NEWS ANALYSIS: Playing political games with elderly care
By Peppina Ahokas and Marko Junkkari
"Following political processes, perhaps also following the political game sometimes seems to be more important than actual achievements", lamented Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen on Wednesday at the summer meeting of the ministerial group of the National Coalition Party.
The disagreement between the National Coalition Party and the Social Democratic Party on the ratios of staff to residents at elderly care institutions, which has emerged in spite of the Prime Minister’s wishes to the contrary, is impossible to understand without examining the process that preceded it.
The dispute specifically involves fierce political playing in which Katainen’s National Coalition Party has also been involved to a very great degree.
Preparing for the elderly care law has been a tragicomic process. The stumbling of the irresolute Minister of Social Services Maria Guzenina-Richardson (SDP) has been watched with a sense of horror within the SDP. After chewing over the matter for ages, Guzenina-Richardson finally took a stand and said that she is in favour of including a requirement of staffing numbers in the law.
Anguish and desperation are apparently great sources of creativity. The political minders in the SDP understood that the legislation is actually a most convenient campaign issue for the municipal elections – and above all a great way for the party to distinguish itself from its government partner, the National Coalition Party.
The Social Democrats took the elderly care bill as a project of the whole party. The SDP’s parliamentary group announced last week that it supports a binding ratio of caregivers to residents, and immediately went on the attack. "Are the banks more important for the National Coalition Party than the elderly", asked Pia Viitanen, chairman of the SDP’s delegate council in a press release.
The SDP added fuel to the fire on Tuesday, when the Social Democrats instructed Guzenina-Richardson to demand that the ratio of caregivers to should be raised to 0.7 per elderly resident. Previously plans were for one caregiver per two residents.
What makes the situation bizarre is that Guzenina-Richardson is not fully standing behind her own demands.
The minister’s faith in her own cause has been shaken by fear of being left alone. She undoubtedly knows that if the situation with the National Coalition Party comes to a head, the Social Democrats might not necessarily stand behind their own minister, and that is why Guzenina-Richardson is nearly hysterical about avoiding failure. She has outsourced the explanations of the details of the plan to her aides, whose job it is to inform the public.
The National Coalition Party never been enthusiastic about setting numerical guidelines for staffing in elderly care institutions. However, on Wednesday the party spelled out in so many words that it is not acceptable.
At the meeting of the ministerial group in Oulu, Minister of Social Affairs and Health Paula Risikko said that the number of caregivers should not be "set in concrete" by writing it into the law. Katainen said that he agrees.
However, just the week before last the Prime Minister had a different opinion. He said on the morning TV programmes of the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) and MTV3 that a binding personnel-to-resident ratio was "possible", as long as it does not happen at the expense of home care.
So why did Katainen turn his coat? The reason is that while it is in the interests of the Social Democrats for there to be a dispute over elderly care legislation, it is also convenient for the National Coalition Party.
It is a limited issue, which does not jeopardise future government cooperation in any way. A classical ideological dispute is going on, which allows parties to profile themselves and show their colours as the municipal elections approach.
The National Coalition Party emphasises individualism and freedom of choice. The Social Democrats approach the issue from the starting point of the state.
Another reason why arguing over elderly care is a convenient election theme for the main government parties is that it can obscure the issue of municipal reform and the related revamping of social services and health care.
However, Katainen’s flip-flop is not necessarily exclusively tactical. There is an increasing amount of genuine frustration in the National Coalition Party over the constant bickering with the SDP – especially in light of the fact that the Social Democrats have generally won these battles.
There may be some eagerness to fight welling up within the National Coalition Party. We can keep our eyes open and see who is who.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 17.8.2012
More on this subject:
National Coalition Party only government group to oppose binding minimum staffing requirements in elderly care institutions
PEPPIINA AHOKAS AND MARKO JUNKKARI / Helsingin Sanomat