Is the government prepared to leave austerity behind?

Should a government Minister be allowed to make a far reaching statement that sharply contradicts the thrust of government policy and not be immediately challenged as to the practical implications? If the media afforded acres of coverage to such a statement, should it not then demand that the Minister spell out what concrete action she/he proposed to take if the statement was to mean anything more than empty posturing?

Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, made such a statement last week. Speaking to the St. Vincent de Paul Society she declared, ‘that electorates in advanced societies have a limit beyond which they are not prepared to accept policies of austerity. I believe that we have reached the limits of austerity now.’ She further asserted, ‘there still appears to be an inexplicable preference for loading the costs of the banking crises squarely on the shoulders of ordinary people and small business.’

The biggest circulation newspapers spared no ink in reporting this attack on the austerity policy by a Labour Party Minister in the Coalition government. Inexplicably they left it at that. No one asked, ‘Well what are you going to do about it? Are you going to demand an immediate change in the policy of the government of which you are a member and if that does not happen are you going to leave the government and conduct a battle for a correct policy?’

The Minister is right that the limits of austerity have been reached. It has been a disastrous policy arising out of the decision that working people, pensioners and the poor in this State should carry a burden of €64 billion of bad debt belonging to private finance institutions in Ireland and Europe. Apart from its immorality, the policy failed dramatically as it crushed the domestic economy with all the evils that follow from such a crisis.

However the most serious questions now arise for the Minister for Social Protection. Is the government prepared to change policy, leave austerity behind and implement an alternative that would at least try to stimulate economic recovery? Taoiseach Enda Kenny answered that in fairly definitive terms during Taoiseach’s Questions in the Dáil on Tuesday. I asked him, ‘Is she stating the view of the government and is it the Taoiseach’s view? Does not her statement call for an immediate review of the programme for government, . . . ? If austerity has reached its limits – and it has – and the Minister for Social Protection is not merely posturing, does it not mean that the further austerity measures in the pipeline should be abandoned forthwith?’

The Taoiseach responded, ‘I do not agree that I should make an announcement to abandon ship. The government has set out its position very clearly.’ Austerity as usual then! All this was missed by the media as was some comical choreography to signal that the government spoke with one voice. Taoiseach’s Questions, as opposed to Leaders’ Questions, take place for one hour every Tuesday. He invariably sits alone throughout. For the only time in two years, we found none other than the Minister for Social Protection silently sitting beside him for the duration, leading to a question as to whether the Minister was ‘practicing to be Tánaiste or if the Taoiseach ordered her to attend for an announcement of a major change of policy in line with her suggestion to end austerity’ or ‘Did the Taoiseach order her to attend as a head prefect who has spoken out of turn and must come to the principal’s office to be show who is in charge?’

Absolutely no change in the austerity policy then but sharp questions for the Minister. If austerity has reached its limits and ordinary people can take no more will she now oppose imminent new attacks on living standards? Will the Minister refuse to accept any cuts in Social Protection when the Budget is announced on October 15? Will the Minister refuse to support the proposal to slash €300 million from the wages of public sector workers and will she resist and refuse to implement the draconian deduction of the property tax from the income of social welfare recipients from June?

In February 2007 when Michael McDowell was Minster for Justice he pulled a similar media coup. Assembling a posse of journalist at the gates of Leinster House, he railed against the high cost of the Tribunals then sitting which arose mainly from obscene levels of fees paid to lawyers. Next day banner headlines portrayed him as a champion of the taxpayers. Ignored was the fact that the Minister himself was the one responsible for setting the fees! This bit of cynicism didn’t fool the people when they went to vote in the General Election a few months later. They will similarly see through Labour’s cynical posturing.