I HAD a dreadful thought during the budget. It occurred to me that I had worked on or around every budget, in one capacity or another, since 1983.
I know what you’re thinking — it can’t have been easy to contribute to budget policy from a pram.
Joking apart, it seems to me that our political culture hasn’t changed one whit since then.
It was my job back then (those were the days before leaks) to hand out the budget, literally page by page, to the political correspondents as it was read in the chamber (by Alan Dukes, the finance minister at the time).
At one stage I found a group of correspondents hunched around a calculator. What had they discovered, I wondered.
Some error in the macro- economic calculations? Some prognosis about how the economy might be affected, in the overall sense, by the day’s announcements?
Not a bit of it. They were trying to work out how the tax changes in the budget would affect them personally. And as one of them said to me, “that will determine how the media react”.
It’s still exactly the same. Budgets have an impact that’s wider than the individual.
In their own way they can change the trajectory of the economy — they can add or subtract economic growth, they can change the rate of inflation, they can affect public policy for generations to come.
Just two examples will suffice: Charlie Haughey introduced free travel for pensioners in a budget, and that has lasted down the years. Ray MacSharry eliminated 3,000 hospital beds in a budget, and the effects are still being felt today.
Whether the budget is seismic or modest, whether it’s positive or negative, we still have to spend the entire day listening to how it will affect our pockets.
Nothing else seems to matter. Throughout the day, on all the radio stations, senior partners in one accountancy firm after the other parsed and analysed first the leaks and then the budget itself to try to tell us who were the tax winners and losers.
But the budget matters in other ways, too, which get precious little attention. It shapes society, for good or ill. Since austerity began, that shaping has been almost entirely negative.
Yesterday, there were more than a few slivers of hope that we might be at the start of building something better for the wider community.
Two weeks’ paternity leave ought to be the launching pad for a decent European-style model of parental leave.
Free preschool from the time a child reaches three until they are ready for “big school” could be the start of something really progressive.
The extension of GP care throughout the younger population heralds the possibility of free universal access to a GP.
Additional resources for child protection suggests that, at last, the subject may be going to be taken seriously. More teachers and hopefully smaller classes are an important investment in the future.
Additional services for children with disabilities are long overdue.
Pension and minimum wages increases are a progressive way of sharing the benefits of growth. And yes, there are tax benefits in this for lower-paid workers.
Inevitably I wanted them to do more. If I were Taoiseach I’d have ordered less on tax cuts and more investment in services — particularly in education and housing. And of course the devil is in the detail of implementation of some of the new things announced.
But this was a budget that has begun to make progress in the right direction. Yesterday morning I wrote in this newspaper that if economic trends continue, the next government will inherit a broadly balanced budget, with a real opportunity to begin to fix the things that need fixing.
From that perspective, the fact that, after all the giveaways, the budget deficit is so low and the ratio of debt to national wealth has come down is a really strong base to build a better future.
There’s even, God help us all, the possibility that the budget might be popular. I’m getting a bit tired of listening to the same old commentary about the Government setting out to use the budget to try to win the election.
For some reason it has become a crime in Ireland for a government to want to win re-election — even when it can point to two salient facts. First, it has turned an economy on its knees into the fastest-growing economy in Europe.
Second, it has shown how the fruits of that growth can begin to be ploughed back into better services, a better society, and, yes, into people’s pockets too. And it has done that without breaking the bank.
Sure, there’s a lot more to be done. But yesterday was a pretty decent start. After five years of anger and despair, I’m feeling a lot more hopeful. That can’t be a bad thing, can it?
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