independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

John Drennan: 'Stealth' budgets, just like stealth bombs, can blow up in your face

The Coalition's silence on the upcoming cuts reveals a fearful, Cowen-style attitude

We have known for months that a ghostly spectre was sailing on our icy fiscal seas. Yet the Budget's contents remained invisible to those who do not sit at the hallowed tables of the Economic Management Council.



Even last week, up to Friday, the only glimpse of Michael and Brendan's dance of the thousand cuts we saw was one brief flash when the property tax veil fell off, before the doors were shut again.

So why is it that, unlike last year where the political skyline was so littered with pre-budgetary kites it resembled the crane-laden sky of boom-town Dublin, on this occasion we experienced the fiscal equivalent of the silence of the lambs?

The concept of diversion via deliberate incompetence would be an intriguing explanation for the unique run-up to the first-ever 'stealth' Budget in the history of the State, but, sadly, it is giving this scattered administration credit for a level of planning that is utterly alien to its capacities.

Instead, our stealth Budget represents a classic example of how our Government increasingly resembles the regime it replaced.

Mr Kenny may have famously opined prior to his election as Taoiseach that one of the defining characteristics of the Irish is that "Paddy likes to know the story".

However, when it came to this affair "Paddy" didn't actually want to know the story.

In truth, it would be hard to blame poor, bedraggled, almost-bankrupted Paddy, who has experienced more than enough of "the story" of austerity.

Sadly, whether he wants to or not, poor Paddy is to be dragged into the light of respectability by the scruff of the neck via a property tax that our elite are frankly terrified of, social welfare reform and whatever else is deemed necessary, before we are sent to the edge of the cliff and told to try to fly independently for a second time.

This reality cannot disguise the fact that there is something corrosive about the Biffo-style secretive, authoritarian paternalism which has characterised this stealth Budget, to such an extent that even the Cabinet has been treated like that class of bold girls who cannot be told the facts of life lest they do something naughty.

The iron-clad secrecy that surrounded this year's Budget is hardly compatible with the Government's commitment to a process of democratic renewal.

Instead, we got an authoritarian state of lock-down where – just like the relationship between Bertie Ahern and Charlie McCreevy – the Cabinet, not to mention the citizen, was excised from a decision-making process that affects their pockets.

Such a U-turn on its initial promises of mature and respectful dialogue between the State and its citizenry is all too typical of an administration which increasingly takes its template from Mr Cowen.

Happily, the Government, or rather the Economic Management Council, is finding out the hard way that the Coalition was being far too smart for its own good if it thought it could treat Labour TDs – let alone the voters – like mushrooms, land a budgetary bombshell on the citizenry and then slink away from the traumas for an extended Christmas break.

Governing behind an iron curtain of secrecy, and blaming the troika for the barbed wire, is not just a betrayal of that famous democratic revolution. It is also indicative of an increasingly fearful, Biffo-style attitude the Coalition is developing towards an electorate it embraced so enthusiastically a mere 18 months ago.

In fairness, on one level the fear is understandable, for when it comes to the macro-economic issues that will frame whatever Budget finally appears next week, the Government is the equivalent of an unarmed garda trying to deal with knife-wielding maniacs. In this case, the miscreants are called the domestic deficit, the banking deficit, the ongoing collapse of the domestic economy and unemployment.

And there may be a few more fiscal lunatics frolicking around in the undergrowth.

In particular, for a Government which, like its predecessor, is basing any economic revival on dumb luck, the ongoing survival of the Prussian Malthusian economic ethos of purification through purging (Dr Angela says more leeches for the Irish patient please) is not beneficial.

Instead, it means that no matter what compromises are hammered out next week, La Belle Dame of Austerity will glide into Paddy's bed chamber.

Hopefully, after last week the Government will at least have learnt that treating Paddy (and the Cabinet) in this way is not always the wise course of action.

It may have been messy but all the political lightning which occurred before the last budget allowed some form of imperfect national discussion to emerge, which provided the Government with a degree of political bullet-proofing.

The decision in this Budget to replace the principle of Cabinet collegiality with the Charlie McCreevy doctrine – where Bertie was told about the budget in St Luke's on the Sunday and the rest of the Cabinet were told the news on budget morning, was always going to lead to trouble.

This philosophy might have worked in the good times (and even then there were a couple of disasters) but such a cunning plan tends to not go quite so well when garden rakes are strewn across every part of the lawn.

We are not quite in the territory of Michael McDowell's caustic comments about a previous government resembling chimpanzees trying to repair a television set but, last week, this administration increasingly resembled a plane flying blind into a storm with a couple of amateur pilots.

Still, they have at least now learnt that 'stealth' Budgets, are just like stealth bombs. In the period prior to the explosion, all is calm and no one is running around in terrified circles, but once the bomb actually lands, then, just like any less sophisticated explosion, there is a great deal of collateral damage: innocent victims, severed limbs and general devastation.

Sunday Independent

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