Politics and promises

Public finances

 

Making promises that cannot possibly be honoured is one of the habitual failings of our politicians and it seems that each succeeding generation is doomed to repeat the mistakes of its predecessor. The latest pronouncement by Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy that he plans to rely on rapid-delivery housing as a central part of the plan to provide 47,000 social housing units by 2021 to address the problem of homelessness is a case in point.

If he had learned anything from his predecessor in the post, Simon Coveney, it should have been that adopting unrealistic targets only serves to undermine public confidence in the ability of the State to address the fundamental problems facing society. The target of 47,000 new social housing units over five years was first announced almost 12 months ago but so far rapid-delivery has not provided the boost to new house numbers that was so confidently predicted.

When Mr Murphy was appointed in May it was suggested that some 650 rapid-delivery units would be completed this year with a further 500 in 2018. However, as Irish Times Dublin correspondent Olivia Kelly has pointed out the earlier target for 2017 promised by Mr Coveney will not materialise with just 22 of the homes promised by next year under Rebuilding Ireland completed to date.

Although it is certainly worth persevering with plans to build as many rapid-delivery homes as possible there is nothing to be gained by raising false hopes that this approach will make a significant dent in the housing crisis at an early date.

Another example of an extravagant and potentially dangerous promise is the suggestion from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar that the old age pension will be raised again next year, and every subsequent year of the Government’s term.

Civil servants have warned that across the board pension and social welfare increases in next year’s budget will be very expensive. They have suggested that increases should be targeted at specific groups as the room for manoeuvre is extremely limited.

At this stage the talk about the next budget is little more than speculation, but the problem about bandying about promises like raising the pension is that they reduce the prospect of serious discussion about adopting the best options given the resources available. It seems at times that politicians have not learned the basic lesson of the financial crisis which developed because extravagant promises of tax cuts and spending increases, made with an eye to winning elections, were implemented by Fianna Fáil led governments while the opposition of the day, instead of shouting stop, demanded ever more unsustainable spending. Instead of promising too much, the Government needs to lower expectations to facilitate a realistic assessment of the available options.

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