Tuesday 24 October 2017

Maeve Dineen: Budget Day should be first to go in reform of political system

Maeve Dineen

LOOKING through old photos can be either great fun or a mournful task. There is nothing quite like looking at a picture of a much younger self and seeing just how much potential there was and how much naiveté as well.

Looking at old budgets can be much the same. As we prepare for tomorrow's budget, the last Fianna Fail budget after 13 years in power, it is worth remembering what the first one was like.

Back in December 1997, a relatively young and fresh-faced Charlie McCreevy got up to tell the nation that he was raising child benefit by the princely sum of £1.50 a week to ensure that a mother-of-four would get £34 a week to help feed and clothe her offspring.

McCreevy, being McCreevy, was unable to resist a little preaching and showmanship, telling the country that he would be doing budgets in a new way. Previous finance ministers "could choose to be Santa Claus or Judge Dredd. He could give a present to everyone in the audience, or he could punish the spenders and give lectures on how everybody had to get a grip," McCreevy told the nation before promising a budgetary system fit for a modern, sophisticated, open economy.

As is so often the case in Irish politics, the minister correctly diagnosed the problem but failed to implement a credible solution.

In the years that followed, McCreevy tried to be both Santa Claus and Judge Dredd until Bertie Ahern kicked him over to Brussels when his Judge Dredd impersonation got a bit too good.

McCreevy was a reformer and he certainly tinkered with the budgetary system over the years -- bringing the financial year in line with the calendar year and various other small reforms that helped update the system but in retrospect, he did nothing more than dip his toes in the water. He successors have done nothing at all.

It is common to call for reform of the entire system now that the system has collapsed. In truth, much of the reform won't make any difference. We can reform social welfare, defence, marine as much as we like and hardly anything will change for the vast majority of the people.

But reform of the Department of Finance and the way we budget will affect every citizen and is now an urgent task.

The International Monetary Fund and the others have already insisted on some meaningful reform; we have a budgetary council next summer which will advise the government on the economy. It is a good first step and it is clear the IMF intends to take many others but we need much more.

We could start with the optics. Brian Lenihan, or rather his wife Judge Patricia Ryan, has already done away with the cringe-inducing practice of parading wives and children ahead of Budget Day but do we really need Budget Day at all?

If you want to close a tax loophole, why wait until the first week in December? If you suddenly find you need to raise taxes, why wait until the first week in December? If you want to cut capital gains tax, why not do it now?

It really is time to take a blowtorch to all this rubbish. Let's stop using quaint terms such as exchequer deficit and use the European Commission metrics -- statistics the real world cares about. Let's stop pretending the financial markets move so slowly that we can wait until Christmas to introduce a raft of technical changes and then 'debate' them bunched together so that both the public and Dail deputies look at 5 cents on a pint and a packet of cigarettes and don't notice the introduction of yet another tax dodge for the government's developer friends. Let's pretend we don't need stupid oratorical flourishes promising us that the worst is over. Let's pretend, as Charlie McCreevy said, that we're grown-ups living in a world without Santa Claus and Judge Dredd.

Irish Independent

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