For the last year the Fianna Fail/PD government has faced a bad time with public opinion polls. Its popularity has fallen in the face of allegations of Rip off Ireland, political cronism and incompetence. However as I thought about Fianna Fails current dismal ratings in the latest polls (32%) I reminded myself its only a opinion poll. The party may be on the canvas, but there are still several rounds to go before another election. Then the more I thought about it the more I realised that the government is actually in a better strategic position than people realise. I know it may not look like it, but the opposition has actually gone along way towards helping the government win the next election. How? By setting an achievable agenda.
Take Rip off Ireland for example. The public has had its attention focused on the Groceries Order, which has been blamed for the price of a shopping basket being 20% dearer here than in Europe. The order is currently under review and the government could easily scrap it. Sure they will take time to consider it, they will explain that there are two sides to the issue and they need to be carefully consider the consequences before acting, but in the end they can give in. The public will be convinced that they have won a major concession, but what has the government lost? Nothing.
Closer to the heart of the government has been the rip off imposed on the public by publicans. Cafe Bars may have been stopped earlier this year by a backbench revolt, with TDs looking out for their mates in the vintners federation but when their comfy seats in the Dail are suddenly feeling a little shaky it'll be every TD for himself. Cafe Bars can be reintroduced with a triumphant Minister for Justice claiming he has stood up to vested interests and won a major victory for the ordinary man on the street.
Next comes the budget, the government can reduce tax on motorists, possibly with a significant drop in fuel tax. Brian Cowen will say its costing him alot of money, but with fuel prices 12% higher in the last 12 months, they can should be able to afford to drop their percentage and still take more money next year from fuel tax than they did this year. The public, however, will love it. Every percentage point dropped in tax should gain a few in the polls.
Then comes transport infrastructure. Early in the year they could buy out the M50 motorway bridge and scrap the tolls on it. This would be a financial hit but not a substantial one, at least not as big a hit as people like to claim. Follow this closely with the opening of the port tunnel, some bypasses, an announcement of a link up between the Luas lines, and some spin around the roll out of new trains and carriages for CIE and the government can say they have achieved something.
Then finally in April comes the real vote grabber, the maturity of the SSIAs. Thousands of people will suddenly get an average payout of €13,000 from the government. Ok most of it is not from the government. The punter will have contributed 75% and the government 25%, maybe a little extra will have been earned on the stock market, but you can be sure it will be spun to make it seem like Bertie is writing out cheques from his own bank account. Nothing makes people happier than a wad of cash and a spending spree. After related increases in VAT returns, stamp duty and the take from VRT, the bulk of that 25% will be back in the governments coffers, while the public are contented with their shiny new toys. Bertie and Co will seem like the best thing that ever happened to this country and the public will forget all their little faults.
By next summer the government could be riding high in the polls and quite probably celebrating a recent election victory. The opposition could be back to plotting to oust their new party leaders and everyone will be trying to figure out how the government managed it all.