Heard the one about the Irish MP who promised stability?
Meet Jackie Healy Rae. If Irish politics has a Bob Katter, it’s him. Like the member for Kennedy, he’s a rural independent and disaffected former member of an established party, who trades on his commitment to fighting for the peculiar concerns of his local constituents.
The parallels between Katter now and Healy Rae when he was first elected are as striking as their respective signature hats. The 1997 Irish general election produced a hung parliament in which the conservative coalition fell just short of a majority. Healy Rae was one of three independents who agreed to put old enmities aside and support the government in parliament. In return he extracted concessions for his constituents.
On the surface it’s all standard horse-trading, but there’s a murkier side that would be unwelcome in the Australian context. It has never been precisely clear what Healy Rae was promised in return for his support. And since 2007 Healy Rae has been propping up his old party again, under a deal which he openly says is none of the public’s business, thank you very much.
There is widespread dismay in Ireland at Healy Rae’s apparent power. At times he has claimed to have a direct line to the Taoiseach’s (Prime Minister’s) office because if he switched sides it could threaten the government’s majority. This was especially the case in his first term.
The chest-beating no doubt plays well in his local constituency but much of the electorate is appalled at his destabilising antics and the power he wields as a result of his deals with the government.
And they are secret deals. His own website proudly says: “Details of his agreement ... have never been made public, but ... covered several areas including jobs, roads, health and farming. One thing he could always rely on was a sympathetic ear from various ministers when he lobbied for the constituency.”
Jobs, roads, health and farming? Sounds like a lot. Was it a few thousand here, a couple of hundred grand there?
Despite the best efforts of journalists, nobody really knows, but if you want an indication of the scale of the pork barrelling, look only at what he claimed to have secured for a small town just last year.
They don’t come cheap.
There are questions over when exactly when it was approved, and it has been a local demand for decades.
But the absence of scoffing denials from ministers says much about the government’s need to keep Healy Rae in line. And lately he’s been playing up again.
He recently crossed the floor to vote against a stag-hunting ban. The bill still passed, but Healy Rae’s defection along with some discontent among other independents has sparked a wave of concern about the government surviving to the end of its five-year term, which finishes in 2012.
What’s happening in Irish politics - right now - is a signal lesson in how, even with support pledged, deals done, and intentions willing, a minority government can find itself edging towards collapse.
All politics are local and this is no different in Australia, particularly in rural and regional areas where established, hard-working MPs tend to hold their seats by solid margins.
But the localism in Irish politics is magnified by the system of multi-seat constituencies. This means there can be up to five incumbents - incumbents, not candidates - fighting for votes in any one area. Throw a strong local identity, like a mayor, into the race and suddenly everybody is under threat.
In this environment, local profile is everything. To update a punchline, if they think it will help them hold their seat, Irish politicians will attend the opening of an email. The former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, was known for drinking regularly in his local pub (he had a spot at the bar) and waiting outside his local church on Sundays to shake hands with constituents. Even high office in Ireland comes with no guarantees.
Thankfully Australian politicians don’t have to be quite as pathologically obsessed with local issues. If you’re the local MP in Australia, you’re the only local MP. This allows, comparatively, more focus on national issues, but the rule of defending your seat still stands and Ireland is instructive on the kinds of issues that can force the hand of a frustrated Independent.
Just last week The Irish Times reported an Independent from the west in the Irish parliament was threatening to pull his support because of health spending cuts in his region.
And this week the country’s biggest-selling broadsheet, the Sunday Independent, reported mounting concern in the Irish government ranks about the administration’s ability to serve out its full term.
The story is worth quoting at some length:
The Government has, in the absence of the three by-elections, a sustainable if makeshift majority. With the pledged support of 70 FF TDs [MPs], the Greens, the independent PDs, Jackie Healy-Rae and Michael Lowry, the Taoiseach only needs the support of one of his former TDs.
But there is an increasing sense of instability in the aftermath of the decision of two of its most embedded supporters, Jackie Healy-Rae and Michael Lowry, to cross the floor of the Dail and vote against the stag-hunting Bill.
This is certain to intensify if the Opposition wins the pending three by-elections, which would nullify the Government’s current de facto lead of 84 to 78.
(My emphasis - full story is here.)
All this is instructive for two reasons. First, for all the talk about a new spirit of co-operation and negotiation being a recipe for a more Zen style of politics, stability rests on a number of assumptions that simply cannot be taken for granted.
An unforeseen by-election here, a defection there, and – poof! – the government’s majority in parliament is gone. This is especially the case when it looks like the next government could carry votes by one or two seats.
But second, to avoid the contempt in which Healy Rae is held by swathes of the Irish electorate, the details of any deal with independents who will prop up a minority government should be made public.
As the Healy Rae instance has shown, secret support deals leave a cloud of suspicion over both independents and the government they support. And if anyone reneges on a deal and foists an election on voters, they will have the information they need to pass an informed judgment and mete out their punishment accordingly.
And besides, voters don’t like shady backroom deals in the first place. Just ask the Labor party.
PS: If you want to see Jackie Healy Rae in action, here’s a video of his 2007 victory speech from the back of a truck. “Sugar daddy is back,” the compere says introducing him. Don’t worry about not being able to understand him, it’s hard for Irish people too.
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