This was a milk and water budget. There was a little something for everybody but not enough to make much of a difference to anybody, writes Irish Examiner columnist, Michael Clifford.
It was a no-drama budget, one which had been combed assiduously for landmines ahead of its delivery. But while it was free of incendiary devices, so too was it devoid of the kind of imagination which the ghosts of finance ministers past delivered with a glint in their eye. It was a Paschal Donohoe budget — on-message, handled with care, and shot through with the odd folksy flourish, most notably his repeated references to what he was doing for all of us in “our country”.
There was the waft of the milk and water to come around Leinster House from early morning. The tone for these setpiece days is set in the hours before the event kicks off. The place was dead right up until midday and even beyond. Normally of a Tuesday, the men and women of Leinster House drift in over lunchtime in order to be in situ for the 2.30pm kick-off. But with the threat of eight hours of debate hanging over the country, it was decided that Paschal would get to his feet at 1pm. Perhaps some forgot to set the alarm clock.
But what really signalled that this would not be a rock ’n‘ roll budget was the sight at the gates of Leinster House. Through good times and bad this day of political days has attracted lobbyists, protestors, campaigners, and the odd headbanger to Kildare St. On one occasion in the depths of the recent recession, Garda leave was cancelled in order to keep the minister of the day safe from the throngs that descended on Kildare St.
Yesterday, there wasn’t a dickie bird to be seen at the gates. Nothing. Nada. Not a soul. All, it would appear, is well in the world, or else those who would berate Donohoe now believe the concept of protest is redundant.
There was one exception that doesn’t really count. Fifteen cyclists from the campaign group I Bike Dublin made their gentle presence known at the gates. They were all smiles and earnestness. “We want to make cycling a realistic option for all ages,” says Stephen McManus of the group. “The UN recommends that 10% of transport budgets be put towards cycling but in this country it’s around 1%.” They’re good people, these cyclists, the kind you’d like to meet up with for a picnic, but if they had been in situ through the austerity budgets they’d have got ripped to shreds by the angry hordes primed for revolution.
Inside the citadel, a new breed of finance minister stepped forward to put his stamp on history. Donohoe and his boss, Leo Varadkar, project the appearance of a changing of the generational guard. Both are the kind of individuals you could bring to a rock show and leave unattended. That could not have been said about many of their predecessors, give or take some embarrassing fist-pumping at a Springsteen concert from Enda Kenny.
But the hipsters ain’t got no swing if this budget is anything to go by. Donohoe, presumably with the imprimatur of Varadkar, rooted around to feed the expanding fiscal space and came up with €1bn-plus to spread around for votes in the next election.
Much of this is to be funded by a 4% increase in stamp duty for commercial buildings. This of itself is no bad thing, but surely it would have been money better spent if it had been put directly towards tackling the housing and homeless emergency.
There’s a few euro a week for the average industrial earner. Social welfare payments get a €5 hike. Cuts to income tax and the once-upon-a-time “hated” USC of up to €9 for a family. And on it goes. All of this at a time when the economy could do with a little cooling of the jets. This is straight out of the playbook of the boom-and-bust cycle, which successive ministers pledged to be leaving behind. Like those who went before him, Donohoe appears to be offering prayers to St Augustine to make them sensible, but just not yet.
He did betray a little fetish for acronyms with news of the Home Building Finance Ireland fund for housing “or HBFI (pronounced hipfi) for short”, as he said. And there was the Keep Employees Engagement Programme, which he helpfully told us was “Keep for short”. And there was also a tiny drop of colour to his measures, with the introduction of a sugar tax and a hike of 10% on the Vat for sunbeds.
In conclusion, he had to give a nod to the expensive communication unit established by the Taoiseach in order to get out the message that it’s all about opportunities.
“This Government of Fine Gael, the Independent Alliance, and Independent deputies seeks to renew opportunity in our Republic and create new opportunities for our Republic.”
And so it went. Milk and water, expansionary enough to put the hand out at the next election, keeping the home fires burning with a little something in tax cuts for the party faithful.
There was no big idea, no conceptualisation of vision to match the rhetoric. In terms of housing, the biggest challenge in the country today, there was little more than a few warmed up old ideas and schemes with a little extra money to take the worn look off things.
Most worrying was the declaration that this was designed to end the cycle of boom and bust, when all the evidence suggests it will continue it. Maybe they don’t get it. Maybe they do, but simply don’t have the imagination to do things any other way.