Secrecy over budget an insult to public

Fri, Sep 21, 2012, 01:00

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.

Now, not only do there appear to be no plans to put the report into the public domain, but those in authority permit only a small number of facts about the incoming tax to be spoken about. The tax will not be set at the rate of 0.5 per cent of market value as recommended by the International Monetary Fund recently; it will apply from July 1st next, and will be collected by the Revenue Commissioners. “Anything else outside those concrete decisions is speculative,” says Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

The independent Fiscal Advisory Council’s report of last week was dismissed by him as “not binding on Government”.

Following Hayes’s politically contentious idea that “well-off” older people, not those solely dependent on the State pension, might take a share of budgetary pain, Tánaiste and Labour leader Eamon Gilmore warned Ministers to keep their kites grounded. Speculating about budgetary matters was “unhelpful” and gave people “undue cause for worry”, he claimed.

While ministerial suggestions on what might or might not be considered in the budgetary arithmetic can certainly create worry, real anxiety is more likely to be stimulated by Ministers withholding information from people who need to know about plans for social expenditure reductions and a broadening of the income tax base.

Some younger Government politicians have vainly tried to remind their seniors about the early promise, and urged them to cast off the comfortable cloak of secrecy. Aside from Hayes, backbencher Eoghan Murphy, also of Fine Gael, blogged recently that the 2013 budgetary measures were too serious to simply announce on the day: “There is too much speculation in the public because of the information vacuum, and it is causing too much uncertainty.” In the context of Hayes’s remarks about pensioners, he told this newspaper it was a “shame” that Ministers could not express their opinions on the budgetary decisions facing the Government.

By refusing to act on its promise to allow for advance scrutiny of the budgetary process, the Government insults the public by keeping it suspended in ignorance and lets down its own TDs who could have acted as salesmen for the detail of tough measures that will raise at least €1.25 billion in tax and introduce some €2.25 billion in cuts.

Mary Minihan reports on politics for The Irish Times

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