Secrecy over budget an insult to public
Budget transparency as promised by the Coalition would promote debate and be good for democracy, writes MARY MINIHAN
THE MOST disappointing thing about this Government has been its failure to open up the budgetary process to the “full glare” of public scrutiny, as promised.
The sound idea of encouraging a mature public debate that was supposed to replace the traditional “big bang” budget day announcement is being suppressed by senior Coalition Ministers. They now seem content to retain the old-school method of administering bitter medicine on a date in December and no sooner.
No-one is naive enough to believe that this or any administration would go about its business “as if it were working behind a pane of glass”, to use former taoiseach John Bruton’s phrase. The Coalition’s opening gambit gave initial hope that modest transparency was at least an ambition, however.
The programme for government document might be looking a little dog-eared these days, but it contained an unusual promise to let the light in: “We will open up the budget process to the full glare of public scrutiny in a way that restores confidence and stability by exposing and cutting failing programmes and pork barrel politics.”
Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin seemed a very enthusiastic advocate of this radical policy, if his comments to the Dáil Public Accounts Committee last December were anything to go by. “The notion of the big bang day for the budgetary process, of someone coming into the chamber to read out the secrets decided by a Cabinet, is crazy. We need to have much more public debate about the process. It is good for Government too,” he said.
He announced a new “whole-of-year” budgetary and estimates cycle, allowing Oireachtas committees to engage with departments with regard to allocations for 2013.
A wall of silence has been erected around the Government’s plans since. The clampdown on information about the incoming property tax is a case in point. It is not satisfactory that homeowners, with household budgets to plan, will not be told the detail of the new tax until Minister for Finance Michael Noonan reveals “the secrets” on budget day, December 5th.
In April, Minister of State for Finance Brian Hayes said the options presented to Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan in the expert group report produced by former senior civil servant Don Thornhill should be subject to a “vigorous public debate” during the summer and autumn.
“The old-fashioned way of government producing a tax without public consultation will not work. All options should be stress-tested. It won’t be good enough to arrive at budget day and say ‘here’s the tax’,” he said just five months ago.