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This is not a time for timidity

Finance Minister Michael Noonan has the support and sympathy of the nation as he struggles, on the one side, to shape the December 6 Budget with its €3.8bn in tax increases and public spending cuts; on the other, to keep abreast of European and global efforts to prevent the economic crisis from turning into a catastrophe.

He deserves that support and sympathy. Less clear is whether he deserves forgiveness for his miscalculation of the effects of increasing VAT by 2pc to 23pc.

Everybody accepts that the total in tax rises and spending cuts has to come to €3.8bn.

But many have serious doubts about the proposed methods of achieving that figure.

Increasing VAT is particularly questionable because of the likelihood that it will do further harm to consumer confidence.

Now Mr Noonan has been forced to admit that he was wrong to calculate that a 2pc increase would raise extra revenue of €670m next year.

He had failed to take into account the likely fall in spending here and the probability that more people would cross the border to shop.

His example should be followed.

We need more admissions and retractions from the ministers and others who, in these last days and weeks, have played a silly game evidently designed to soften up the citizens or frighten them out of their wits, or both.

Softening up is a silly game honoured by time, but not in any other way.

It assumes, for example, that someone who expects a "hit" of, say, €1,200 will be placated by an actual figure of €1,000.

It also assumes that people will be impressed by the spectacle of ministers posturing in defence of their own departments.

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A better way to make an impression would be to rid ourselves of the entire Budget flummery, discarded by countries like Germany whose parliaments can discuss national finances in depth at any time of year.

So, far from taking a good example, the Fine Gael-Labour coalition has turned "Budget Day" into a two-day wonder this year, with Brendan Howlin, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, taking the stage on December 5, one day before Mr Noonan.

The Government was right to create Mr Howlin's department. Its role in the present crisis can do more good -- potentially -- than any specific Budget measures.

But that will come about only if the minister shows himself to be courageous, radical and imaginative.

This is no time for timidity.


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