If the Government expects people to endure savage cuts in the Budget, then politicians and former Taoisigh must be willing to make sacrifices and accept financial reductions for themselves.
This is the view of Independent Galway West TD Noel Grealish. Although he has yet to make up his mind as to what way he will vote on the Budget, he already knows some of what he would like to see in it.
Fianna Fáil is anxious to secure Dep Grealish’s vote ahead of Budget day on December 7, and the party has already held three separate talks with him - one with Government chief whip John Curran and another with Defence Minister Tony Killeen.
“I made it clear to John Curran that I want to know what is in the Budget before I make any decision,” Dep Grealish told the Galway Advertiser, “and Tony Killeen said the Budget was going to be ‘savage’ and that every man, woman, and child, will be hit.”
In September Dep Grealish pulled his support for the Government and said that Taoiseach Brian Cowen could no longer rely on him to support every vote. His position remains unchanged on the Budget.
“I will wait until I see what will be in the Budget before making up my mind,” her said “but the Government cannot count on my support and they are not guaranteed my vote.”
Dep Grealish acknowledges that the Budget will involve “tough decisions”, but he is concerned that the Government’s approach could end up being one that will punish middle income earners, the elderly, and the most vulnerable in society, while leaving the wealthy and high earners relatively unscathed.
“Tough decisions will have to be made but it needs to be done fairly,” he said. “We have to start at the top and work our way down, instead of what we seem to be doing which is starting cutting at the bottom. If the Budget is going to hurt the disadvantaged and the needy, I will not give it my support.”
Dep Grealish argues that politicians, both serving and retired, must lead by example on this and “take some pain” themselves.
“A Taoiseach will receive a €600,000 gratuity and a pension of €160,000. A minister will get a gratuity of €430,000 and a pension of €130,000 and that gratuity is tax free. That is not on,” he said.
“We have to lead by example and the gratuities and pensions have to be capped. When Bertie gets €600,000 as a gratuity, on top of €30,000 for appearances and speaking engagements, that is wrong. Former Taoisigh and ministers should not be getting such sums, no matter who he or she is or what they have done.”
Dep Grealish is also calling for a curtailment of use of cars for former Taoisigh and presidents.
“Ministerial cars should only be used for official functions after being agreed to by the Department of Justice, and should not be used for going to Mass or going to a match,” he said. “Also these people can well afford to pay for a driver if they want one. There should not have to be gardaí on standby all the time.”
While Dep Grealish acknowledges that these measures on their own will not save the economy, he believes they will result in savings and would show that politicians are prepared to make the sacrifices they expect the people to take.
The Government is keen to secure Dep Grealish’s vote as its majority has eroded to just 82 as against 79 for the Opposition. Despite this Taoiseach Cowen is determined to brazen it out until March/April, but he could find himself facing an election much sooner if only two Government TDs or Government-supporting Independents vote against the Budget with the Opposition.
Does Dep Grealish feel that Fianna Fáil backbenchers could bring down the Government if the Budget cuts, say, the Old Age Pension?
“It’s hard to know with the Fianna Fáil backbenchers,” he says. “They often say they will oppose the Government, only to vote with them constantly. Then there is Jackie Healy Rae, he will not be standing at the next General Election, so he won’t have to worry what he does, and Michael Lowry always gets a great vote no matter what, so it’s hard to say.”
However Dep Grealish is in no doubt that a General Election is vital in order to allow a new Government a clean slate to properly tackle the State’s financial mess.
“It is time for an election,” he says. “It would give a new Government a new mandate to put a five year plan in place and that is what we need. This government cannot really do a five year plan as it will be gone by early next year anyway.”