Previously published in The Irish Independent:
Congratulations. You’ve just been whizzed back to Leinster House accompanied by speeding Garda outriders. You were just in Arás an Uachtaran where the wealthiest communist sympathiser in the country gave you your seal of office as the new minister for finance. Within hours you’ll be sitting at your desk in the Department of Finance, looking at a list.
Go on, try it.
Put the following groups in order of who is most deserving of more resources (what we used to call taxpayer cash), with you saying that the ones near the top are more deserving, and the ones further down less deserving.
Other HSE staff.
The rest of the public service.
Mental health services.
Cancer support services.
Care home services.
Reform of Direct Provision.
Defence Forces pay.
Irish language funding.
EU budget contribution (CAP).
Rainy day fund.
United Ireland fund.
Regional and rural development support.
Old Age pensions.
Servicing the national debt.
Public service pensions.
It’s some list, and I’m sure I’ve missed lots of worthy causes and sectors.
But imagine being the minister looking at that list with a finite amount of money and every single vested interest behind each one of those areas not just demanding existing funds but looking for more.
Not just demanding more but not giving the slightest toss about all the other competing groups. Their message is that they want less than the total budget as a whole and you don’t want to give it to them because you are one of history’s most uncaring monsters. And the next one will say the exact same. And the next one.
That’s not even counting the people (often from the exact same groups demanding more cash) demanding that income tax, VAT, property tax or commercial rates be reduced, each one reducing your revenue and ability to meet the above demands.
What would you do? The sensible thing to do is to prioritise on some, but even that is full of dangers. Favour business in the hope of generating more tax revenue from economic growth and you’ll be told you’re favouring the rich. Favour welfare and you will never ever hear its lobby group say “Actually, that’s enough, thanks very much.”
Every one you favour will result in howls of anguish from every other group that they The Vulnerable are being neglected and you just don’t care. A good section of the country will say you’re hurting them deliberately.
You’ll probably end up doing what every Irish finance minister does: try and spread the money as thinly as possible in a nearly always failed attempt to pacify as many as possible and instead unite a huge chunk of the country against you. Each group pretends that it is operating in a vacuum. No problem ever gets enough resources to close the file, if that is even possible.
What you almost certainly won’t do is start an honest debate about the nature of public spending in Ireland. That we now live in a society where a majority of the population expect far more from their government than it can actually hope to deliver, and resent having to pay taxes for what they are currently getting.
That our political culture is permeated by politicians who make vague promises that cannot even be measured, never mind delivered, and voters who essentially ask to be lied to.
Even Irish governments that do quite well, which is most of them by international standards, become rapidly loathed by their voters because they can’t meet the overhyped expectations that got them elected in the first place.
We’re currently reduced to the spectacle of Willie O’Dea and Mary Lou McDonald furiously competing to see who can ram more free money down the throats of voters with little regard for the long-time financing of our public finances. Compassion, wellness, solidarity and social justice are deemed valued assets in public finance debates, although not when actual public spending is being decided. Tell an NGO they’re getting a 10% increase in solidarity and they’ll tell you to shove it, hands grabbing for the greasy till just like the rest of us.
Politicians promising the moon on a stick is not surprising. It’s been going on since Willicus Odeaicus Publicus Spendicus promised more free bread and bloodier Circus Maximuses (“You’ve seen humans eaten by lions! Well, I promise lions trampled by elephants!”). The complete unwillingness of politicians to even attempt to educate the public as to the rod they’ve made for their own backs is surreal. They literally keep secret the huge and undeliverable pressure they put themselves under from the public for no good reason I can muster, instead letting nonsense about how the rich or business pay no taxes ferment and help their populist opponents promise yet more and bigger elephants.
Here’s a thought: if it’s impossible for Irish centrist politicians to educate their voters, is it time someone else do it? Is it time for ISME, IBEC and the SFA to take on the task of running a public campaign to confront voters not with a campaign to convince but the simple realities about public spending and taxation. Given our reluctance to cut the €5 billion a year that goes to NGOs and charities in Ireland to lobby government, would it be the worst thing in the world to set up an NGO to put simple economic facts in front of voters?
In fairness, there’s probably a grant available.