of the citizenry. We should measure quality of life across dozens of indicators from equality (the Gini Coefficient etc) to crime and unemployment rates, water and air quality, commuting times and even people’s perceptions of their happiness.

If we don’t compile the evidence, there is no chance, if we ever decide to get serious about Vision and Policy, that we’ll be able to act on it.