MARY REGAN: Labour has to grin and bear this Mary and John coalition

THE honeymoon might long be over, but the Mary and John phase of the coalition’s relationship has begun.

Like the fighting couple in Father Ted, they bicker and argue and despise what the other stands for. But they know they are stuck in this marriage, and when the priest enters their shop front they hold hands, smile politely and hide the knives behind their backs.

After submissively accepting the measures outlined in yesterday’s budget, the Labour party is putting on a brave face in front of the uncomfortable reality of being imprisoned in a partnership to which there is no alternative.

While the party’s backbenchers last night conceded that there were many aspects of the budget they didn’t like, they said it was an improvement on last year and clung to the hope that the end to austerity might soon be in sight.

But underneath their acceptance lies the reality that Labour has been walked all over in the preparation of Budget 2013, which contained little to satisfy its policy objectives.

This morning, its supporters have every right to ask what was the point of having the party in government when lower earners have to pay proportionately more PRSI than those on high incomes; when poorer young people are getting decreased assistance to go to college, for which they will have to pay higher fees; and when the children’s allowance — once a ‘red line issue’ — will be cut by €10 a month.

And most of all, those who supported the party through its years of advocating for the advancements of women outside the home will ask why they have agreed to allow maternity benefit to be treated as taxable income?

In fact, they might be tempted to remind the Social Protection Minister, Joan Burton, of her comments in Dec 2009 when she slammed Brian Lenihan’s “Top Gear, lads’ budget” because of how it impacted on women.

The answer to all of the questions that Labour backbenchers will give their supporters is that they don’t like these measures either.

Last night, they complained about changes to the PRSI that will bring lower earners into the net. They expressed disappointment that the Universal Social Charge was not increased for high earners.

But the junior coalition partner knows it is better to be in the dog house than out on the street. It is resigned to the reality that if it pulled out of government and caused an election it would — as the less popular and less powerful party in coalition — face a massive loss of seats.

And there was an acceptance last night that if they stick through the hard times, they might just reap the rewards if there is a turnaround in the economy.

One of the problems, however, is that it has not articulated this to its support base or made any effort to demonstrate that if they stick through this, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Although Labour supporters need this reassurance more, it was the bigger party — Fine Gael — who made the best effort in delivering this vital message to a very worried population.

In his budget speech and subsequent media comments, Finance Minister, Michael Noonan, created a hopeful economic narrative adopted from the “hard road to a better future” mantra used by his British counterpart, George Osborne.

Mr Noonan concluded his speech by saying “we are well on the road to recovery, so let’s look to the future with confidence.”

He later told the Six One News on RTÉ that: “We can see the winning post now.”

This sort of leadership and sense that there is an ultimate point to all this austerity is something that is long overdue and something that Labour has failed to convey to its base.

Instead, Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin appeared to announce all the bad news in his share of the expenditure side of the budget speech.

He used jargon such as “a manner consistent with fairness” and overused cliches like “those who contribute more, should and will do so.”

Supporters of either party are unlikely to take too much comfort in his forced impression of fairness.

It was a hallow gesture to cut the expenses of TDs by 10% when the average claim is in excess of €36,000 for a Fine Gael TD and €32,000 for a Labour TD and when all members earn above €90,000.

A 50% cut in the allocation of Oireachtas envelopes was nothing more than an insult to carers who will lose a fifth of their respite care grant, and Mr Howlin would have been better off leaving it out of his speech altogether.

Mr Howlin also spoke of his “fear” when he took office last year.

“I could not be certain that we would, as a nation, make it through this crisis.”

He no longer holds this fear, he reassured the House.

But Labour backbenchers do. When they walk through the chamber, they are banking on an economic turnaround to save their skins before the next general election. And if there is no sign by the end of 2013 that this will happen, then the knives might be out in the open.


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