Friday 28 October 2016

Budget was all about power, not about rewarding the taxpayers for their sacrifices in the austerity years

Published 12/10/2016 | 02:30

While economic turmoil may have abated in Ireland, the political chaos that transpired in the wake of the General Election was on full show yesterday as Budget 2017 was revealed in all of its gruesome glory.

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In this first budgetary outing of the minority Government, Finance Minister Michael Noonan promised to "keep faith" with the prudent policies pursued in the past five years.

The story fell apart in stages.

In the immediate aftermath, well-meaning economists struggled to make sense of the polarising nature of this Budget. Alas, there are no conceptual economic theories for this calculation. Number crunchers miss the point - this Budget was not about economics, high finance, or even wealth distribution.

It was about power.

To the outside world, ministers Michael Noonan and Paschal Donohoe were in the driving seats. However, on the Budget dashboard there are lots of buttons, and Fianna Fáil and the Independents had their fingers on a lot of them.

Budget 2017 was the first time the Fine Gael elements of this minority Government had an opportunity to make amends for their troubled theory that some kind of economic recovery was spreading across the entire nation.

It was also the first time the 'independent' Independent Cabinet ministers had a chance to flex their muscle, and to use their political leverage collectively to present a united front. Fianna Fáil had an opportunity to promote fiscal rectitude and lift itself over the din of populist politics.

All failed miserably.

As an episode in shameless political power play by all sides, yesterday's event wasn't even the worst spectacle. If only it were.

No, the lead-in to Budget 2017 was even worse. A soul-destroying, never-ending speculative saga that seemed to last longer than a special sheep-shearing episode of the 'Late Late Show'.

Honestly, you could go missing for weeks, months even, and come back (á la Bobby Ewing) and be no less informed about the political class and their ideals for the future of our country.

In the weeks preceding Budget 2017, no attempt was made by anyone politically to craft a narrative for our collective future prosperity, our social progress, never mind how we are going to attract and maintain jobs.

Neither was a proper debate developed about the macro-economic implications of this Budget or how Irish people have shifted our national debt burden through hard work and sacrifice.

Thoughts of protecting the consolidation of our public finances seemed to go completely out of the window.

Instead, we were force fed weeks of endless political point-scoring, with figures and stories being bandied about like demented rubber balls ricocheting around a pinball machine.

Whether you believed or blithely ignored all the kite flying, it is worth taking time to reflect that this is now what passes for political discourse in this country. The evanescent nature of news means that increasingly we do not know the difference between reality and conjecture anymore. If you need to see where all this might end, look to the unthinkable Donald Trump.

A litany of promises and counter promises emerged. Housing grants for first-time buyers, battles over childcare packages, social welfare grants, farmers' grants; all provided a pick 'n' mix of political promises.

And so, as if to confirm that not every law of political gravity had been reversed, Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar gamely intervened. "No more,'' he cried.

Occasionally, Leo feels the need to wander away from the Fine Gael reservation to remind us that when it does become time to do the leadership dance, he will be in full samba mode.

On this occasion, our provocateur was unhappy for Fianna Fáil to simply grab all ownership of the €5 cash "bonanza" for old age pensioners.

So Leo ditched his hair shirt and donned a big blue one, declaring: "Ah lads, hang on. Don't be hasty! Why stop there? Let's give it to everyone.'' Hurray!

And fiscal rectitude promptly fetched its coat and officially left the building.

If some of the measures "announced" yesterday had been introduced by a Fianna Fáil minister, it would have resulted in absolute blue murder.

Take the first-time buyers' tax rebate, for instance. Having developed an almost anaphylactic allergy to anything builder-related, if the Soldiers of Destiny had suggested such a first-time buyers' grant it would have resulted in an avalanche of abuse.

Headlines screaming: 'Oh no, the builders are back', would adorn every front page today.

There are some Fianna Fáil measures that only Fine Gael would get away with introducing. Principally because the party looks completely incapable of developing a boom. It can barely manage a bust. For now, Fianna Fáil's inherent addiction to populism and power remains ever so slightly obscured by a very thin veil of responsibility and humility. Further masked by a political marriage of necessity with Fine Gael, Fiana Fáil members have done such a persuasive job of telling us that their "confidence and supply arrangement" is for our greater good that I think they may have actually convinced themselves.

The truth is, Fianna Fáil's convictions are soaked in self-preservation and acquiring more seats. Any return to bombast and buyouts and the party is on the downward slope again, as evidenced by the latest opinion polls. It will need to tread carefully not to claim credit for too much of Budget 2017, as its TDs creep back to their constituency clinics happy with the odd nod and a few billion winks.

The really positive news about this Budget was the figures published last week in the White Paper for Receipts and Expenditure. They revealed Ireland's national debt has been reduced radically from 120pc of GDP in 2011 to a near book balancing figure of €240m. This reduction was brought about by the hard work, high taxes, and other sacrifices made by Irish people, not by politicians. The Government would have us believe that our efforts are now being rewarded in a Budget high on visuals but short on vision.

But don't mention the recovery. No one from Government did.

Not once.

Irish Independent

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