THE poor may be out of political fashion, but they are not without human needs,” said Ted Kennedy in 1980 during a powerful argument in favour of more social spending and against Ronald Reagan’s proposed tax cuts that were to define the United States economic policy throughout that decade.
We can only wonder how the late senator would have reacted to an Irish budget whose main plot was to sacrifice tax increases for a large range of cuts in social spending affecting the poorest and most in need.
In his speech to the Dáil, Finance Minister Brian Lenihan said the Kennedy family “gave a powerful sense of hope, possibility and self-belief to Irish people all over the world”. But how would this great family react to seeing Irish mothers on the news last night saying they “hope the children do not get sick in the new year” because they face a €16 cut per month in child benefit and €1,000 a year cut in the early childcare allowance from January 1?
And how would Ted Kennedy feel about workers on €30,000 taking a 5% pay cut – more or less the same as the 5.5% taken by ministers earning €191,000?
Not only did Mr Lenihan’s budget put the poor out of political fashion by cutting dole payments by €8 a week and imposing a 5% pay cut on public servants on the lowest level of pay, his budget was also anti-family and anti-woman in its emphasis on cuts to children’s allowance, maternity benefit and payments to carers and single parents.
Furthermore, Mr Lenihan’s attempt to show “high earners must pay their fair share” will be undermined by the opposition’s claim that Cabinet pay cuts were “a scam”.
“We have turned a corner,” he said. “If we work together now and share the burden, we can deliver sustainable economic growth for all.” But any trust the public might have placed in him to deliver on this will be lost when they see politicians’ own pay cut figures were massaged.
Budget 2010 became the most leaked in history, but no amount of leaking and political-proofing could have prepared the country for the cold reality of the cuts which will hit family pockets hard in the run up to Christmas.
Plans to introduce a single pension scheme for all new entrants to the public service are unlikely to lure the unions back into a new arrangement with the Government. Attempts to introduce similar reforms in France have led to more than a year of regular strike action.
As at least 315,000 workers see their pay reduced by a minimum of €1,500 in the new year, the Government will also begin to pay a price with its popularity.
Backbench TDs expressed disappointment over the cuts to the lower level of the pay scale, and some said the first €15,000-€20,000 of salaries should have been protected.
To much laughter, Mr Lenihan proclaimed: “The worst is over”. However, like his call to patriotic duty in last year’s budget, these words might come back to haunt him. For this government, the worst might be just beginning.
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