Now that the real decisions are made in Brussels, this yearly parade of wobbly diagrams and men in jackets is a waste of time
Surely we have reached peak budget. I don’t really get it. I mean, what is it for?
Take next week’s budget, for example.They’re going to take the money off you anyway, they never do what you think they ought to with it and our public services remain a disgrace.
Not that money is even needed for every improvement that could be made to our public services. Getting staff to say “good morning”, “good afternoon” or even just “hello” to every member of the public they encountered would make us feel an awful lot better and wouldn’t cost a cent. Just saying.
Now that our fate is decided in Brussels and Berlin, and with a hard Brexit coming up fast on the inside, the budget is more of a charade than ever. It’s a fig leaf of control to place over the shame of our fiscal helplessness, and it gives the media agenda a good kick up the transom for a couple of weeks.
For those of us who live outside the beltway — by which I mean, of course, that windswept podium outside Leinster House — the budget doesn’t mean even that much.
I was going to complain here about the endless speculation which has been and will be clogging our airwaves in the run-up to next Tuesday, but when I said I was going to write about the budget two friends immediately said they’d no idea that it was coming up. One muttered darkly about it being in the interests of the powers that be — or them, as she called them — to keep certain information from us.
The other one said that she hoped that nothing bad was going to happen to the invalidity benefit, because that would interfere with her holidays.
Not exactly champing at the bit to hear the full details then, but who can blame them when the budget does seem to be supervised and analysed exclusively by men in jackets? Men in jackets who get excited about the budget and spend a good deal of their time on bad phone lines to the Today with Sean O’Rourkeradio programme, bless them. I wouldn’t take it away from them, their talk of green-proofing the budget, and first-time buyers and the tax net. They’re so in love with it, year after year.
It all seems strangely old-fashioned and many of the traditions around the budget are dying or dead. Like those dodgy drawings of the average family, for example, as their income is laid out in a pie-chart the day after with disaster predicted in the shaded areas.
Or the mythical single public servant who lives in Navan, whose net income did not go up or down over decades of budgets. Where is she now, we ask ourselves? She must have got married, or moved away.
And then there was the average family shopping basket, which has been blown to smithereens by the arrival of the German budget supermarket chains. Your average consumer constructed her own average family shopping basket survey some years ago, and doesn’t need any more help, thanks.
I presume the alcohol and tobacco category survives simply because it is the only category any of us actually understand. So we can say: “Fifty cents on a packet of John Player Blue,” in horrified tones, even though it is years since we have smoked a cigarette of any kind and we couldn’t care less how much they cost.
The budget will completely dominate radio for the whole day — in that way it is as bad as sport. But television is where all the action is: those illegible diagrams and the wobbly graphs come around every year, leaving us no wiser than we were before. And journalists with loud voices sound most authoritative as they stand in front of the diagrams and graphs — or beside them, in this digital age. They seem to know what they’re talking about but there is a growing suspicion that this is not the case.
Cuts are “ swingeing” — a word one only ever hears at budget time. Middles are “squeezed”. “Leeway” is something that the finance minister always wants.
Items are invariably “big ticket”. This year, for example, the big-ticket item is the universal social charge, or USC. But do not spell out that USC stands for universal social charge, because then you wreck the whole mystique of the thing.
And mystique is important on television. It used to be John Bowman and before that it was Brian Farrell and before that it was . . . never mind. I couldn’t name the last nine presenters of the television budget special, any more than I could remember of the details of the nine previous budgets (nine of them!) that were discussed in The Irish Times on Tuesday.
But even that doesn’t really matter, because, as the resident young person pointed out, “Nobody watches telly anymore.” Except in newsrooms, I suppose. And pubs.
Now that the consent of Fianna Fail, the main opposition party, is needed to get the budget through the Dail the whole process is even less interesting than it was before. Consensus is just another way of saying that our politicians have run out of ideas. Why don’t we just abolish the budget altogether, and have a quick report from the finance minister at Christmas? Besides everything else, it would probably be cheaper.