Wednesday 14 November 2018

It's time to end the Budget day mystery

Eoghan Murphy

'The notion of the big bang day for the budgetary process, of someone coming into the Chamber to read out the secrets decided by a Cabinet, is crazy."

The Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin made these comments to the Public Accounts Committee back in December 2011, after I asked him about the Programme for Government's commitment to opening up the budgetary process "to the full glare of public scrutiny".

Last week I and a few other members from the government parties played a guessing game as to what might be in the Budget to be delivered by the Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan in the Dail today. By tomorrow morning we will have pushed a little green button approving all of the financial measures for next year.

Elected representatives of the people are sent to the Dail to make decisions on behalf of the country over how we spend the money they pay in taxes but also how we manage the national welfare.

And, as a TD, I have to tell you we don't have a clue.

In addressing the question of what went wrong in our economy, Fine Gael in opposition put the blame at the feet of the politicians and the political system in place at the time. Politicians bred of a dysfunctional parliament went on to take executive power, leaving a dysfunctional parliament in place to act as a counterweight.

And it did not work.

We come again to the 'big bang' of yet another Budget day, six years after our banking sector collapsed, bringing the economy with it. Much has changed in Irish life since, including the bailout and the arrival of the Troika on our shores. But the budgetary process has not changed, because the Dail has not changed.

The Fiscal Advisory Council - the body chaired by economist John McHale and set up to ensure that we do not have a repeat of the events that led us into the bank bailout and the ECB/IMF/World Bank financial rescue of our country - has advised that we continue with the policy of fiscal rectitude and a €2bn Budget correction, which in effect would lead to further major cuts in government spending.

But the Government itself is talking about a broadly neutral Budget and the possibility of some form of tax cuts.

Why is there such a difference of opinion?

The Central Bank has said increased revenues should be used to pay down the debt; the Government is more interested in the debt ratio. Who is right?

Figures for the year are better than expected, much better. Are we still without the correct forecasting tools? And why are they better? Is it all due to the jump in car sales? How much of it is due to a change in how we calculate export figures?

None of this has been debated by a committee of the Oireachtas or a special session of the Dail, and will not be by the time central components of Budget 2015 are announced later today.

"Without the consent of the Bundestag, the German Federal Government does not receive a single cent from the public purse," according to the Bundestag's dedicated Budget Committee.

That's a pretty powerful statement. The same can be said of Dail Eireann, technically. But the reality makes it myth.

There is no dedicated Budget committee in Dail Eireann - no committee to deal exclusively with budgetary matters (implementation and forecasts), to cost and debate proposals from individual TDs, to have government ministers appear before it to defend their department's expenditure reviews (money requests) in advance of a decision by government on the Budget. And, if such a committee did exist, would it and should it be chaired by a non-government TD, as it is in Germany?

In 2010, the independent Wright Report into how the Department of Finance failed during the boom and bust of the previous decade made the recommendation that all unanticipated additional exchequer revenues should be used to pay down the national debt in future.

On Thursday last I put this to the Minister for Finance at a meeting of the Fine Gael parliamentary party convened to discuss the Budget.

And he demolished me.

This should have taken place in public. Not only because his response was excellent. But because people need to see that all aspects of our economy are being debated by their elected representatives in a considered manner.

And also because there is more to the process than the confrontation of the Budget day debate and the oppositional posturing and point scoring that comes with it. We just don't let the public see it and that, in my view, is one of our big mistakes. Unless you are a member of the Economics Society in UCD, Budget day should be one the most boring days in the parliament's calendar. Instead it remains 'The Punch and Judy' show of the year.

What is an incredibly important day in the life of the country and the life of the parliament is, in consequence, reduced to pantomime. And not because TDs are not capable of being better parliamentarians and scrutinising budgetary issues... but because the process that has been established does not allow them.

We continue to use a system that was established almost with the foundation of the state. Many things have changed in our parliament, in our country and in the way we do business. But sadly not the way we do Budget Day and all the trappings that continue to surround it.

Yes, like other TDs, I can make a statement on the Budget, but only after I have assented to it. And in that five-minute speaking slot I will stand up in the Dail and call for cuts to taxes and increases in spending according to the different lobby groups I have met in a bid to please them. But I will never have to do the maths or take responsibility in a back-and-forth debate for the measures I propose.

Nor will I have the opportunity to examine government proposals and debate them with their proposer.

I will, in short, never have to make a choice, but simply follow the leader. I don't mind following Mr Noonan because I have faith in him. I just don't like doing it blindly.

Eoghan Murphy is a Fine Gael TD for Dublin South East.

Irish Independent

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