A budget triumphant in masking culpability

 

BUDGET 2010 already is an enormous triumph. Irrespective of whether its public sector pay cuts cause public sector chaos (possible), irrespective of whether gardaí defy the State (unlikely), irrespective of whether it causes the fall of this Government (probable but not now), Budget 2010 already is a triumph, writes VINCENT BROWNE

Budget 2010 addresses the crisis caused by the reckless management of the economy by this present group of incompetent, negligent, socially illiterate Ministers, a crisis now exacerbated by the global financial collapse, but only exacerbated. And part of the triumph of Budget 2010 is the masking of their culpability for the crisis.

Another triumph of Budget 2010 is how acceptable it will seem that these incompetent, negligent, socially illiterate Ministers will continue to cost this society close to €500,000 each (salaries of €191,417, cost of ministerial car and drivers €200,000, expenses another €100,000) just because they don’t cost even more, as they had been doing.

But the real triumph of Budget 2010 is constructing the illusion that in this hugely rich country (still among the top 15 richest in the world, as defined by per capita income), the crisis in the State’s finances has to be resolved by cutting the pay and the welfare of relatively deprived people. And Budget 2010 has fixed the agenda for its presentation and debate.

There is “no option” but to “correct” the hole in the State’s finances other than by cutting public expenditure. There is no room for taxing the rich, who fared so spectacularly during the boom years. They have fixed the debate around public sector versus private sector, as though that was the root of inequality here, not the chasm between the rich and the poor.

The CSO published its annual Survey on Income and Living Conditions (SILC) 2008 a few weeks ago. It showed that after tax and including all social contributions (such as social welfare) the lowest 10 per cent in society (420,000 people) earned just €165.42 a week in 2008 and the highest 10 per cent (another 420,000) got €1,142,37 per week, a multiple of almost seven (pages 28 and 29).

In this crisis, why shouldn’t the top 10 per cent of earners pay seven times the tariff for getting us out of the crisis that the bottom 10 per cent do? Why the social welfare cuts?

The survey revealed (page 47) that whereas just 14.4 per cent of the population were at risk of poverty in 2008, 43 per cent of them would have been without the support of social contributions (at risk of poverty here being defined as 60 per cent or below the median income).

How can we consider removing or weakening the props (social contributions) that 43 per cent require to keep them out of this poverty category?

A further triumph of Budget 2010. Nobody bothers about the facts on inequality. They are irrelevant to the debate. And this was no fortuitous achievement. It was calculated and devised as a long-term strategy, which has had some immediate results.

In 1986 under Gemma Hussey as minister for social welfare, the Combat Poverty Agency (CPA) was established. In the 23 years of its existence it has had considerable success. It became an independent, credible and authoritative source of information on poverty and remedies for poverty. It supported the community and voluntary sector in dealing with poverty and inequality, and gave them the data on which to campaign for a fairer distribution of the country’s wealth.

It promoted the measuring of poverty by the CSO, resulting in the annual SILC reports. The CPA became an irritant, however, all the more so in the Celtic Tiger culture, a culture that was hostile to poverty-talk, contemptuous of what it described as “the poverty industry”.

In early 2008 it was decided the CPA should go, under the cover of the fiscal crisis. A steering committee was set up, whose membership preordained the outcome and the job was done. The CPA is no more.

Through a Freedom of Information Act application, I have obtained documents to do with the decision to get rid of the agency. One, from the Office of Social Inclusion, dated September 11th, 2008, is revealing.

One of the clinching arguments for getting rid of the CPA was “the CPA’s policy uptake”. It states that “ regards output as commendable, but comments that the policy submissions do not appear to have a formative effect on policy development by government departments”.

Isn’t that something? Because the Government persistently ignored the information and recommendations from the CPA, the CPA should be abolished! Not that the Government should pay attention to what it was revealing and recommending.

The steering committee’s other justifications for getting rid of the CPA range between the fatuous and the pathetic. Essentially, the Government didn’t like what the CPA was doing, so it had to go. They almost did the same with the Equality Authority and the Commission on Human Rights, for good measure. And nobody shouted stop.

So – another triumph for Budget 2010.