James Downey: Noonan and Burton said they'd share our pain but all they did was tinker
Published 08/12/2012 | 05:00
THE Government has lost the confidence of the people, and nothing appears on the horizon to suggest that it has any medium-term hope of regaining it.
This loss of confidence did not begin with the fury and dismay engendered by the Budget. It began, in a way, even before the voters put Fine Gael and Labour into power with a record Dail majority 21 months ago.
You may remember the stricken faces of Michael Noonan and Joan Burton as they emerged from the Department of Finance after the briefings they received before taking office.
They had not known just how appalling our prospects were.
Once in power, they quickly discovered that the situation was more dreadful than they had been led to believe. Since then, it has constantly worsened. They and their colleagues faced, and continue to face, a choice that is no choice at all.
Austerity Budgets are unavoidable. But austerity lowers living standards and impedes growth. No amount of rhetoric can cloud that reality.
There was one thing they could do, and they should have done it at the beginning.
They talked of sharing the pain. But they took very little share of it themselves.
They should have made ferocious cuts in politicians' pay, perks and pensions. They could, and should, have simply abolished the absurd 'leaders' allowances'. They should have insisted that overruns in departmental spending would not be tolerated.
Instead, they tinkered. They are still tinkering. We now find that the Departments of Health and Social Protection have overspent by more than €1bn. That would pay the wages of a great many carers.
And it is the cuts in these carers' allowances that have caused the greatest and most justified anger – and shown up the muddled thinking of ministers who live in the Kildare Street-Merrion Street bubble.
The best place for the disabled elderly is in their own homes. It is also the cheapest. If ever a measure deserved to be reversed, this is it.
Of course, the Government fears the embarrassment that comes with U-turns. But sometimes U-turns are necessary.
Often they are forced on governments by events outside their control. Better to endure the embarrassment and do the right thing. Better to admit, "we got that one wrong". To cleave to a bad policy is a sign of weakness, not strength.
In this, and in a much wider sense, ministers have shown themselves seriously out of touch with the mindset of the average citizen.
The most devastating aspect of the present crisis is not the pain but the duration. Normally recessions last about a year, sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less.
This crisis has lasted, on the shortest count, for more than four years. And not only is there no end in sight, there is talk of a lost decade, even a lost generation.
Ministers try to encourage optimism. Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte says we have done 85pc of the "heavy lifting".
Brendan Howlin, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, says future generations will praise us for our courage.
In the nature of things, we can't know if Mr Howlin is right. All our instincts tell us that Mr Rabbitte is wrong. The mortgage crisis has not yet come to a head. We have no idea how much debt relief we can expect if the longed-for debt deal ever materialises.
Perhaps we concentrate too much on Europe. Our Budget inevitably took our eyes off developments in Britain, our closest neighbour and most important market. The 'autumn statement' by the Chancellor of the Exchequer brought no good news.
Perhaps, too, we pay too much attention to the strains in the Coalition. Governments fail more often because of unexpected events than those of the foreseeable kind.
But whatever the proximate cause, they fail because of underlying weaknesses. And the weakness of the Coalition lies in its inability to gain and keep public confidence.
Can it recover? Not unless it mends its ways. Not unless it persuades us that it is acting according to a firm plan instead of a system of horse-trading.
It has, or appears to have, one outstanding advantage. It has an enormous Dail majority, and no credible alternative exists.
But Jack Lynch had an enormous majority – in the days, mind you, of single-party governments. Albert Reynolds had an enormous majority. Their enormous majorities did not save them.
Right now, there is indeed no credible alternative. But Fianna Fail will recover in time. The hints of new parties may become reality, though that seems unlikely.
Fine Gael and Labour will not govern forever. Their time could be short unless they find a way to restore the confidence they have lost.