IT was Ronald Reagan back in the 1980s who came up with one of the truest phrases ever uttered by a politician: “Government is not a solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
The U.S President was a big supporter of what is called ‘small government’ — that when it comes to the presence of legislators and public administrators holding sway over our lives, less is often more... and it certainly works out a damn sight cheaper for taxpayers.
His contemporary in the UK, Margaret Thatcher, is similarly viewed now as a fan of ‘small government’. A grocer’s daughter, she scrutinised her nation’s budget with the beady, parsimonious eye of a corner shop owner, and cut what she saw as the ‘fat’.
Nowadays, both Reagan and Thatcher are sneered at by the lefties who prevail in academia and much of the media, usually tarred as uncaring capitalists.
Which is a shame because, whatever faults both had, their support for ‘small government’ is one I am happy to share.
Sadly, ‘small government’ has become outdated in the era of the micro-meddling nanny state — dismissed as symbolic of rotten right-wing conservatism, when, at heart, it is actually a liberal, libertarian creed.
After all, which proud, card-carrying leftie could fail to agree with the statement that the less people who tell you and me what to do or think, the better?
Unfortunately for me, and for taxpayers generally, I would argue, we live in the era of ‘big government’.
For a neat definition of that, look no further than Wikipedia: “‘Big government’ is a government or public sector that is excessively large... the term may also be used specifically in relation to government policies that attempt to regulate matters considered to be private or personal, such as private sexual behaviour or individual food choices.”
‘Big government’ is not just an Irish trend, it’s rampant in the West, especially across Europe, where independent states such as ours are happy to cede more and more control to the European Union, while retaining all the bells and whistles (and expense) of local and national government.
We have been left in a situation where countries like Ireland have at least three strands of public administration: one or more local authorities, a national government (which often comprises two chambers) and then the crowd up in Brussels — all gobbling up our taxes and telling us what to do in more and more areas of our lives.
Those few people who dare to shout stop to this are usually smeared as ‘anti-EU’, ‘alt-right’, ‘far-right’, and ‘nationalists’.
Look at the situation here in Ireland. Up to a few years ago, on a local level, we had town councils, and also city and county councils.
We then have the national politicians in the Dáil and Senate — when the country was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy a few years ago, we foolishly allowed our town councils to be abolished, while voting in a referendum to keep the talking shop Senate. Not our electorate’s finest moment, I would say, although that motion was only defeated at the polls by a whisker on a very low turn-out.
Above the Dáil, we then have the EU crowd.
It means that, in my case, for instance, I currently have six councillors representing me in the Blarney/Macroom county council ward, three TDs representing me in the Cork North-West constituency, and four MEPs representing me in Ireland South. A grand total of 13.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you ‘big government’ in action.
We can take it further... there are 949 councillors and 158 TDs in the Republic and 750 MEPs in the EU, all working in our interests, apparently. Or, looking at it another way, all taking salaries and expenses, and many of them big pensions too.
When you have that many elected representatives, backed up by an equally well remunerated civil service, you wonder how something like the children’s hospital or events centre fiasco can ever be allowed to happen... not to mention the ever-prevalent health and housing issues.
Could it be a case of too many cooks?
On the other hand, perhaps these elected representatives are responding to a public need, since a lot of people nowadays seem to think politicians are there as a cure-all for everything that goes wrong in their lives.
Obese kids? Blame politicians, not the parents.
Spending too much time online? Let’s demand political action.
Tree down in the storm? What’s my local councillor’s number?
There seems to be no such thing as personal responsibility any more. Anything that goes wrong is someone else’s fault, and a politician is supposedly there to fix it.
When it comes to government, usually less is more...
All of which leads me neatly to the forthcoming plebiscite on May 24 on whether Cork should have its own directly elected Mayor. You would think I’d be against adding another layer to our already bloated system of governance. But I don’t see it like that.
Here is a chance for Cork city to be given a real voice at the table of local and national politics; one that is answerable to the people at the ballot box.
It’s a role that would cost €313,000 per year in Cork alone, but I believe, if done right, it would more than pay for itself. We also received important assurances this week that any extra costs of the new role will be met by national government.
The biggest problem we have in Cork is that Dublin is swallowing up so many resources and getting fatter, while we have to make do with the scraps from the table.
If we had a strong personality to argue our case, it might help us build a second city that can begin to compete with the capital in areas such as infrastructure, transport, industry and tourism.
The mayoral system certainly seems to be working well in cities in the UK and the U.S
A mayoral figurehead in Cork, along with the extra resources generated by a newly-expanded city, would hopefully raise all our boats. If the city is thriving, the county will feel the benefit too.
The one concern I have is that a directly elected Mayor may be tempted to borrow more money than we can afford, in order to fulfill campaign pledges and ensure their re-election (for a maximum of two terms).
We don’t want a Mayor that will bankrupt our city, but one who will act enthusiastically and responsibly on our behalf; who will have the support of the people that the present Lord Mayor has, along with the muscle and teeth of the present Chief Executive.
I can see how creating this new position could be argued as yet another lurch towards ‘big government’. But there’s nothing stopping someone running for the job standing on a ticket of ‘less government’. Now, that would certainly get my vote.