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Pre-budget politics: lies, damned lies, and a gullible Irish public

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Silly season arrives to Ireland ahead of this winter's budget
Silly season arrives to Ireland ahead of this winter's budget

A fat tax, where homes are fitted with scales and the inhabitants weighed every month and taxed accordingly, is being considered for the forthcoming budget, according to newspaper reports.

The shocking scheme will see the Department of Health tell each citizen how much they should weigh and will make us pay for any excess ‘baggage’ we are carrying around. The idea is said to have sprung to mind while a government minister was boarding a Ryanair flight to visit our paymasters in Germany.

The Mandarins at the Department of Finance, meanwhile, are cooking up plans to tax families for each pet they own, according to whispers from the halls of Leinster House. The charge will be based on the number of legs each animal has. So, budgies will apparently be cheaper than dogs. The ISPCA and pet lovers around the country are rightly outraged. But at least the blessed goldfish will be exempt.

And so it goes, in silly season, as always, the spin keeps on spinning and the lies are left to linger for the media to dissect and the public to chew on.

Of course, the two taxes mentioned above are, at present at least, figments of my imagination. But then again, any suggestions surrounding the cutting of the old-age pension, reported widely in the media this week, are just as fictitious.

This time of year has become an annual ‘kite-flying’ event. The government of the day begins by leaking outrageous and savage cutback ideas as budget d-day looms. The public, in turn, is shocked and outraged. But as the big day draws closer more accurate and acceptable cuts are leaked, which, because of the shock and awe tactics used to soften up expectations, do not appear as drastic and are more readily, if begrudgingly, accepted.

It is a strategic, cynical and calculated political game that relies on media compliance as much as public gullibility.

And there is no better time of the year to launch this ambush campaign than the silly season that is August, where fodder to fill column inches and airtime is desperately scarce.

The recipe entails starting with complete fiction and then slowly simmering and reducing, until actual fact bubbles to the surface come budget day. By this time the public will be so scared and jaded it will accept almost anything.

In no other developed country would such a transparent and tired formula work repeatedly year after year. However, the government here seems to be able to pull this stunt time and time again, with little backlash. This enables them, in a time of austerity, to pass cruel budgets that illicit little more than a gnashing of teeth from a public that has been led by its nose to expect far, far worse.

So how can they keep on getting away with pulling this annual masterstroke?

Well, in the UK you have the Conservatives and Labour. In the US you have the Democrats and the Republicans. In Ireland, however, you do not have the same political gulf in terms of fundamental ideology between the mainstream political parties.

Indeed, anyone who thought Labour was going to be our knight in shinning armour, riding in to save us from swinging cuts, is no doubt sorely disappointed. And while Sinn Fein could be our knight in waiting, their time has not quite come as of yet.

So, in Ireland, more than anywhere, the role of the media is crucial in questioning the motives of government announcements and leaks. But at present it just seems to be a cheerleader, happy to wave its pom-poms from the side as it delivers the government’s well-planned PR strategy, designed to keep us all compliant.

It is said that people get the politicians they deserve. They also get the media they deserve. And our mainstream media has been letting us down.

The truth is we should be demanding more not only of our politicians, but of our press. Because, as the old saying goes — fool us once, shame on you; fool us twice, shame on us.

Paul Allen is Managing Director of Paul Allen and Associates PR, www.prireland.com

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