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Column: Here’s how the Budget could have been fairer

It was an exercise in macho posturing, writes Mary Murphy – but there are ways for the Government to boost our confidence in them.

Mary Murphy

LET THIS BUDGET be the last of its kind. Just because Ireland is poorer it does not have to be more unequal. Both the Economic and Social Research Institute and Social Justice Ireland have called this budget regressive. Analysis from within the Labour Party suggests a two earner couple with two children and two cars  on €36,000 per annum will be four per cent poorer while a similar family on €110,000 will be only one per cent poorer.

Of course we should not have to wait until after the Budget to know this. Anti-poverty campaigners have long called for Budgets to be poverty-proofed. This means looking at distributional outcomes prior to making decisions and informing the public of distributional outcomes in the Budget statement. Hard to imagine, but this is what accountable governments do.

The Irish Feminist Network led an Equality Budgeting Campaign and campaigned for an equality proofing process to place equality at the centre of decisions concerning taxation and public expenditure. Proofing means assessing who benefits from economic policy measures and who doesn’t. Such a process would mean a better informed and transparent budgetary processes and economic decision-making. This approach was pioneered by Australia in 1984. Since then, more than 60 countries have engaged Equality Budgeting strategies including Canada and, closer to home, the United Kingdom.

Leaders

Ireland was once a leader  in developing anti-poverty strategies and equality tools and infrastructure. Now however our political leaders stubbornly resist calls to improve the budgetary process to enable better and more informed decision making. How can you be committed to fairness and protecting the vulnerable while refusing to utilise the tools available to you to protect the vulnerable? Why has government steadfastly refused to evidence their commitment to equality.

Instead of evidence informed budget making processes we see increasing evidence of a process dominated by macho, testosterone-filled political posturing. Elsewhere I have described the crisis as at least partially caused by gender inequality in governance; commentators observed that this budget was itself a consequence of gender inequality in politics.

Described in male terminology as ‘battles’ and ‘games of brinkmanship’, we see how – in the process of this budget – the Troika and multinational companies bully the Economic Management Council, the Economic Management Council bully the cabinet, the cabinet bully each other, the parties bully their backbench parliamentarians. Citizens are left defenceless. Instead of leaders leading from the top down to ensure equality, the Budget clearly hit women and children and was regressive in its impact on income distribution. It also continued to dismantle the community infrastructure. The equality for women measure was chopped in half, the community development programme further decimated.

Courage needed

What would leadership committed to equality look like? What kind of budget would they implement? Instead of introduction of vouched expenses, politicians could have taken more reductions in their salaries and addressed the issue of grossly unjust excessive pensions. There were some good initiatives like capping of pension contributions and eliminating the use of top slicing, but good leadership would have had the courage to do more of this.

Earlier this year Claiming Our Future highlighted various ways to raise billions of euro, to widen the tax base and to make the tax system more sustainable. Much more could have been done in this direction if our political leaders commitment to ‘fairness’ was real. Let us be clear, the Government had choices but choose to ignore real and viable revenue raising possibilities.  It chose not to ease austerity and not to lessen the need for expenditure cuts. It choose to ignore the poverty and equality proofing tools that could make their choices more accountable and transparent. It choose, in effect, to make Ireland more unequal.

Our leaders also worked in secret. Minister Howlin advised us in his budget speech that this might be the last December Budget.  He advised  he was working on a revised budgetary procedures to enhance the role played by parliamentarians and Oireachtas Committees and to align budgetary processes with changes for Eurozone Member States. Many indeed hope this budget will be the last budget of its kind.

If Minister Howlin wants to bolster confidence in our political system and enhance openness and transparency around policy formation he has the choice to introduce equality proof future budgets and include an evidence based equality statement in his next Budget speech.

Mary Murphy is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology, NUI Maynooth and member of  Claiming Our Future.

Read: Prospect of October Budget welcomed amid calls for more open process>

Column: This Budget isn’t just bad – it’s at odds with Government policies>

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Mary Murphy

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