Most of the praise for the Taoiseach’s well-delivered speech to the nation last night has focused on his reassuring tone and calm embodiment of national determination. Those things, are, of course, entirely subjective. For myself, I thought it was very good – his finest hour in fact, not that there’s much competition for that particular hour. On the other hand, if you’re somebody who thought little of the Taoiseach beforehand, like, say, Sinn Fein TD Paul Donnelly, then you probably thought is was a load of substance-free guff:
With all due respect, that told us absolutely nothing new. General consensus here is that it was a waste of a serious national broadcast. I’m not sure we’ll all be glued to the TV if he does have something new to say. Nothing a calm, news item couldn’t have told us! #dubw.
— Paul Donnelly TD (@PaulDonnellySF) March 17, 2020
The speech had plenty of critics, from left and right alike, but in general the initial reaction to it seems to have been good. Donnelly might have not liked the speech much, and that’s absolutely fair enough, but where he’s wrong is when he says the Taoiseach “told us absolutely nothing new”. The key bit, actually, came near the end:
“We went into this crisis with a strong economy and the public finances in good order.
We have the capacity and credit rating to borrow billions if we need to.
I am confident that our economy will bounce back, but the damage will be significant and lasting. The bill will be enormous and it may take years to pay it.”
It’s the perfect economic storm, really. We’re likely to see a massive short term expansion in Government spending – the UK, for example, announced a rescue package yesterday that amounts to 15% of total national income – and a short to medium term collapse in Government revenues as businesses shut their doors and stop sending in VAT receipts and income taxes.
The country was supposed to be running a budget surplus this year – for the first time since 2007. We’ve been borrowing constantly (albeit in smaller and smaller amounts) for thirteen consecutive years. The national debt, at present, is 229 billion euros. Although that sounds high, it had fallen in relative terms from 113% of GDP in 2013 to 63.6% of GDP today. That’s what Varadkar means when he says the “public finances are in good order”. But is that true?
One of the things about Government borrowing is that while it’s not directly analogous to borrowing on your own home, some principles are the same. Say you had mortgage debt of 229,000 euros, but your home was worth 350,000 and an annual income of 80,000. That’s roughly where Ireland is at the moment, if every euro counts for a billion euros instead. 350 is the total value in the economy, 80 is the amount the state raises in tax every year, and 229 is what we owe.
In that situation, the debt looks very manageable.
But imagine an economic crash. The first thing that happens is that the value of your house collapses. Then your wages get cut. And if you are the Government, you also have to borrow more to pay for things you can’t cut back on – in this case, health.
So suddenly, imagine that your income is 50,000, your debt is 300,000 and rising, and your house is only worth 250,000.
This is roughly what happened to Ireland in 2008. And it has taken over a decade to recover.
All of which is to say: Being in Government whenever this thing is finally over will not be a lot of fun for either the politicians, or those of us being governed, possibly for many years to come.
So where does that leave Varadkar? He’s in the in many ways absurd position of leading a country through a crisis even though the country, mere weeks ago, voted him out of office. The cabinet has several ministers – Regina Doherty, Shane Ross, Finian McGrath – with no democratic mandate. That’s not the same thing as saying that they’re doing something wrong – the constitution is very clear that ministers remain in office until a new Government is elected – but there is a potential long term legitimacy problem when the country is having billions in debt loaded onto its balance sheet by people who were voted out of office months previously, crisis or no crisis.
And it raises a further political question, for everybody else: What mandate does any Government have, after this crisis? Every single party in the Dáil was elected based on promises predicated on an entirely different economic reality, and very few of those promises now look either relevant, or feasible. It would be one thing if this crisis had come in the middle of an existing Dáil, which had managed to implement some of a programme for Government, but the crisis is coming before a Government even takes office.
All of which is to say: Shouldn’t there now be a new election, once this crisis eventually passes? We are transforming the economic landscape of the country, under the hand of a Government that’s already been voted out. They’re not at fault for doing what they’re doing, but what they are doing will leave lasting scars on the country.
How we move forward, and recover from it, needs a proper public debate and a government with a strong mandate. We don’t have that at present. Just a pretty good speech from the caretaker Taoiseach.