New budget process gives Opposition first whiff of power

Committee will offer non-Government TD responsibility as well as influence

 Fianna Fáil public expenditure spokesman Dara Calleary said  budgets should in future be “regional-proofed”. Photograph: Frank Miller

Fianna Fáil public expenditure spokesman Dara Calleary said budgets should in future be “regional-proofed”. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

“Equality budgeting,” Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty said while discussing the new budgetary process at the new budget committee yesterday, “needs to be stitched into it.”

“Not just equality budgeting,” added People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett, “but anti-poverty budgeting.”

The October budget and estimates process, where government lays out how it will spend and tax for the following year, needs to be “equality- proofed” and “poverty- proofed”, TDs said yesterday at the committee’s first meeting.

But further proofing requirements were aired too. Former Labour leader Joan Burton said the committee should be seeking to “gender-proof” budgets and also to proof their impacts on older people.

Fianna Fáil public expenditure spokesman Dara Calleary added that budgets should in future be “regional-proofed”.

Watching the committee was new senator Alice Mary Higgins, who wanted to ensure future budgets were “human rights-proofed”. The Green leader Eamon Ryan added later that budgets should also be “carbon-proofed”.

All this may, as the saying goes, take some time.

Substantive changes

If a government expresses its domestic will principally through the applications of its decisions on where to spend and tax, then the new budgets will be an expression of the fact that power is now exercised by the Government only with the Dáil’s consent.

But is this really going to work? The briefing documents for Ministers that are dripping out of Government make clear the extent to which spending pressures are building up throughout the system.

The Department of Education speaks of a funding crisis throughout third level, and of the desperate need to construct new schools and hire new teachers to account for demographic pressures.

The Department of Transport says it needs €300 million extra a year to stand still on infrastructure. Other departments also have their wish lists.

Officials in the Department of Public Expenditure – who will have to referee these competing bids – recently warned their new Minister, Paschal Donohoe, that the demands for spending across the system were mushrooming.

They pointed to European Union fiscal rules – albeit that they are likely to be bent a little by further supplementary estimates this year.

Transparency

The pre-budget period also brings out

interest groups lobbying for favourable treatment and more investment. Previously, the role of opposition politicians was to echo and amplify such demands. But the new transparency of budget-making at the committee, coupled with the transfer of power from government to Dáil, will mean all TDs will be faced with the imperative of making the sums add up.

Because there is an inconvenient fact about the new budgetary process – no matter how much you change the way the decisions are arrived at, it doesn’t change the fundamentals of the budgetary arithmetic. Budgets can be proofed to nth degree but that won’t increase the quantum of resources the government has at its disposal.

Political choices will still be necessary: to govern is to choose. But the new system will require the opposition to be part of those choices.

Budgets will always be difficult for the government. In future some of the pain will be shared by the opposition.

“It actually puts the pressure on the opposition more than the government,” said one experienced politician involved in the process. “Though not many of them realise that yet.”