Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Listen well, Mr Cowen, to the wise words of Richard Bruton

MARY Coughlan storms her way through most interviews, pausing neither for questions nor for answers, though she does address them if convenient. In her interview on the economy yesterday morning she attempted to bury a hatchet in the back of Richard Bruton's head in order to demolish his arguments during Thursday's Fine Gael press conference releasing the party's economic proposals.

She accused him of having his head in the sand. It seems, in the light of the unemployment news that followed yesterday, that she has her head buried up to the neck in good Donegal soil.

We have to confront the numbers signing on the Live Register. These are topping 220,000 after a shock rise of 19,000 in June. That is 10,000 extra workers signing on. It puts the unemployment rate at close to 6pc and needs action. It is not Armageddon, but it is serious.

The rise casts doubt on Wednesday's Government financial estimates, based on an extra 40,000 signing on over the rest of the year. Some hope of that now. Last month's increase alone would cost the Exchequer €200m in dole payments over a year.

Mary Coughlan seemed to be giving notice that the last thing the Government will do is listen to good advice and take it. That is what they got from Richard Bruton, a serious and dedicated political economist and probably the most gifted politician in the Fine Gael party.

He has monitored the economic life of Ireland with care and objectivity since well before that other storm-trooper, Brian Cowen, took over from Charlie McCreevy, and presided over the old age of the Celtic Tiger.

Cowen has also floundered, in recent weeks and is giving an unmerited message of reassurance, probably because he has not yet prepared the reform package he promised us.

Reform is the basis on which Richard Bruton built his alternative economic strategy, constructing it over five careful years. It is better than the message coming from Fianna Fail. Their approach is to offer reassurances and blame the international situation and oil prices. It excuses setting aside the many overdue reforms.

"More of the same from this Government," Bruton says, "simply won't do. We have to see real change and real reform." Bruton's account of Cowen's 'blunders' is a judgment on the loose hold Cowen had as minister for finance. Then the job seemed easy. Now it is piling up with problems.

The Bruton criticisms are indisputable. They need a detailed response next week.

Cowen is accused by Bruton of reckless inflationary budgets. These were driven by electoral needs and they killed our competitiveness. There were huge increases in day-to-day spending financed by unsustainable property tax revenues. Public sector reform was stalled and any 'value-for-money' discipline failed.

But Bruton is essentially not a critic in the barnstorming manner of either Brian Cowen or Mary Coughlan. Richard Bruton's approach has always been a constructive one. The interests of the country supersede those of his party or of himself. It is the most attractive aspect of his political personality and it often serves to divert attention rather than concentrate it. One has to listen. He wants avoidable waste cut out. He proposes abandoning ministerial and higher public service pay rises, a reduction in the excessive number of junior ministries, the rationalising of State agencies and the abandonment of Fianna Fail's daft decentralisation plans, which have certainly not worked and never will.

Another barn-stormer, in the person of Brian Lenihan, has another set of glib answers which again indicate no clear grasp of what is going on. It isn't crisis: The point Bruton makes is that it is manageable. But it does have to be managed.

All of the proposed Richard Bruton actions -- which I don't see Cowen following -- would have a significant psychological impact. They are needed by the electorate which is in a sea of problems and is only going to be angered by bland assurances. They want help on high personal overdrafts and other debts, over-reliance on borrowing, inflation on the increase, high fuel costs as well as high costs for essentials.

There are specifics in Bruton's proposals; they include closing the stamp-duty loophole for landowners and developers and using the funds to cut duty rates for ordinary families. He also wants VAT cut from 13.5pc to 12.5pc, using a €1.5bn carbon windfall levy on power generators, the freezing of State charges in hospitals, public transport, TV licence and so on. On the partnership bargaining he demands a moderate pay deal.

Bruton wisely proposes accelerating Budget reforms, though sustaining the capital spending in order to keep the National Development Plan in place. This still allows for cuts as well as controls on current budget spending for the next three years. He suggests raising a strategic fund of €2bn through a 1pc budget cut in every department. This would be used to finance priority welfare payments and service improvements and in keeping key promises.

Bruton's demands for real public service reforms remain his priority. And if Cowen is going to abide by the key promise he made on taking took office, it will have to be his priority.

The Fine Gael strategy is impressive. It provides us all with a wants list for the future that is balanced, rational, pretty comprehensive and workable. We should follow it.