EVEN in a ‘Republic of Opportunity’ there has to be limits, and if Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has any doubts about this, the new Parliamentary Budget Office is on hand to remind him.
The normal ramping-up of expectations and distortion of realities to make half measures fill pint-sized glasses, so that everyone goes home with something, has begun. Yesterday the ESRI’s John FitzGerald attempted to introduce a bit of temperance, suggesting that we keep our baser instincts in check, and remove the punch bowl before the Budget if we are to avoid the ruinous mistakes of the past. An even more sobering message came from the aforementioned Budget Office, which suggested that the ratcheting-up of the public pay bill will necessitate new revenue-raising measures.
Amid the heady promises, the office has sounded a chastening note, questioning the sustainability of the massive increases in the public pay bill.
With scarce resources someone will lose out, and the office believes that the largesse already committed could limit the State’s ability to hire badly needed nurses, teachers and gardaí.
Mr Varadkar has signalled his Government needs to be prudent, but he has also indicated that there is a real need to cut taxes for those on modest incomes.
Keeping public spending increases modest and sustainable while at the same time avoiding a backlash from those hoping for some reward after several years of austerity is a fine balancing act. There is no safety net should he get it wrong. As Budget day draws closer, Fianna Fáil is ramping up the pressure with its own pledges.
The baser political instinct is to play for political advantage, but surely we have paid too high a political price for this in recent memory to be sucked in again. The Government and Fianna Fáil may beguile with all kinds of legerdemain, but the inescapable truth is that austerity has left little room for dexterity. This Budget is all about dividing the pennies and ha’pennies.