Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Exit of George Lee

So George Lee has left Fine Gael after just 9 months in the party.

How much things have changed since the heady heights of his sensational by-election triumph last May! In the eyes of many he was seen as the new political messiah for Fine Gael bringing the promise of fresh economic thinking and future electoral success. However it has all turned sour so very quickly.

Frankly I was surprised when Lee left his influential post as RTE's revered economics correspondent, a role for which he was clearly designed and in which he excelled. Apart from correctly alerting listeners regarding the flawed nature of Celtic Tiger policies, the reports gained additional credibility through his communication skills and a sincere emotional engagement with the issues involved. So in this respect he did not fit the stereotype of the detached economics observer and was all the more loved for that very reason!

However on the negative side, Lee's reports rarely displayed great detail or originality. Rather, they were of the "broad brush" variety which was very effective in communicating economic matters to a non specialist audience.

I would be more impressed with Richard Bruton in terms of ability to forensically investigate the details of economic policies. Then in relation to imagination and originality - though I do not always agree with his proposals - I would find David McWilliams to be a much more interesting commentator.

Due to the failure of politicians in 2008 to foresee both the financial crisis and property slump, people were looking for a new type of hero among those economic commentators who had correctly warned of the crisis. And chief among these was George Lee who thereby enjoyed enormous popularity.
And I am afraid George began to bask somewhat in this warm glow, developing perhaps an exaggerated view of his political potential. And when the main rival party came hunting for him he couldn't resist the invitation believing that somehow he had the magic formula to cure the country's ills.

Even at the time I thought that his decision did not make any sense.

For one thing Fine Gael were in opposition and despite the very low political ratings of the Government likely to remain there for some time.

Secondly, the most talented people in Fine Gael already filled key economic positions in the shadow cabinet. Richard Bruton as the Finance spokesperson is a highly respected and able politician of 30 years experience whereas the Enterprise Trade and Employment spokesperson Leo Varedker is the most promising of the younger generation. So there was no obvious economics position that George could immediately fill and he was always likely therefore to be used as a "poster boy" offering an invaluable marketing opportunity for the party.

Then on a few occasions when he did engage in debate he displayed his political naivete and - perhaps - lack of detailed economic understanding of policies. In a couple of exchanges in the Dail and at a Summer School (attended by the Minister of Finance) he came out badly when his "sound bite" approach was exposed as inadequate in the light of more comprehensive questioning on issues.

It is all very well railing against the deficiencies of the political system (which indeed are many), but surely he should have been aware of this before entering politics. For once that line is crossed, he no longer was representing just himself, but also the party and the many people who gave him support and voted for him in the by-election. And of course his political neutrality, so valuable in an economics commentator, has been forever sundered.

It is very mistaken in any case to think that one must enter politics to have a real effect on economic policy.

In fact in the present climate the, opportunities have never been greater for outside commentators (such as George Lee) to exercise a marked influence.

I mentioned already another popular economics contributor of the moment David McWilliams who has had a key impact on recent economic debate through his books, newspaper articles and many radio and TV performances.

The most important economics decision ever taken in Ireland was the bank guarantee scheme undertaken by the Government in September 2008 where the State decided to underwrite bank assets to the value of €400 bl. Well that was a scheme that was being proposed at the time - among others - by David McWilliams. And as he recounts in his latest book, McWilliams was consulted in his home by Brian Lenihan, the Minister of Finance shortly before it was implemented.

And then another respected economist Alan Ahearne, who likewise had warned about the dangers of Ireland's property bubble, was subsequently appointed as special advisor to the Minister of Finance.

And finally yet another very respected economist Patrick Honohan was recently appointed as the new Governor of the Central Bank. So if one is interested in influencing current economic policy, surely these examples suggest better options than as a backbencher with an opposition party!

Thus George Lee was perhaps in a more favourable position than any other economist here in Ireland to potentially influence current economic events. He may have been required to eventually vacate his position as RTE's economics correspondent in order to speak out more freely. However he would have remained greatly in demand by the media, with ready access to any important figure he wished to consult with a view to disseminating his economic viewpoints.

However for me this is really the nub of the whole issue for I have seen little evidence that George can truly offer fresh thinking on contemporary economic issues.
He was privileged to be filling the very post which maximised his talents and influence but somehow failed to properly recognise that very important fact.

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