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Stephen Donnelly: Cloak and dagger farce of a Budget breeds fear

In 10 days, Ministers Noonan and Howlin will walk into the Dail chamber and unveil Budget 2013. Detailing €1.25bn of taxes and €2.25bn of cuts, the chosen victims of this €3.5bn 'fiscal consolidation' will be revealed.

The planning, analysis and decision-making has been done in secret. If reports are accurate, just four of our 226 elected representatives know what's coming – Enda Kenny, Eamon Gilmore, Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin. We are told that other cabinet members are being kept in the dark, for fear of leaks. Such is its paranoia, the Government is keeping secrets from itself.

So on December 5, a Budget will be announced that has not been debated, tested or challenged by parliamentarians, experts, civil society or the people it will hammer. This is not how budgets are prepared in other countries. Why? Because it results in some really bad decisions, and in widespread fear.

On Wednesday last, thousands of men, women and children marched on Dail Eireann to protest cuts to the disability sector. People with physical and intellectual disabilities, families and friends, carers and support workers, walked from the Central Bank to Kildare Street, demanding that the cuts to their budgets imposed since 2008, amounting to 25 per cent in real terms, are not repeated.

The ill-considered, ugly and devastating nature of these cuts is not the subject of this article. But the fear, the helplessness and the cold anger of those who marched most certainly is. Because this was due in large part to Ireland's budgetary process – a pathetic, ignorant, secretive farce that causes untold, unnecessary suffering and fear. Why were those who marched afraid? Because they didn't know what was coming on Budget Day. Because there were no proposals for them to engage with. Because they had no way to prepare. They knew they were already on their knees, and that if the Government announced on Budget Day that it was hitting them again, it would be too late to do anything about it. They were shouting into a vacuum.

It shouldn't be like this. In other countries, governments release draft budgets months before they are implemented. These drafts come with numbers – cost-benefit ratios, the number of people who will be affected by a given initiative, how many might be pushed into poverty, how women would be affected versus men, young versus old, rich versus poor. This gives their parliaments, civil society groups, the media and every citizen the time and information needed to absorb the proposals, to agree or disagree, to suggest alternatives which might save as much money, but cause far less harm.

Not in Ireland. Here's how it played out last year: Minister Howlin made his proclamation on Tuesday, December 6. As he spoke, freshly printed Budget books were passed out to TDs. It was our first glimpse of what had been decided. The books did not contain proposals for discussion. They were professionally designed and printed publications that said 'You are not being consulted, you are being told.' When he'd finished, the Opposition responded. I was third to speak, and by the time I got to my feet, Howlin had already left. The following day it was Minister Noonan's turn – same farce. Many of the measures were voted on that night, and virtually everything announced was implemented. No debate, no time for anyone to engage the Government, to point out the mistakes, to fine-tune.

The result was a Budget which was both ideologically flawed and technically incompetent. Demonstrating a bizarre moral compass and an astonishing misunderstanding of basic economics, the Budget targeted some of the most vulnerable people in Ireland while leaving the wealthiest alone. It destroyed jobs. It included gems like tax breaks and private school subsidies for high-earning foreigners and their children. Analysis by the ESRI showed the Budget was regressive – the less you had, the more you were forced to contribute.

This year, the approach is no better. Eager to avoid leaks, the Economic Management Committee of Kenny, Gilmore, Howlin and Noonan is keeping things to itself. Four smart, seasoned politicians. But all men, with an average age of 61, 116 years in Dail Eireann between them, and before that, three teachers and one trade unionist. And all protected utterly from any budgetary decisions by large salaries and guaranteed pensions. Not exactly the most representative mix to decide the fate of the nation. Which is why, as well as needing a draft budget for discussion, you also need the numbers – to ensure that particular groups are not hit too hard. But that's not to be. Earlier this week, Mary Lou McDonald and I used Dail time to press Minister Howlin on what analysis was being done on Budget 2013. Was it to be equality-proofed? Was there to be a poverty impact assessment? Gender assessment? Anything? Just to be clear – we weren't asking for the analysis, we just wanted to know if it was being done. He refused to say.

International comparisons of Ireland's budgetary process are not favourable. A 2006 study, snappily entitled The Index Of Legislative Budgetary Capacity, was damning. On the amount of time given to parliament to consider a draft budget, we scored zero out of 10. On the amount of information given to parliament to allow it interrogate the proposals, we also scored zero out of 10. Zero.

There wasn't much complaint about this when the country was awash with money. Fianna Fail presided over lucky-dip budgets with a surprise for everyone in the audience. On budget day they would grin into the cameras, and FG and Labour would be in the background, shouting that they would have had less taxes, spent even more. These budgets, prepared in secrecy, laid the groundwork for the collapse – the property Ponzi scheme was super-charged, a stable tax base was replaced with stamp duty, expenditure soared.

To be fair, some things are improving. Expenditure data is becoming available, and multi-year forecasts are beginning to appear. Oireachtas committees are starting to see spending proposals before the money is actually spent. The process is still pretty useless, but it is new and should, hopefully, improve.

But the culture of control and secrecy is as strong as ever. On Thursday, at a committee meeting with Brendan Howlin on reform, I proposed something radical – that TDs be allowed suggest changes to legislation (like the Budget) which might cost money. Simple, right? Wrong. The Constitution states that only ministers can propose amendments to legislation which incur a charge on the State.

So in the middle of this crisis, a crisis which requires investment and economic growth to recover from, no TD or senator can table any amendment to the Finance Bill, or any other bill, which costs money. Imagine a multinational corporation saying to its management team, 'We're in huge financial difficulty and the only way we're going to recover is through growth, so we need ideas, but nobody's allowed suggest anything that has to be paid for'. Bonkers.

So I put it to Minister Howlin that the Government might look at a referendum to try to take this ridiculous rule out of the Constitution. He declined, on the grounds that if TDs could propose things that cost money, the Government would be snowed under with dumb, politically motivated non-ideas that wasted everyone's time.

If TDs are not to be trusted to make suggestions, why have them? Taking into account wages, staff, offices, travel and other expenses, each TD costs the people of Ireland an average of €290,000 a year. The least expensive are Independent TDs, at €243,000, with Fianna Fail TDs being the most expensive, at €374,000 each. That's a hell of a lot of money to pay out to people to tell them to sit in the corner and shut up.

Why should the people trust their politicians when the politicians have such contempt for each other? There is absolutely no reason why draft budgets cannot be produced for consideration months before they are implemented There is no reason why we shouldn't even be told what analysis is being done, and why we shouldn't see it once it's completed.

Political self-interest will always be found in budgets. But a rigorous, transparent process, with meaningful parliamentary oversight, would go a long way to guarding against the worst excesses of ignorance, special interests, extremism and plain old stupidity. It's time we grew up.

Sunday Independent