From top: Fine Gael Minister for Finance, Paschal Donohoe (right) and Fianna Fáil Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Michael McGrath on the steps at Government Buildings for their joint press conference for Budget 2021; Dan Boyle
I have had the dubious privilege of responding in the Dáil to five budgets. Two were presented by Charlie McCreevy, three by Brian Cowen.
Then there were far less organised leaks as to what might be in a budget. Those who had to respond were given no prior briefings. The budgets documents were given to all TDs only when the Minister rose to speak in the chamber.
I was the third responder coming after Richard Bruton and Joan Burton. This at least gave me an opportunity to scribble down a few notes.
Who I would be talking to and who might be listening were different matters again. Political etiquette only obliged the Minister for Finance to listen to the main opposition speaker. He (and it was always he) would leave the chamber during the Labour spokesperson’s contribution.
I didn’t take it too much to heart. The ministers would have had media engagements, and I doubt if they would have paid that much attention to what I would have been saying if they had stayed in the chamber.
I still would have had an audience to address. At that time RTÉ television showed the budget debate live, including all the contributions from the opposition spokespersons. My speaking slot was usually around 6pm. By that stage coverage would have moved to RTÉ2 where ten of thousands of viewers would have had to put up with my ramblings.
My experience of budgets is that the flagship elements were overblown, while unpopular elements tended to be slow burners that explode after budget day, when their ramifications became more easily understood.
The introduction of medical cards for all citizens over seventy years of age in 2001, the workings of which were suggested to have been made on a cigarette packet, is an example of what was thought might be sexy turns out to have been ill considered.
The relocation of government offices from Budget 2004, dishonestly referred to as decentralisation, is another obvious example.
Budget 2021 is a budget that has never before been experienced. Unlike the fallout from 2008, or the ‘rectal fiscitude‘ of the late eighties/early nineties, it has suddenly become possible to borrow again and to borrow significantly.
Much of this is out of necessity. Too many businesses and their employees are facing uncertain short term futures. It is not only right, it is an obligation for the State to intervene in the way it has.
The result of this is that we have all become Keynesians, and not just Keynesians but green Keynesians as well.
The one positive confluence of the situation that we would prefer not exist, is the access to borrowing money at ridiculously low rates of interest. This coupled with a belated acceptance that austerity does not and cannot work, will begin to see us spending much more in an effort to bring about a better tomorrow.
The political questions we should be debating are whether investment is being directed in the right direction, to an appropriate level, with an expectation that infrastructure can be delivered in the timescale expected.
There will be overspends. There will be missed deadlines. The degree to which mismanagement could bring about lost opportunities will determine whether Budget 2021 can be the leap forward it promises to be.
For all our sakes let’s hope it can be.
Dan Boyle is a former Green Party TD and Senator and serves as a Green Party councillor on Cork City Council. His column appears here every Thursday. Follow Dan on Twitter: @sendboyle