Nat O'Connor: Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny is quoted as saying that Richard Bruton will be Minister for Finance under any FG-led government and that this is "non-negotiable". While this may simply be political posturing, and the outcome of any possible future coalition negotiations will depend on the numbers of seats each party brings to the table, the message to any possible future coalition partners would appear to be that Fine Gael will control the economic paradigm that will guide them in government. So what's different from the present paradigm, if anything, about Fine Gael's economics?
Fine Gael has published a number of economic policy papers recently, including New ERA (its stimulus plan - revised November 2009), A Fresh Start for Jobs in Small Businesses and Hope for a Lost Generation (a plan to cut youth unemployment by a third). These documents are a fair place to start, to look at what Fine Gael proposes to do in office and to see to what extent this represents a break from the economic paradigm that got us to where we are today.
This is not intended to be a point-by-point critique, as I am only looking to identify Fine Gael's economics, not dispute the detailed costings, etc.
NewERA is essentially about managing the semi-state sector better, including using them to borrow money for investment in infrastructure (and creating 105,000 jobs), for which they will seek a commerical return through charges on customers. The major plank of this is renewable energy (Ireland to use 50 per cent renewable energy by 2020). A major broadband roll-out is envisaged, as is upgraded water infrastructure.
So far, this could be a policy objective from the left, right or centre. However, the proposed mechanism is a commercially driven semi-state company (NewERA Ltd) which will manage five merged/restructured semi-states. It will operate commercially, with the CEO and board appointed by the Taoiseach. A big, cross-utility merged regulator will ensure more powerful, "pro-consumer" regulation.
Fresh Start is sub-titled "18 ways to support small business and save jobs". In an introductory message from Enda Kenny, Fine Gael "commit to preserving our low tax model as the best means to promote growth, enterprise and employment." The 18 specific measures include: employers PRSI exemptions/subsidies; a national recovery bank; reducing VAT; abolishing the travel tax; reviewing Employment Regulation Orders (legally-binding pay agreements in hotels, retail, etc); prompt payment from State bodies; cutting red tape; business and employment units in local authorities; reducing energy costs; freezing local authority rates; and supporting start ups.
Hope for a New Generation includes: a national internship programme; a back to education schmeme; Community Employment schemes; workshare; and the above 'jobs tax cuts' (on employers PRSI).
From this snapshot, I can conclude that Fine Gael intend to refocus the State's involvement in the economy towards jobs. There is a recognition of the high multiplier effect of State investment in capital projects. Likewise, the policies also recognise the fact that SMEs provide many Irish jobs and that supporting them is important. There seems to be a reliance on tax cuts or tax expenditure (credits, allowances, etc.) to stimulate economic activity. There is also some long-term thinking about Ireland's energy security and the potential of a good return from investment in renewable energy generation.
The economics underlying the proposals seem orthodox and do not address the major problems shown by the global economic crisis. Although the decisions of recent government added miseries to the Irish case, the global crisis still requires all parties to re-think the received wisdom of economics in a much more fundamental way.
As an example of such a rethink, Social Justice Ireland have published "An Agenda for a New Ireland" (Full PDF here). They argue that "Ireland’s policy-making for more than a decade was guided by many false assumptions" including the assumptions such as: "Economic growth was good in itself"... "Infrastructure and social services at an EU-average level could be delivered with one of the lowest total tax-takes in the EU." ... "The growing inequality and the widening gaps between the better-off and the poor that followed from this approach to policy-development were not important as everyone was gaining something." ... "Low taxation was good." ... etc.
The failures which stem from these false assumptions include: "Failure to take action to broaden the tax base or to promote tax equity."... "Failure to overcome infrastructure deficiencies,"... "Failure to adequately address high energy costs or to promote competition in sheltered sectors of the economy," ... and "Failure to appropriately regulate the banking and financial services sector or to manage the growth of personnel numbers in the public service."
The SJI document alone poses questions for the Fine Gael policies. And the criticisms of recent Government economics cannot all be dismissed as part of 'crony capitalism'. There are genuine questions to be answered by advocates of the orthodoxy. For example, if Fine Gael are commited to Ireland's low tax model, how do they define that? Does it leave scope for a restructuring of the tax system to make it more egalitarian? Does it leave room for some increase in tax, as you simply can't have average European level of services without average European levels of tax?
Indeed, Social Justice Ireland proposes retaining relatively low tax (35 per cent of GDP, p. 26), versus recent suggestions by the ESRI's Prof. John Fitz Gerald, who would prefer Ireland to move to EU average levels (45 per cent of GDP). Where is Fine Gael on this issue?
On a more fundamental level, what about economic growth? Have Fine Gael seriously considered alternative ways of measuring economic progress, including quality of life, health, education, environment, distribution of wealth, etc? What about suggestions that the economic situation of most people could improve, despite a fall in GDP, if there was better organisation of the economy? In the long-term, a green economy cannot rely on continued growth models.
Fine Gael's policies seem to reflect a belief in the commercial sector and market forces that is not based on the evidence of the global crash. For example: banking regulation failed; corporate governance failed; long-term planning did not occur; and wealth was further concentrated in the hands of fewer people. So, why should we have faith in a "commercially driven" semi-state sector or in continued adherence to Ireland's disreputable low tax strategy?
Looking for more insight into the above, Richard Bruton's blog posts add some more detail. In March 2009 he posts the press release for the launch of the NewERA idea. The familiar buzz word "competitiveness" seems to be the driving force behind it. More recently, in January 2010 he discusses the Competitiveness Council’s Reports. These are referenced as reasons underpinnng the NewERA proposals. For example, "dissipation of responsibility across 34 separate public authorities has resulted in poor planning and appalling waste"... "it is no longer essential that the State owns all of the capacity for producing gas or electricity, though the grids must remain publicly owned." ... "All of the investments will be on strictly commercial terms. The companies involved will commit to servicing their loans without a State guarantee. This will bring a new element of commercial realism into the operation of companies and force new disciplines into their operation." This post has a press release feel to it too, nevertheless it further clarifies what Fine Gael envisage 'competitiveness' means.
A serious consequence of the above policies seems to be a shift from taxation to charges - charges for water, waste, energy at "commercially driven" rates. How will waiver schemes work in this context? Currently, private commercial waste collection firms don't always offer them. There is a real risk of a set of charges being levied on household incomes in lieu of a more broad-based and progressive tax system. This would be regressive in effect, as those on lower incomes would pay proportionately more of their incomes.
Another logical consequence of the above policies include weakening local authorities - by freezing rates for five years and limiting their role in water services to being "agents" of the proposed Irish Water national utility company. There is a pressing need to reform local authority funding, and a rates freeze sends the message of 'no change' for five years, while local services (like roads) continue to deteriorate. How can we have new local politics without funding reform? Also, it is glib to suggest that water leakage stemmed from "dissipation of responsibility" across the authorities. There has been a lack of capital investment in water (and other basic infrastructure provided by local authorities, like sewage and flood protection), which in turn was due to Ireland's low tax base and, in particular, the inadequate funding of local government.
Also, in terms of injecting "commercial realism" into the provision of utilities, what is to stop the State being stuck as the 'insurer of last resort' if commercial power plants threaten to turn off the lights? How will the commercial operation of firms be regulated to prevent short-term profiteering or asset stripping at the expense of long-term investment?
Whether a general election occurs in 2012 or sooner, Fine Gael is reasonably likely to lead the next government. If so, Fine Gael's focus on jobs and stimulus is welcome. But the above documents are more about suggestions for how FG would manage the State's role in the economy, broadly based within current constraints and without challenging the dominant economic orthodoxy.
Hence it is important to begin a more in-depth, open, public discussion about the assumptions Fine Gael (and other parties) make about economics. As a number of posters on this blog have commented, alternative or progressive economics is not the sole preserve of the 'left' (howsoever defined).
If Fine Gael are seeking to control Ireland's Ministry of Finance for the five or ten years after the next general election, then - especially in the context their proposals on New Politics, including open government - I hope that Fine Gael will publish more about their economic perspective and assumptions so that we can examine alternative options and discuss what economics represent the long-term public interest.
One thing Richard Bruton blogged in December 2009 about the budget was "To successfully implement change, you have to build a broad-based coalition to implement it." I hope this is Fine Gael's belief about economics, because any claim to offer "new politics" is an illusion if the economic paradigm to be adopted is "non-negotiable".