Time has come to share the pain
AT least the bad news is getting no worse. Exchequer Returns for November were slightly better than expected, allowing the Minister for Finance to declare that the fall in tax revenue had stabilised and that the shortfall would be less than he had anticipated.
It means that, on Budget day, the minister will have a modicum of unexpected flexibility, to the tune of about €200m.
This could mean that some deserving social welfare recipients will get off a little more lightly, or that the tax axe might fall less heavily.
However, the Government's retreat from its stated intention to save €1.3bn on public service costs by means of straightforward pay cuts would suggest otherwise.
The Government appears to have embraced the unions' irrational and unworkable 'unpaid leave' proposal as an alternative to pay cuts. Consequently, the Taoiseach's continued insistence that savings of €1.3bn will be made on pay and pensions next year sound unconvincing.
The question is not whether unpaid leave should be part of the process, the question is, should it be considered at all, with all its negative and damaging possibilities.
Union leaders claim that the plan, under which workers would take an extra day off once a month, would save €800m.
Even accepting the €800m prognosis, a let-out clause under which essential workers could be exempted could reduce savings to €300m. Thus, savings of €1.3bn shrink to €300m.
Unpaid leave is a familiar concept to people in a ravaged private sector. Compulsory leave is often introduced when demand for a product or service decreases and jobs come under threat.
There is no equivalent fall in demand for public services. Quite the contrary.
The suggestion that more holidays for public service workers, without any reciprocal commitment to increased productivity, could somehow form part of a solution to the financial crisis is bizarre.
The public and civil services already have generous leave entitlements and, in 2007, average absence due to sick leave was just over 11 days.
If the unions were proposing 12 extra days unpaid work, rather than leave, it might make sense.
In the meantime, even if the bad news gets no worse before then, next Wednesday will see a truly painful Budget.
Then we will see whether the pain is being properly distributed.