As is always the case, yesterday’s budget tossed money at lots of problems, but solved none.
There’s a well-worn pattern to Budget Day in Ireland, to the extent that the coverage of the event, and the roles various parties play, have become traditional. In the days and weeks ahead of the event, the media – particularly the television news – will interview various groups and individuals thought to represent what we might term deserving causes and ask them “what they are hoping to see”. We will get the full panoply: The mother of a child with a disability who needs more support; the homelessness group doing their best in Dublin with only €12m of existing taxpayer funding to support them who need more help; The struggling hotelier needing more cuts to VAT; the person on a hospital waiting list who wants more funding for the health service. The pre-budget coverage is always, and universally, tilted in the direction of more Government spending on just about everything. And unless your cause gets a few extra euro, then you can freely conclude on the airwaves that the Government are a heartless shower who care naught for suffering and pain.
On the day itself, there are a few certainties: The first is that no matter what Government does, it will not be enough for the opposition. This law is iron-clad and stays in place no matter who is in Government or in opposition: It will be as true when Sinn Fein are in Government and Fine Gael in opposition as it is today. The deserving causes of the day would always be given more if only the opposition had their way.
The second is that almost every special interest group in the country will converge on Buswells Hotel to “give their reaction”. We saw it again yesterday. It’s a feast of content for news organisations, including this one. The reactions, though, are almost all the same: Everyone wants more attention, by which they mean money, directed at their sector.
The third certainty is that in the evening, we will get the boffins on the news with the budget calculators: What this all means for your family. You’ll be 50 a week better off if you are lucky, but the real scandal will emerge if it turns out that a family on 120k a year will be better off than a family on 40k a year. Nobody will point out that 50 a week won’t even buy you a tank of diesel, these days.
These traditions always add up to the same result: Irish Budgets are very rarely, if ever, about setting a long-term policy direction for the country, and almost always about making sure that in the short term, every deserving cause gets something to keep them quiet.
Yesterday’s budget was a good example of that. It was not so much an attempt to set the country on a particular economic course as it was “I have five billion euro more than I thought I would, and here is how I shall share it around amongst you”. Everyone got something: Carers got a hundred euro tax credit. Renters got €500 a year. Everyone got enough to show that Government cares about them, nobody got enough to actually solve any problem.
This is the path of least resistance. It is the path of least imagination. And, in the Government’s defence, it is also and easily the path of least political risk.
What it does, though, is solve no problem at all: Giving renters a few hundred euros in additional supports will not solve the housing crisis – if anything, it will just push rents up further by making more people able to afford existing rents. Help with electricity bills will be politically welcomed by those facing problems, but it does nothing to solve the underlying problem of energy shortages, or supply bottlenecks.
Wouldn’t it be interesting, if, instead, the Government devoted their budget to solving one big problem, and reaping the benefits of that? A Housing Budget where every spare penny was devoted to projects to bring more homes to the market. A Health Budget where the aim was to eliminate waiting lists. A public transport budget where the aim was to massively overhaul infrastructure.
This, you see, is why yours truly is a writer, and not a politician: Such a budget might be good for the country, but it would be unpopular.
And so, budget day leaves me cold. It’s a lot of excitement about, in the end, very little. The Government were not unfair to anybody yesterday. The opposition, as almost always on budget day, no matter who the opposition is, sound hysterical. Pensioners will no doubt be happy with their little, if ultimately meaningless, raise.
But the problems the country has are basically unchanged, and the Government’s plans to tackle those problems are basically unchanged, and indeed remain insufficient.
Almost every budget day in Ireland is a “missed opportunity”, because as a country, we don’t see the budget as an opportunity at all. We measure it instead by what we get from it into our own pockets. And while those figures might change from year to year, the underlying approach never does. We’re a small country, but that doesn’t mean we need to stick, as we always seem to do, to small ideas.