The Spring Economic Statement delivered today (see here) represents a very belated dipping of the toe in the water towards greater budgetary transparency by the government. We were promised this in 2011. The fact that it’s finally starting to happen four years later and coincidentally on the eve of the next election – is noteworthy. But at least it’s a start!
The cost of being more up front about budgetary plans is that the opposition is given an opportunity to criticize the government over its budgetary direction. To a degree this is all to be expected. But – not for the first time – the government has left itself unnecessarily vulnerable. And, again – not for the first time – the cause of this is lack of transparency.
The problem is that the government has put the cart before the horse. There is passing and implicit referencing of this in the following extract buried on p. 46 of the Statement:
As a further potential reform to the Budgetary process, the Government will examine the possibility of establishing an Independent Budget Office. This would allow for independent costings of policy proposals from political parties and Groups in the Oireachtas…
All fine and dandy, but regrettably we’re told that: ‘[G]iven the need for consultation, this is a policy that would only be fully in place after the next election’. What consultation is needed? Why, after, four years of waiting, is this to be put off to the next government?
An Independent Budgetary Office is one of the central planks of real Dáil reform especially if – as many of us have been arguing for some time – it works to the agenda of the Dáil. This would provide an important new arm of accountability, as well as much needed transparency.
And, more to the point – government please note – it would also add greater responsibility to the role of opposition. In the current scenario it’s easy enough for the opposition to critique a government’s spring statement, offering all sorts of bright new uncosted alternatives. There’s little that can be done to challenge them on the fundamentals of their assumptions.
All that changes with the introduction of an Independent Budgetary Office. The opposition would then be on the same hook as the government in being required to prove how their alternatives are costed.
Not for the first time by being conservative on its political reform objectives this government has left itself unnecessarily vulnerable to political attack.