Reading between the lines of the budget speeches
The patriot game
2016, the centenary of the Easter Rising, is an opportunity to reflect on the journey travelled over the past 100 years. To recall the many major social and economic challenges along the way. It is the opportunity to celebrate the achievements, and to remember how we overcame the challenges and emerged from each stronger than ever before.
The Minister for Finance’s mention of the Easter Rising centenary in his first line was presumably intended to make everybody feel warm, fuzzy and patriotic and put them in a good mood for an election-friendly Budget. But as opening gambits go, what this one mainly says is “strap in, we could be here for some time” – 100 years to reflect upon! And not in a fun, Reeling in the Years-style with goals and dodgy denim.
Thankfully, Noonan did not give a preview. We are still six months away from this opportunity for reflection, which is plenty of time to get that GPO Interpretative Centre open and make sure it sells decent cake.
No booms, no busts
This Government has consigned to the history books the days of boom and bust, and the attitude of ‘if I have it, I’ll spend it.’ My department forecasts that we will balance the books in headline terms in 2018, with balance in structural terms following in 2019.
The take-home message here is that Noonan would hate anyone to think he’s Charlie McCreevy, but he’s okay with comparisons to Gordon Brown, who spent almost his entire stint as UK chancellor claiming he had ended stop-go, boom-bust economic cycles. What he actually put an end to was “boom”. Noonan, at this stage of his career, is unlikely to care so much about making hostages to fortune.
McCreevy, meanwhile, told the banking inquiry that his notorious “if I have it, I’ll spend it” remark had been misrepresented. This will hardly stop Noonan referring to it. “No booms, no busts,” he repeated. Not even a mini-boom?
House of ATM cards
I will recast the €5 stamp duty on debit/ATM cards. From the 1st of January 2016, this stamp duty will be removed and replaced with a 12c charge per ATM transaction. There will be no charge for debit card transactions. No consumer will be lose out as a result of this change as the stamp duty will be capped at the existing levels of €2.50 or €5.
Finally, the dream of a cashless society is around the corner, unlike the queues for the ATM. These may soon be a distant memory, just like affordable smoking and beer that isn’t preceded by the word “craft”. Sadly, Noonan’s belated support for a pro-plastic population is ever so slightly undermined by the fact your bank will probably still be slapping a charge on top of every debit card transaction.
Incidentally, you can “make” money on the change to the ATM rule only if you make less than 42 withdrawals per year. For everything else, there’s Mastercard.
Nama is aiming to deliver a target of 20,000 residential units before the end of 2020. 90 per cent of these units will be in the greater Dublin area. About 75 per cent of these units will be houses, mainly starter homes. Nama will deliver these units by working with developers. Achieving this new target by the end of 2020 means delivering on average 80 new housing units every week.
Idea for a TV show: teams of Nama executives and underemployed celebrities race to complete 80 new starter homes in the greater Dublin area over a seven-day period, from the laying of the first brick to the optimum distribution of scatter cushions, in a bid to alleviate Ireland’s housing shortage and fill an hour on the RTÉ One schedule.
Noonan was interrupted during this part of the speech as Opposition hecklers wondered how many of these “residential units” would be social housing. “Is there a problem?” Noonan asked, straying from his script in response to the commotion. Yes, yes there is.
I want to deal with one issue that generates considerable debate. It has become popular to say that under this Government, inequality has risen. This is simply not true. Our adjustment has been a difficult one, but a fair one. Those with the most have given the most. Income inequality after taxes and social transfers has reduced during the crisis.
Hardly anybody thinks the general election is going to be a pretty one for the Coalition’s junior partner, and Brendan Howlin’s efforts to correct the stubborn narrative that the Labour Party has done precious little to curb inequality is unlikely to make much difference either way. The “two Minister, two speeches” format of this Government’s budget presentations also belies the fact that everybody knows this is Noonan’s day.
Still, Howlin was the one who announced most of the measures that will make an immediate difference to people’s lives and his bright red tie was cheerfully party-appropriate, so perhaps all love for Labour is not yet lost.
In the name of the father
To recognise the needs of modern families and the role of fathers in the household, I am happy to announce that we will legislate for statutory paternity leave of two weeks. This change will take effect from next September.
The improvement in our public finances has given us the opportunity to assist hard-working parents. The package announced today will be of particular help to working mothers.
Budget 2016 is the first to do anything specifically for working fathers, not that Howlin used that particular phrase. Officially, it seems there are still only three types of parent: stay-at-home mothers, working mothers and the umbrella term “fathers”. But progress is being made, slowly.
By introducing two weeks paid paternity leave, Ireland begins the slow journey of catching up with the modern family utopias of Scandinavia and, well, most of the rest of Europe, and very soon employers will be desperate to ask their male workforce how many babies it is they plan to have. Note: To avail of this budget measure, do not conceive until after Christmas.
Heath cliff... No sorry, health lift
I am providing €13.2 billion for the delivery of health services next year. I am happy to say, this restores the resourcing of our health services to its pre-crisis level… We have also protected front-line staff numbers. Since the beginning of last year, hospital staffing has increased by 3,000.
We have hired around 1,000 extra nurses over the same period. As our recovery continues, we will continue to support and expand our health service.
The text of Howlin’s speech on the Government’s budget site actually claimed the Coalition would “continue to support and expand our heath service” (sic). This was, we are confident, a spelling mistake and not a Freudian slip, and there is no secret plan to create a vast shrub land habitat on free-draining, acidic soil ‑ not on purpose anyway.
It’s just unfortunate that a) talk of protecting frontline staff numbers came on a day when emergency department nurses at St Vincent’s University Hospital were striking to highlight overcrowding misery, and b) the “pre-crisis level” resourcing of the health service was also dire.
Don’t cry for me Syriza
Through prudent and careful management of the State’s finances, this Government brought the country back from the brink. Our recovery, though not yet complete, is not only a justification of our policies, but a condemnation of the easy alternatives proffered by some. Who speaks of Syriza now?
Yes, who speaks of Syriza now? Certainly not the Greeks who dispatched the party to electoral oblivion… oh hang on, they didn’t, did they? They re-elected them, albeit on a much modified, less radical mandate.
But though they might have been dragged into austerity in the end, the once defiant Syriza is still a recognisably left-wing party, whereas Howlin appears to belong to a party that prefers to sneer at them.
The Bloomberg news wire duly led with the headline “Who speaks of Syriza now, asks Irish Government chasing victory”, which is as good a one-line summary of this budget as any.