Analysis: Varadkar and Martin Head-to-Head Debate
Going in to last night’s televised debate Fianna Fáil Leader Micheál Martin’s strategy was to position his party as the vehicle of change and to deliver sufficient blows to the government’s handling of domestic policy issues such as housing and health. For Varadkar, a strong performance was needed to boost the morale of his troops against the backdrop of two poor opinion polls and to also appeal to the large number of floating voters that he was the most trustworthy leader of the two. Viewers hoping to be enlightened by detailed policy discussions were left disappointed with last night’s debate being remembered more for style than substance.
One of the striking observations from the 80-minute debate was the change in both the language and imagery used by the Taoiseach. Varadkar, who has been sharply criticised throughout his political career for lacking in compassion and particularly so when it comes to the current crises in health and housing, placed empathy at the core of his message to voters. Repeatedly expressing his regret over the government’s handling of issues such as homelessness, Varadkar even went as far as conceding that sometimes he wasn’t as good with words as his opponent. The approach was also somewhat successful in taking the sting out of many of Martin’s attacks and showed floating voters – any many of his own supporters too – a different side to the Taoiseach.
Martin was articulate in highlighting the government’s shortcomings, particularly regarding its record in not meeting housing targets and the recent spike in those waiting on hospital trolleys. He also mounted strong challenges to Varadkar over his handling of an expenses scandal involving former TD Dara Murphy and on Brexit, accused his opponent of taking too much credit for the successful conclusion of Phase I talks. Yet, the Fianna Fáil Leader struggled at times to handle Varadkar who grew in confidence throughout and whose attacks became more aggressive. Moderator Pat Kenny refused to allow Martin delve too much in criticising his opponent, frequently bringing up FF’s record in government during the economic crash.
One standout moment was when Kenny ended the segment on crime by asking each candidate if they had ever taken illegal drugs. Martin responded with a quick and assured response but Varadkar, who is on the record in a Hot Press interview as having taken cannabis while a student, seemed to be taken aback and froze for a few seconds.
All in all, the Taoiseach narrowly shaded the contest although there were far from any knock out blows from either leader. However, the media narrative today is a boost to Fine Gael and for the first time in this campaign, perhaps puts Martin on the back foot. The next major televised debate will feature seven leaders from the main political parties which will air next Monday on RTÉ 1.
Does last night’s televised debate have any bearings on support for the two main parties? We’ll have an early sense of that this weekend with at least one major opinion poll to be published.
On the Campaign Trail
Buoyed by their leader’s performance in last night’s televised debate, Fine Gael will be hoping to build further momentum in what has been a far stronger week of campaigning from the Taoiseach and his senior ministers.
Varadkar is spending today in Dublin where he is expected to canvass with the party’s deputy for Dublin North-West, Noel Rock, who is facing an uphill battle to hold his seat amid competition from Fianna Fáil Councillor and current Lord Mayor of Dublin Paul McAuliffe. Varadkar will also be canvassing in his local constituency of Dublin West.
Today, the party is launching its policy on online safety.
Fianna Fáil has pledged to postpone the planned rise in the pension age to 67, and to pay equivalent payments to those over 66 in the meantime. This matches the pledge made by FG, which will feed into accusations that the two parties are identical when it comes to policy. Other parties have promised to lower the age back to 65. On the back of Varadkar’s offering to form a coalition or support a FF-led government in Confidence and Supply, Micheál Martin has this morning ruled out a grand coalition.
FF Finance Spokesman Michael McGrath launched the party’s personal tax proposals in Dublin yesterday afternoon. According to the party, its pledges will cost €1.3 billion over the next 5 years. FF claims it will prioritise investment in public services over tax cuts, trying to emphasise it would govern “in a responsible manner and within the budgetary projection published by the Department of Finance”. Micheál Martin has said that Capital Gains Tax will be reduced from 33% to 25% under a new FF government. The party also proposes a Commission on Taxation to examine the sustainability of the tax system, including:
− the future of the Universal Social Charge
− the taxation impact of moving to a low carbon economy
− the sustainability of corporation tax receipts in the context of global tax reform
− the taxation environment for indigenous firms
− the taxation of property funds
Addressing a Dublin Chamber breakfast meeting this morning, Martin said he wanted to “broaden how we talk about economic issues”, laying out the party’s policies on taxation, childcare, supports for SMEs, Brexit preparedness, and competitiveness.
On healthcare, FF is committing to providing additional GPs by creating more GP training places and increasing the rural GP allowance to €30,000. Other proposals include a ban on vaping for under 18s.
On crime, the party is proposing a range of measures based around
− a justice system that is fit for purpose and commands public trust
− a 16,000 strong, reformed Garda force
− strengthened anti-social behaviour powers to protect communities
− rooting out gangland crime
Today, the party’s focus is on education with the slogan ‘Building a World Class Education System’. The party is promising to:
− freeze college fees
− reduce the pupil-teacher ratio to 20:1 per class at primary level
− address teacher pay inequality
− introduce a new Department of Higher Education
− invest an additional €100 million per year in higher education
− introduce a ‘suite of measures’ to boost incomes for poorer students
Sinn Féin will launch its mental health proposals today. The party claims it will transform the early years’ sector for the benefit of parents, children, childcare providers, and workers. The party proposes increasing the entry level wage for childcare workers to the living wage. FG and FF have said SF’s proposed rent freeze is unconstitutional, but some constitutional lawyers are arguing otherwise, propounding that the strong property rights provided for in the constitution can be restricted in the interest of ‘the common good’. We can expect this debate to continue. As former Taoiseach Jack Lynch said: “It would be a brave man who would predict what was or was not contrary to the Constitution.”
SF held an election broadcast yesterday evening, where party leader Mary Lou McDonald said the party will “solve” the housing crisis. Notably, SF has said the party will reduce the salaries of TDs and Ministers, and the pensions they receive on retirement. Finance Spokesperson Pearse Doherty has insisted that TDs would only be able to draw the pension at full retirement age. Doherty has been outlining party proposals worth more than €3 billion, which he insists are affordable, given the €1.4 billion surplus, and that the measures had been fully costed by the Department of Finance. The party will set out to target banks, vulture funds and property developers with additional taxes.
Labour leader Brendan Howlin also said his party would solve the housing crisis and has proposed a €16 billion package to fund this, including resources from the Strategic Investment Fund, NAMA dividend, European Investment Bank and Credit Unions. He expanded on the party’s plans for pensions, stating Labour will set the retirement age at 66, with an option to work to 70 if workers decide to do so. Following their announcements on housing policy, the party says it is “certain” that extending a temporary rent freeze is not unconstitutional. The party will also disallow landlords from asking for more than one month’s rent as a deposit. Labour’s Health Spokesperson Alan Kelly emphasised that the party supports Slaíntecare, but criticised the Maternity Strategy for the Children’s Hospital and its provision for private care, which he says is contrary to the plan. The party is pledging to address the issue of unequal access to healthcare.
Ahead of their manifesto launch on Saturday, the Greens have been less active on the policy front, particularly on the issues dominating the campaign – health and housing. The deadline for candidates contesting this general election has now closed and the Green Party has the second highest proportion of female candidates – 23 of its 39 candidates. Aside from FF and FG, the Green Party is the only other party running candidates in every constituency, a sign of their confidence that the ‘Green wave’ seen in last year’s local and European elections will rise higher. Candidate for Mayo, Saoirse McHugh, who almost secured an MEP seat in May, has said of a coalition with FG or FF, “I just would not prop them up. It would make me sick.” These brash comments may concern the more pragmatic members in the party leadership, as a coalition is the only realistic chance for the Greens to get into government.
People before Profit launched their party manifesto yesterday. The party is running 27 candidates and its main proposals include:
− making housing a human right
− build 100,000 public and affordable houses and ensure “real rent controls”
− return to a state pension age of 65
− increase in pension to €260
− 33 hours of free childcare a week
− move to free childcare through the National childcare Service
− €15/hour living wage
− end USC for anyone earning €90,000 or less
− end third level fees
− end property tax on family homes
− publicly owned insurance company to cut costs
As expected, PBP is promising the world, and say their proposals are fully costed and “rely on wealth and income distribution that targets the top 7% of the population”. Today PBP is launching its disability charter and proposals for public transport access for all.
Quotes of the Day
– “Varadkar seems to have prepared for a TV event and used a new style – empathy, humility – albeit with a few slips. Martin came at it like Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil”
Irish Times Deputy Political Editor Fiach Kelly sums up last night’s debate.
– “I care deeply about our country and the problems people face. I probably can’t put it in to words as well as my opponent does but I do it in my actions… Maybe I don’t say the right words but I show it in the work I do.”
Leo Varadkar responds to claims from moderator Pat Kenny that he and his party doesn’t show enough compassion.
– “There has been more personal attacks from Fine Gael on me than there has been on policies regarding housing and childcare”
Martin responds to Varadkar in last night’s debate
– “It would make me sick”
Green Party candidate Saoirse McHugh on a coalition with Fine Gael