You might not know this…
Brian Lenihan’s most difficult moments after delivering the Budget didn’t come anywhere in the vicinity of Leinster House. The set-speech format is so engrained there that no amount of huffing or puffing from the far side of the House is going to hurt him.
No they came in Donnybrook this morning when he did the annual stint on the Pat Kenny show. And with all due respect to Pat Kenny, the perils of doing that interview come not from Kenny’s inquisitory skills but from the unpredictable obstacle course that is dealing with questions from the public.You don’t know what questions they are going to lob at you. You can’t control their level of anger or frustration. And if they start crying or telling tearjerker stories, you might as well just put your hands up and admit defeat.
He was shakey enough at the start and seemed to be rowing back on the scope of the car parking levy with every breath. There was a commuter from Kells giving out about the €200 per year charge. Now Kells is a long way to be commuting into Dublin every day. Sure, house prices in Dublin went crazy for years and people had to move out. But there’s also an element of personal culpability there. People wanted thousands of square feet of living accommodation and big gardens to boot. And if they wanted that, they had to endure the commensurate pain of a long (and increasingly expensive) commute. And those of us who live close to the city got proximity but have got small living spaces, much much smaller than the hoses in which we grew up. That’s the compromise you make.
It’s going to be fiendishly difficult working out the details of this scheme. But Lenihan seemed to be narrowing the geographical area to the core city centre of Dublin and the other big cities. That’s not enough. And he stumbled on a question about 13 people sharing three car parking spaces. The obvious solution to that was to charge for the space itself.
He was on a loser with the very persistent pensioner complaining about the loss of the medica card for over 70s (the €400 payment in lieu just sounded paltry). She just kept on coming back with new hardships that she and her husband will now endure. With a couple facing huge medical expenses, the loss of the card is a huge worry. He realised soon that he was on a loser there and stopped digging. You don’t need to be a genius to know that this one item will be by far the most unpopular of the Budget and will have purchase in the media and on Joe Duffy for days and weeks. It dominated the Fianna Fail parliamentary party meeting with some backbenchers demanding its withdrawal. But the Government and Lenihan will have zero credibility if they agree to back down on this.
Elsewhere, Lenihan did well. He has grown in authority a lot in the last six week, though he still trips up on some specifics that Cowen or Bertie never did. Pat Kenny made a very good point (the Lenihan sidestepped) that the Finance Minister’s entire approach is as if he’s just landed from Mars and has had to deal with a mess created by some other creatures, completely alien to him.
Some other points:
1. The language was very slippy in some sections. Lenihan huffed about reforming the public service and about his determination to introduce an early retirement/voluntary redundancy scheme for surplus management. There was a reference to a focused review of the numbers employed in the public sector. The decision, he went on to say, would be implemented in November. On my first reading yesterday, I was very much under the impression that he would start the scheme in November. Fair play, I said. He’s grasping the nettle. But the decision being ‘implemented’ in November is only a focused review: in other words, another boot to touch.
2. I don’t want to sound like a Jeremiah but I suspect that the unemployment figures in 2009 will be higher than the 7.3 per cent predicted.
3. The €1,000 tax incentive for cyclists is welcome but will be hard to implement. How will they stop people getting a break for a bicycle and then driving into work? I am a very committed cyclist. I even cycled in yesterday when the rain was angrier and fiercer than Kerry’s Paul Galvin in the moments after getting a red card. It said tax break and in the next sentence it talked about a salary deduction to fund said bicycles. It’s a grand over five years but it will still get you a nice bike
4. Parking. I’m sorry. I agree with this measure 100% especially for the city centres of our big cities. If you look at the traffic coming into Dublin, a huge proportion of cars have a driver and zero passenger. There should be tough new rules to encourage car pooling and to discourage single commuters. We all complain about traffic but nobody – the authorities, drivers, politicians – have any incentive (stick or carrot) to effect a modal shift.
5. Carbon Budget? The Green initatives announced yesterday just didn’t add up to a whole lot. John Gormley announces his Carbon Budget at 3.30pm today. I hope he’s keeping a very big surprise under wraps (congestion charge, car pooling, huge investment for bicycle lanes and buses) to get tranport emissions down. Otherwise, the 3 per cent average decrease in emissions over the lifetime of the Government is meaningless.