Tuesday 25 October 2016

Limp Budget born in a political cul-de-sac

Published 12/10/2016 | 02:30

Finance Minister Michael Noonan on Budget Day 2017 Photo: Mark Condren
Finance Minister Michael Noonan on Budget Day 2017 Photo: Mark Condren

With the disintegration of traditional voting patterns there was much talk of new politics versus old. On the evidence of Budget 2017, all such talk is redundant. This is sterile, stale and recycled politics intent on currying favour for short-term limited ambitions.

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After all this country has come through, it should be clear that the only politics that matters is "Big Picture Politics". That is putting the needs of the people first with a fixed focus on the national interest securing a fairer future. But this Budget was always going to be a confection; an assortment put together to satisfy the tastes of Fianna Fáil the Independent Alliance, and Fine Gael. But too many competing flavours have cancelled each other out. With so many sweeteners, small wonder it included a plan for a sugar tax.

Fine Gael was simply a servant to too many masters to leave a strong imprint. The confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fáil was evident; a dependence on Independents also meant that it was clearly politically neutered. For all these reasons Michael Noonan's sixth Budget was never going to be a Buzz Lightyear-like leap "into infinity and beyond" in Fiscal Space.

But because so many different heads were knocked together in its build-up; it appears that it lost all sense of coordination, lurching backwards and forwards but making no real social or economic progress. Thus the political despond goes on; the suspended animation that seems to stifle any political momentum.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny will have done enough to keep the show on the road, but have things moved on for those who were looking for a big idea or new start? Alas No. The "Squeezed Middle" is unlikely to feel much less pinched.

A dual-income household with two adults on €50,000 a year may be €500 the richer over the year due to cuts in the USC. But middle-income taxpayers will still be worse off in 2017 than they were before the economic crash. The eight years of tax changes imposed under austerity Budgets have cut their income by €2,000. Those working overseas will still think twice before returning given the high taxes and costs of buying or renting a home.

In terms of meeting the massive housing crisis the Government stands accused of favouring the well-off. Those buying the more expensive home will get the greatest relief.

Nor is the undying loyalty of the grey vote likely to be secured for €5 - next March. No-one wanted Mr Noonan to throw caution to the wind; but a little more awareness of the sacrifices of those who bore the brunt of the crash might have been expected.

Siptu's Jack O'Connor was not impressed: "This Budget should have been about taking steps to repair the damage inflicted on our economy and society by the economic crash and the years of austerity," he said.

Meanwhile the Irish Federation of University Teachers described the allocation of an additional €36.5m funding to third-level education as "like offering a wet sponge to a man dying of thirst". A pledge to make the Budget Brexit-proof also appears overblown. The promise to put €1bn aside annually- if all goes well- in a contingency fund is aspirational.

Brexit, and the risks it presents are all too real. Politics appears to have been driven into a cul-de-sac. Unless a sense of energetic leadership and conviction is restored, the lethargy is unlikely to lift. Budgets ought to be about addressing weaknesses and strengths. Good Budgets will cater for needs rather than party interests.

President Calvin Coolidge argued that "economy is idealism in its most practical form". This Budget is devoid of any discernible ideal beyond the jaded ambition of clinging on to power. The Government will no doubt trumpet the delivery of a prodigious effort. As a rule of thumb, it is the guest , and not the host, who is the better judge of the feast.


Irish Independent

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