By Mick Clifford
In grown-up countries the content of the annual budget is discussed in parliamentary forums before delivery. In this country, where parliament is largely redundant, it’s all just leaked to the media in advance of the big day.
As a result there was precious little that was new in today’s set-piece speeches from Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin. The public had read all about it since last weekend. Cuts to the USC, hikes to child benefit, a little something for those at the bottom, a lot to smile about for the so-called "squeezed middle".
In fact, the whole package had the ring of something dreamed up by Charlie McCreevy back in the days of illusory plenty. This was a giveaway Budget, and most people will be grateful for that in the short term, providing there will be no further cost to be borne further down the road.
The only categories of citizens who will have been discommoded are smokers and renters. Few will have sympathy with the former, but a failure to address the ballooning crisis in rented accommodation will not have gone unnoticed.
Reportedly, it’s all down to a difference of opinion between the constituent parties in government. Relief, we are told, will be on the way for the rented sector, but the absence of any measures today was regrettable.
Apart from that, it was munificence all around. Workers, the self-employed, parents, children, pensioners, carers, investors, inheritors, the sick, educators, entrepreneurs, consumers all got good news. After eight long years, happy days are here again. Sort of.
Some measures are indisputably welcome. Restoring 75% of the Christmas bonus to social welfare recipients reflects a modicum of decency. Increasing the minimum wage by 50c does something to combat the issue of low-wage jobs. Restoring the full respite grant is the least that could be expected in any class of an expansionary budget.
But was it really necessary to expand the free GP care to under-12s at a time when child poverty is still far in excess of what it should be in a wealthy state? Could resources not be more targeted?
Similarly, the €5 hike in child benefit elicits the type of universal approval that harvests votes, but does nothing to ensure that those most in need are given priority.
As for the man himself, Mr Noonan was in his element. One thing this Government could never be accused of is humility. So it was that Mr Noonan began his speech with reference to 1916 and this being “an opportunity to reflect on the journey travelled over the last 100 years…to remember how we overcame the challenges and emerged from each stronger than ever before.”
In that vein, he went on: "The economic crisis of recent years will rank as one of the greatest of such challenges, but we have emerged from this challenge too and we are on a new path.”
Was the Minister drawing comparisons between what he and his colleagues have undertaken over the last four years and what predecessor Mick Collins got up to in the GPO with his comrades? Is there no end to the hubris of this lot?
To be fair to Mr Noonan, you couldn’t blame him for basking in the glow of this giveaway. Since coming to power, all he was largely in a position to dish out heretofore was pain. So how sweet it must have been for him in a year of election to splash the cash for everybody.
He echoed a statement he made in the Spring Statement last April when he said there would be no return to the “if I have it, I spend it” budgets, a not-so-veiled reference to the approach infamously taken by Charlie McCreevy.
Except this time he omitted the latter part of that sentence from last April: “or even the ‘if I don’t have it, I’ll spend it’ stance taken by the opposition over the past four years”.
For the reality is that Mr Noonan, or the country, doesn’t have it, yet he and Brendan Howlin announced major spending today. The country is still borrowing on an annual basis, at a time when the global economy is looking shaky. Yet in terms of both tax cuts and spending increases, the approach appears to be to throw as much money as possible at citizens in the hope that a return in votes will be achieved.
Howlin followed the theme set by his ministerial colleague with more largesse tempered with rhetoric about prudence.
“Through prudent and careful management of the State’s finances, this Government brought the country back from the brink,” he said. He went on to have a left handed swipe at Sinn Féin.
“Who speaks of Syriza now?”
Credit where it is due. The Government has managed the economic crisis well, although it is highly questionable as to the fairness of many decisions taken. But now, both parties seem to have recklessly abandoned prudence in the hunt for votes.
A prudent route would have been to concentrate principally on easing hardship for those who have been most impacted by cuts, but that would not suffice in a year of election.
In last year’s Budget speech Mr Noonan introduced a rare literary reference in the House by quoting – some might say mangling – Robert Frost’s The Road Less Travelled.
“Do we take the road frequently trodden by Irish governments in the past, a road whose signposts are tax and spend and where one’s journey is through boom and bust?," he asked.
“Or do we like Frost, take the road ‘less travelled by’? A road whose milestones are prudence and caution”.
What a difference a year makes. One thing that shines above all else in today’s speeches is that this Government has reverted to the road “frequently trodden by Irish governments in the past”.
This is a giveaway Budget. In substance and delivery, if not tone, it is a throwback to the halcyon days of that other great smoke and mirrors merchant , Charlie McCreevy. Roll up, roll up, showtime is here once again. Let’s hope the ultimate outcome isn’t also back to the future.