In the bygone days before web apps and smart watches, weather-house clocks enjoyed a fashion moment. Every self-respecting horologist had one of these miniature chalets featuring two front doors perched on the parlour mantelpiece. Every time the clock struck the hour, and depending on the weather, one of the doors would open and either the woman or the man of the tiny house would emerge, respectively bearing a parasol to signal sunshine or wellington boots and a glower to foretell rain. Finding their job rendered redundant by AccuWeather, the pair needed to reinvent themselves, and so they pitched up in the Dáil on Tuesday to deliver Budget 2023.
Now a same-sex couple called Paschal and Michael, two white, middle-aged and well-paid men, did as Caligula did and ensconced their favourite steed between them on the parliament benches. It’s called Gift Horse and, valued at a whopping €11 billion, it defied anyone to prise open its mouth to examine its teeth. As the two monetary ministers took turns at forecasting simultaneous inflation blizzards and sunnier climes ahead, what became clear was that it is not their party political differences that set them apart but their common life experiences that tie them together.
The megaphone diplomacy by Fine Gael in an attempt to retain Paschal Donohoe’s presidency of the Eurogroup after he swaps Government departments with Michael McGrath in December is of scant relevance to anybody but the two men themselves. Either way, Ireland will continue to have equal representation among the EU’s finance ministers. All that will change is that Tweedledum will become the Minister for Finance and Tweedledee will become the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.
Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have proven to be disconcertingly compatible bedfellows in Government. Their 27-month-old Coalition has weathered plenty of storms but these have mostly been precipitated by personnel misadventures rather than any ideological confrontation. While it is arguable that, had they not been in Government together, Fine Gael might have included a third tax rate in the budget for people who get up early in the morning, the culture underpinning the plan would be just as patriarchal. The tone might be different but the song would be the same.
Listeners to RTÉ’s Drivetime were accusing budget critics of being impossible to satisfy and of wallowing in a self-entitlement. Such uncritical gratitude belies the existence of a dangerous fault line in the budget
Tuesday was a good day for the cabinet’s fiscal weather twins and there was little not to welcome in €4.1 billion worth of one-off subsistence payments in these straitened times. So grateful were some people that, almost immediately after McGrath and Donohoe had finished reading their speeches, listeners to RTÉ’s Drivetime were accusing budget critics of being impossible to satisfy and of wallowing in a self-entitlement. Such uncritical gratitude belies the existence of a dangerous fault line in the budget that will perpetuate a culture of dependency.
A sticking plaster never cured a broken leg. The payments and tax credits Donohoe and McGrath announced to alleviate some of the astronomical bills people are facing are short-term fixes for a problem the Government has failed to address – the disempowerment of shoppers. Domestic customers have been warned to expect to pay as much as €6,000 for gas and electricity in the next 12 months, while at the same time, energy and other utility companies are reporting large profits.
Shareholders in Eir, the scion of the former state-owned Telecom Éireann, have taken €1.23 billion from the company in the past four years while its customers have watched their bills mount. That is a sum guaranteed to incense anyone who has ever attempted to speak to a human being in these companies or who has tried to pay a bill through the post.
Utility companies routinely treat their customers with contempt. They dispatch sales reps from door-to-door, inveigling householders to sign up as customers on initially attractive terms and then, once hooked on a contract, they jack up their prices. They penalise customers who are not tech-savvy – usually the older and more vulnerable in society – by offering lower charges to those who will conduct transactions online. Gas companies barely give their customers enough notice to read their meters before issuing an estimated and inflated bill.
Banks have swooped
In recent weeks, banks have swooped to charge mortgage-holders the 1.25% increases in interest rates announced by the European Central Bank but continue to deprive savers of any reciprocal increase. Two banks are quitting the country and leaving tens of thousands of customers languishing in serpentine queues to sign up with other banks. The jargon of consumer marketing is littered with talk of customer loyalty but, reverse the provider and customer roles, and it does not exist. As the saying goes, if you want loyalty, get a dog.
Until the Government legislates to strengthen consumer rights so that customers can defend themselves against avaricious companies, it can expect to keep paying out emergency funds. However, this is unlikely to change any day soon because these issues are simply not on the cabinet’s radar.
It’s hard to imagine the ministers for finance and public expenditure queuing in a bank to open an account or waiting on the phone for nearly an hour to talk to somebody about their utility bill
When the late Joe Walsh retired as minister for agriculture, after nine years in the role, a reporter asked him what difference it made to his life. Getting through airports, he replied, because for almost a decade he had never had to check himself in for a flight and he was no longer au fait with the procedure. It’s hard to imagine the ministers for finance and public expenditure queuing in a bank to open an account or waiting on the phone for nearly an hour to talk to somebody about their utility bill. When homogeneity shrouds the Cabinet room, it blinkers its outlook.
There has been much speculation that the next general election could produce the first woman taoiseach, in the person of Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald. What is seldom mentioned is that Ireland has yet to have a woman finance minister. The successor-in-waiting in that party’s purportedly radical ranks is also a white, middle aged man.
Unlike the weather-house clocks of yore, equal representation is not a fashion moment. It is essential in an increasingly diverse republic of equals. Without it, paternalism rules in what some hilariously call a nanny state.