18 February 2009

What do we want? Gradual change!

In advance of the Green Party's national Convention in March, motions to be voted on are being circulated to party members. The motions so far are interesting both for what actions are called for, and for what isn't being discussed. There are no motions on the proposed rerun of the Lisbon Treaty, nothing on Rendition Flights and the use of Shannon as a stop-over by the US military, nothing on the Shell Corrib pipeline, or any of the other hot topic issues of by-gone days. There are a few motions on traditional Green issues like waste management and sustainable development, but unsurprisingly with motions limited to one per Constituency group the Convention will be dominated by the economy and the Green response to the current crises.

What is of greatest interest to me is the fact that not one single Constituency group has submitted an outright call for the Greens to leave Government, despite the unhappiness amongst ordinary party members at decisions taken in the Budget, particularly around the area of Education. However three separate groups have addressed the unpopularity of the Government's actions and the subsequent risk to the Green vote in upcoming elections in two quite different ways.

Waterford and South Belfast Greens have submitted separate but similar motions calling for the Greens to start negotiating with other parties to form a Government of National Unity, with the Waterford motion expressly including Sinn Fein in the composition of this government, and going as far as suggesting a distribution of cabinet ministers (Fianna Fail: 5; Fine Gael: 5; Labour: 3; Green Party: 1; Sinn Fein: 1) and a rotating Taoiseach and Tanaiste. These motions, while recognizing the unpopularity of recent Government actions, seek to take a positive action and position the party as a dynamic force in Government, putting the needs of the country ahead of its own and actively trying to be part of the solution to the economic crises rather than exacerbating the problem. However as they are the first motions to be debated starting at 10:30am on Saturday with live TV coverage not starting until 11, it is unlikely that any members of the public that actually tune in will see this debate, and will be treated instead to condemnations of executive pay and bonuses and the championing of the Green economy as the solution to all our economic woes.

Very convenient.

On Saturday afternoon, after the live TV coverage has ended and the eyes of the interested public have moved on, after motions on Dublin Bus and limiting the pay of Politicians, and with members slowly making their way back to the conference floor after lunch, the closest thing to a criticism of the actions of the Greens in Government will be debated with a motion from Dublin Mid-West calling on a special conference to be called in 2010 to discuss the Greens ongoing participation in Government. The motion is in response to the ongoing cuts in Education; one of the cornerstones of the Greens' decision to enter into government with Fianna Fail and the PDs was a commitment by Fianna Fail to increase Education spending, and in many of the Green meetings that I attended following on from the budget, it was the cuts in this area that drew the most criticism from party members. The Dublin Mid-West group are clearly reflecting this sentiment in their motion, but calling on the Party to meet in a year's time to discuss the possibility of pulling out of Government is hardly the most forceful way to go about expressing their concerns. When we look back at all the changes that have happened since the budget in October, who knows what state the country will be in by 2010? It really is a case the old rallying cry of "What do we want? Gradual change! When do we want it? In due course!".

Again, the timing of the debate on this motion, well away from the unblinkered eyes of the live TV coverage, is also very convenient, protecting the Ministers from being publicly associated with difficult questions about their continuing role in Government.

Two final motions caught my eye, the first from Tipperary North Greens on the subject of dynastic politics in Ireland:
The Green Party (CG) believes that the practice of elected posts passing to relatives of the post-holder is not only a throw-back to the days of hereditary monarchy but dangerously liable to foster mediocrity and corruption. We welcome all citizens willing to step forward to serve their communities but we believe they should gain election on their own merits. We accordingly resolve never to adopt a close relative of a TD or Councillor as his or her immediate successor or as a candidate for his or her post. We also call on other truly democratic parties to follow our lead
A quick perusal of the backgrounds of current and former TD's will quickly show just how dynastic Irish politics are, particularly amongst the two main parties. It is particularly disappointing to see how few female TDs there are that are not the wives or daughters of former TDs. Our current Taoiseach, Tanaiste, and Minister for Finance are all the children of former TDs, and inherited their parent's seats upon their death or retirement. It is difficult not to wonder how much better the government's handling of our current economic crises would be if our leaders were elected on merit rather than genealogy.

I was also happy to see the motion from the Social and Economic Policy Group calling for "the removal of poverty traps in the social welfare system through the introduction of a basic income". Although the motion doesn't go into more detail after that it is nice to see that I am not the only person reading a lot of Andre Gorz at the moment.

Looking at the Convention as a whole, it looks like the tough questions will not be asked. Despite the recent resignation of two Councilors from the Party and the very real prospect of a bloodbath at the polls no group has actually stood up and said directly, "Hey, the Government has made a mess of this, we have been forced to compromise many of our core principles, we are going to be wiped out in the local elections and risk loosing all credibility in the eyes of the electorate, maybe we should do the right thing and leave government immediately, triggering a national election and giving the citizens of this country a chance to have their say."

Not that surprising really, given the fact that if they did pull out of Government they run the risk of experiencing the same fate as Labour in '97, wiped out at the polls as punishment for entering coalition with Fianna Fail against the wishes of many of the voters, an act that has taken Labour ten years to recover from.

Perhaps such discussion will happen in the workshops or over coffee, but it would have been nice to see a vigorous and healthy debate take place on the convention floor.

Full text of the above Motions
Motion 1: Waterford Greens

National Government

That the Green Party/Comhaontas Glas enter into negotiations with all other parties represented in Dail Eireann (that is Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, The Labour Party and Sinn Fein) with a view to establishing a Government of National Unity.'

Reasons for Waterford Greens motion:

Our economy is on a knife-edge; climate change is nearing a point of no return; and the gap between rich and poor risks destabilising our society. Taken together these problems almost defy comprehension.

We need solidarity among politicians if we are to find solutions to these unprecedented problems. The Dail allows little scope for bipartisan politics as the opposition are precluded from making decisions, though in the past Fine Gael bravely adopted the 'Tallaght Strategy' and supported tough government measures.

We need an even more radical change in politics for the next three years. To achieve economic, social and ecological stability all politicians must stand united. Fianna Fail and their backers have bankrupted our country. This must never happen again.

That is why our party should commence negotiations with a view to establishing a Government of National Unity. This motion leaves it open to the National Executive Committee to determine the timeframe and conduct of such negotiations. Given the misgivings of Labour and Fine Gael over Fianna Fail, low-key contact rather than 'megaphone diplomacy' may be required.

The following breakdown of cabinet seats is suggested: Fianna Fail: 5; Fine Gael: 5; Labour: 3; Green Party: 1; Sinn Fein: 1; with a possible rotation between Taoiseach and Tanaiste. This distribution achieves parity between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael and includes fair representation from other parties.

A Government of National Unity would remove some of the Fianna Fail ministers who ignored the mounting economic difficulties and left our nation in near collapse. At the same time a broader set of views would be represented at cabinet. To have credibility our government has to distance itself from property and banking interests. The addition of ministers from other parties would leave it less open to influence by these sectors.

We went into government to implement our policies. We joined a Fianna Fail-led Government because the long-term risks to our society and our planet outweighed any electoral cost to us. A Government of National Unity will allow other parties to take similar risks and share in the responsibility of securing our future. By adopting this motion, we will be putting the needs of our country ahead of all other considerations.

Motion 2: South Belfast Greens

National Government

This Conference calls on the leadership of the Party to consider the merits of a 'Government of National Unity and Sustainable Recovery'.

Background:

In light of the unprecedented threats to national welfare and sustainability posed by the global and local financial downturn, and the close association of Fianna Fail with parties and practices that have exacerbated the financial crisis in this country, the Green Party leadership is invited to consider the following advantages that might flow from the formation of a 'Government of National Unity and Sustainable Recovery':

1. The forging of grande consensus around the future of national economic growth and a 'Green New Deal' across all the major parties in Dail Eireann who would be invited to form a new administration;

2. An enhanced strategic leadership position for the Green Party in addressing the current financial crisis;

3. A continuing and prominent role in Government while creating distance from a damaged Fianna Fail party.

Motion 8: Tipperary North Greens

Nepotism

The Green Party (CG) believes that the practice of elected posts passing to relatives of the post-holder is not only a throw-back to the days of hereditary monarchy but dangerously liable to foster mediocrity and corruption. We welcome all citizens willing to step forward to serve their communities but we believe they should gain election on their own merits. We accordingly resolve never to adopt a close relative of a TD or Councillor as his or her immediate successor or as a candidate for his or her post. We also call on other truly democratic parties to follow our lead

NOTES FOR DELEGATES:

a) "Green Politics is Clean Politics" - lets show that we mean it.

b) Strictly speaking, nepotism refers to post-holders simply giving jobs to family members. However, current electoral practice in Ireland often comes close to nepotism, when close relatives of post-holders are selected as successor candidates for the same post, giving voters little or no choice beyond that of veto. Moreover, even this choice may be denied them, in practice, because excercizing their veto would challenge long-established party loyalty. This practice of near-automatic heriditary succession is undemocratic. Our motion takes the moral high ground by declaring that the Green Party will not do it.

c) Many votes for the son, daughter, widow or widower of a recently deceased postholder are based on such sentiments as sympathy for the family or respect for the deceased. These are fine sentiments - but they are not rational grounds for selecting a successor.

d) It must be very rare that a close relative of the deceased is objectively the next best person in Ireland to succeed him or her. We don't select bus drivers or bank managers that way, so why councillors and TDs?

e) An interest in and aptitude for politics may run in families, of course. This motion would not preclude a relative standing in an adjoining ward or constituency. Nor would it preclude standing in the same ward or constituency in a later election. It merely states that the Green Party will not assist an immediate succession.

f) The word 'never' is essential. The motion would be mere posturing without it, since it would be (rightly) seen that we would set it aside where political expediency demanded.

g) This motion does deny the Green Party the possibility of exploiting the 'sympathy' vote at some time in the future. However, a party based on high ideals should not stoop to such tactics. Moreover, in denying ourselves this advantage as matter of policy, we effectively challenge the practice in the hands of others. A specific challenge at election time would be much less effective - and could even backfire, because it could seem like an ad hominem attack or as unsympathetic to a grieving family.

h) This motion could be interpreted as anti-equality. However, it does not exclude on the basis of any legally prohibited grounds. It also opens the field to citizens born overseas and to Irish citizens whose grandfathers were not in the GPO in 1916. As such, it promotes equality of opportunity.

Motion 13: Dublin Mid-West Group

Participation in Government

That the Green Party/Comhaontas Glas:

- Expressing strong concern regarding the cutbacks in education funding in last year's Budget, notwithstanding the current economic downturn and the huge strains now being placed on the exchequer;

- Noting that the Government, in a motion co-authored by Paul Gogarty TD and passed in the Dáil on October 30th last, committed itself to addressing the cutbacks "at the earliest possible opportunity";

- Recognising the huge importance of targeted investment in education, especially during an economic downturn because a) it is a basic human right, b) it will enable us to develop as a more flexible, creative society that can better adapt to the many new challenges that will face us in an era of changing climate and energy scarcity and c) will allow us to better identify and take advantage of the new opportunities that will exist in terms of job creation and social development;

- Acknowledging that our education system needs a fundamental overhaul to allow our children and adults to develop the skills necessary for Ireland to thrive in a sustainable manner and that this will not be solved simply by throwing money at existing structures;

- Acknowledging that there are other areas relating to the performance of the Party in Government that members of the Party are not satisfied with and which are being expressed through other motions tabled at this Ard Fheis;

- Noting that the Party has of course made significant and welcome progress in Government departments it controls, with more to come, including in the areas of planning, insulation, food and energy security, broadband rollout and new job creation;

- Noting that the Party has also made some progress in other Departments, in terms of implementing the agreed Programme for Government, as well as working to protect the most vulnerable from recent cutbacks

- Recognising that the current economic situation has been exacerbated by bad economic decisions when times were better, as well as huge wastage and the creation of a political and financial climate that facilitated vested interests and rampant greed;

- Recognising that in this context our country more than ever needs a party in Government - that had nothing to do with creating or supporting the decisions that were made over the last 15 years - to form part of the solution, one that remains free of the developer, business and trade union interests that continue to influence our three largest political parties;

- Hereby instructs the NEC to organise a special convention to vote on our continued participation in Government following a reasonable period of deliberation and reflection, with the following arrangements applying:

- That this special convention will take place as part of our 2010 Ard Fheis/Annual Convention, with the debate commencing on a Friday evening and continuing all day Saturday until voting at 5pm, to be followed later that evening by a televised Leader's Address

- That no more than two motions shall be voted upon

- That the first motion shall be worded as follows: "That the Green Party/Comhaontas Glas instructs the Party Leader to withdraw from Government

- That if the first motion is not passed by the requisite majority that a second motion be taken, worded as follows: "That the Green Party/Comhaontas Glas reaffirms its commitment to continuing in Government for the remainder of its term of office"

- Further instructs the NEC that this convention be held in April 2010, after summer time has been implemented, so as to afford the Green Party maximum opportunity to put forward its case to the people should the membership instruct the Party to withdraw from Government and should an election be called in the immediate weeks following such a decision; and

- This Convention, in adopting the above motion, also agrees that the above provisions shall not apply should the Green Party/Comhaontas Glas no longer form part of the current Government due to any other circumstances which may arise in the intervening period

Motion 22: Social and Economic Policy Group

Basic Income

The Greens should press for the removal of poverty traps in the social welfare system through the introduction of a basic income.

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