News Analysis

Friday 22 August 2014

Lise Hand: Howlin Wolf goes out with a whimper, not with a Big Bang

The minister's day

Published 07/12/2011 | 06:00

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Students walk past graffiti on the side of a building in Dublin yesterday afternoon

WAIT a minute -- wasn't this supposed to be Brendan's Big Bad Budget?

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Hadn't every cash-strapped citizen the length and breadth of the country been in mortal terror over the new bogeyman in town, Howlin Wolf, baying outside the door, poised to huff and puff all sorts of savage cuts and blow our fragile households down?

Well, anybody who tuned into the debut Budget speech of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform yesterday afternoon expecting to see buckets of blood flowing across the floor of the Dail chamber may have felt a mite confused.

For a start, the substantial, tastefully-bound document which Brendan Howlin carried when he bustled into the Dail was simply titled 'Comprehensive Expenditure Report 2012-2014'. And even though it was bristling with figures and statistics and graphs and pie charts, there wasn't a single mention of the B-word on its cover.

Budget? Nuttin' to do with me, Boss, was the message which appeared to be emanating from the minister, even as he was unveiling cuts of €1.4bn to a less-than electrified audience.

After paying a brief tribute to the late Brian Lenihan at the start of his speech, he even began his address by announcing that "tomorrow Minister Noonan will deliver his first Budget as Minister for Finance".

So, eh, what precisely was Brendan doing then, if not announcing a blizzard of cuts to social welfare and education and health? But the answer to this wasn't immediately evident either.

According to Brendan, these were all "expenditure announcements". That sounded good. Spending money on stuff, rather than taking entitlements off the elderly, the young and the vulnerable.

It actually all appeared to be quite jolly. Brendan talked about an Action Plan for Jobs, a 'Springboard' initiative for re-training the unemployed. He outlined all the reforms of government, which included knocking a few quid off the pay-packets of the Taoiseach and ministers.

He also mentioned how the Government had "cut the overall costs of special advisers to ministers . . ."

Suddenly the opposition benches -- who had been leafing half-heartedly through the Budget, sorry, Report -- sprang to life.

There came a gleeful chorus of reminders to the Taoiseach seated beside Brendan about an intervention he had made to ensure that a special adviser got a pay-rise of €35,000. The emergence of this story at the weekend was a most unfortunate piece of timing for Brendan and for a stony-faced Enda -- it smacked of Haughey's Hair-Shirt Hypocrisy.

It may have been Brendan's maiden voyage into delivering a Bud . . . sorry, Report, but he sailed on undaunted by the unruly troops across the chamber. On and on he went, with his reams of figures and justifications. But there was still no sign of any actual cuts.

And then, under a harmless-sounding heading entitled 'Key Current Spending Decisions', he sort of got to the bad news. The Government would, he said, "standardise the rates of payments of child benefits" over two years.

But what did that mean when it was at home? Ah, but Brendan wasn't going to spell it out. Instead, one was obliged to leaf through the thick book of charts and graphs, to Page 29, Table C, to discover that this meant that anyone reckless enough to have three or more kiddies was going to receive less money.

Nor did Brendan want to get too specific on other unpalatable measures, and gabbled through other bits'n'bobs of bad news, such as hitting students for an extra €250 contribution charge, or reducing "the fuel season" from 32 weeks to 26 weeks. Thank god for global warming, eh?

Wearing a pained 'this-hurts-me-as-much-as-it'll-hurt-you' expression, he solemnly said: "As a Labour minister I never expected that I would be making the type of announcements I am making today. We have been forced to make difficult and unpalatable decisions."

It soon became evident that the more ghastly of the Budget kites had been shot out of the sky, and that this first part of the Budget (sorry, Brendan, if it looks like a Budget, sounds like a Budget, cuts like a Budget, then, hell, it's probably a Budget) contained no measures which hadn't already been roared from the rooftop of Leinster House.

An air of anti-climax descended on the Dail chamber. After he finished speaking, he sat down to silence, except from a mini-outbreak of applause from a trio behind him -- Brian Hayes, Roisin Shortall and Sean Sherlock -- who obviously hadn't received the 'No Clapping the Minister' memo beforehand.

Even his post-Budget press conference in Government Buildings was lacklustre, as he defended the cuts and increases. Though, in fairness, he did point out the sheer daftness of some of the payments his Government inherited from their predecessors in power, who had a penchant for not so much giving away the shop at Budget time, but the entire shopping centre to boot.

With Christmas looming, there was no way that Brendan wanted to be hailed as the Government Grinch. He'll leave that task to Michael Noonan this afternoon -- he can be the Bad Santa.

In the press conference as he spoke of changes to the way future Budgets would be announced, the Minister for Euphemisms declared that this one would be "the last big bang secret Budget statement".

Big Bang? By early evening, the Dail chamber was dark, the restaurant and bar were deserted. It was like the Big One had been dropped on Leinster House already.

Howlin Wolf didn't go out with a Big Bang. It was really more of a whimper.

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