Fergus Finlay: Huge budget opportunity to offer meaningful response to real need

Fergus Finlay: Huge budget opportunity to offer meaningful response to real need

Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe (right) and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Michael McGrath.

 I once worked with a very wise man. I’d better not tell you his name because you’ll all be after him. He was one of those men who was generous with his time and had buckets of insight from years of challenging experience. The more you worked with him, the more you learned.

I went to him for advice once when I was grappling with a particularly knotty problem. The issue was that I knew what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know whether I could afford it. To use the modern term, I wasn’t sure if the solution was sustainable.

He heard me out and asked a few penetrating questions — I think to be sure I hadn’t missed some obvious angles. Then he used a phrase I’d never heard before, and never forgotten since.

“The worst thing you can do with a big problem,” he said, “is think you can ‘skinny’ the solution.” I knew exactly what he meant. I was going to have to apply the expensive solution to this problem, and then do whatever it took to make that answer work into the longer term.

Now, I don’t suppose the government wants any last-minute advice from me. If they were listening to me at all they would have introduced free school books years ago. I’ve been writing here for at least ten years about the cruel farce that our kids have a constitutional right to free education but pay more for it than children in any neighbouring jurisdiction. The introduction of free books at primary level is a breakthrough, and a good first step towards a universally free education system.

But, despite all the leaks about what’s already agreed, as of yesterday morning meetings and talks were still going on.

So maybe this morning there is still a gap. If I was in the room, trying to advise them about that gap, I know exactly what I’d be shouting at them. (Political advisers only ever raise their voices when their political masters are out of time and out of options.) Don’t skinny the solution, is what I’d be insisting on.

This government is in an utterly unique position. I’ve worked for governments in the past that faced terrible economic and other crises. 

Huge crisis and huge resources

I once watched a government waste enormous resources and actually create an existential crisis through their mismanagement of all that money.

But this government is facing a huge crisis with huge resources. No government I ever worked for, and I believe no government in the history of the state, has ever been in a position like this. For political and moral reasons, they mustn’t get it wrong.

Politically, if they are seen to have wasted the moment, they are finished. If they put too much money in the wrong places, and not enough where it’s most needed, they will be turfed out on their ears at the first available opportunity. If they decide to bow to all the voices of special pleading and try to give something to everybody, they’ll deserve no thanks. If they miss the real need, as Liz Truss has just done in the rich man’s budget in the UK, they’ll destroy any legacy they have.

This must be seen not just as a massive big budget — that’s already a given — but as a just, wise, and fair budget, that meets real needs in a meaningful way. They must be able to defend it confidently. 

They must believe in their heart of hearts that everything in it — every decision large or small, popular or unpopular, was taken for the right reasons.

One of the things the politicians will be battling with to get the budget over the line will be an age-old political culture where the system will fiercely resist any changes that have ongoing effects. The Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure will happily say yes to anything that is once-off but will fight as hard as they can against increases that have to be repeated.

They will have been arguing constantly that this is a short to medium-term crisis that can be addressed by as many one-off measures as the politicians like. But woe betide anyone who suggests a ‘forever’ structural change.

The system will want to skinny the solution because the system always does. That’s one of the reasons why there are all sorts of dire warnings about how corporate tax could disappear overnight, and today’s budget surpluses could become tomorrow’s deficits.

Which is why the introduction of free schoolbooks — because it will cost modest amounts of money every year —  is a welcome sign of departure. This is a time to take risks. Right here, right now, it is certain that there will be families, in this rich country of ours, that will go cold or hungry, or both, this winter. There will be mothers making awful choices to keep their kids well-nourished and warm. To allow that would be utterly unconscionable.

It’s the government’s job, and the Budget’s job, to make certain that throughout the immediate term there will be heat and there will be nourishment and shelter for everyone who needs it.

Child poverty

But beyond that, we do have the resources now to make deep inroads into child poverty. We can ensure that critical public services — especially in health and education — are much better than they have ever been and are also completely accessible. We can systematically improve access to good quality childcare, with all the economic and social advantages that brings in its wake. We can give older people, especially any that are frail, alone, or frightened, an absolute guarantee that we have their back.

 And surely, at last, we can break through the morass that has bedevilled our housing crisis for a decade. One of the greatest mysteries of the age is surely the failure to even begin, in any meaningful way, the process of building the houses Ireland needs. Speak to any Minister about this and they’ll tell you that money isn’t the problem. Now, when there’s both money and it seems determination, is surely the time to kick start the solution to our biggest social issue.

Once before a government squandered resources on people who were better off, while all sorts of inequalities grew in Ireland. I won’t blame this government if they take risks to protect the people who need protection. Even if it goes wrong, even if the budget surplus disappears next year, I won’t blame them if they go big where they need to go big. The only waste – the only crime, in fact, in my head, would be to do what the Tories have done – to cut taxes for those who don’t need tax cuts.

That wise man I mentioned earlier. He had another little thing he used to mutter a lot. He’d work something out in detail, and then he’d say it to himself. I thought it was a Japanese phrase and I asked him once to write it down. It went something like kmaidh wistu.

It turned out to be an acronym. It’s short for ‘knowing me as I do, how will I screw this up?’ Knowing politics as I do, they couldn’t possibly. Could they?

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