Labour finance spokeswoman Joan Burton: a 'Top Gear' budget

"We are in an economic war. Our defences are weak, our equipment is not modern and our generals have failed us." Those were the words of Fine Gael finance spokesman Richard Bruton in his immediate reaction to Brian Lenihan's budget speech.

After Bruton's claim, Labour's Joan Burton described it as a "Top Gear budget" for the lads that gave a decrease in the cost of drink and the car scrappage scheme.

Arthur Morgan, Sinn Féin's finance spokesman, later claimed that budget 2010 was "a missed opportunity".

So have our generals failed us? Was the "Top Gear budget" formulated by the wrong choices? Was last Wednesday's budget a missed opportunity?

In the days after taking up the role of Taoiseach, Brian Cowen publicly pledged, from the back of a lorry during his homecoming celebration in Tullamore, that public sector reform would be a key feature of his tenure as Taoiseach.

Speaking in Jersey last month, Cowen reiterated his commitment to such reform, and said, "Obviously, the level of personnel is one thing, but there's also the whole question of work practices, rostering, how the whole pay issue is structured and how it varies from sector to sector.

"There's a huge amount of work to be done on that. It's not an overnight thing to turn it around or change it."

Cowen has remained true to his word that it is not an "overnight thing" as it is 18 months since his speech in Tullamore and nothing has happened. Budget 2010 was also bereft of it.

A study of the budget's spending estimates, carried out by Fine Gael TD Michael D'Arcy, has found that only "a paltry" 0.66% in the administration costs of running the state (or €30m out of a spend of €4.44bn) was cut in the budget.

Citing examples of administration costs of Fás remaining at €150m in 2010, and the HSE administration budget rising by €7m to €126m, D'Arcy argued, "The waste, bureaucracy and duplication which has been endemic throughout the public sector continues to be tolerated."

It must be said that Cowen does seem to realise that reform is essential and moves in this direction are expected to materialise in the coming year. But nothing happened on Wednesday.

One of the other missed opportunities in the budget was the government's failure to cut public sector pensions.

The An Bord Snip Nua report outlined that the "real cost" of these pensions is some €7.7bn each year and recommended reform in this area. But the opportunity was not seized and Lenihan left pensions unscathed on Wednesday.

By leaking nearly all the details of the budget in advance, the public was conditioned into expecting the worst budget in the history of the state, while the release of the McCarthy report in July was fundamental in giving the public a wake-up call.

That report's contents were later compounded in September when McCarthy told journalists, "A small reality is that this country is bust. There is no shortage of compassion; there is a shortage of money. We are borrowing €400m per week..."

During a post-budget media briefing on Wednesday night, Lenihan acknowledged, "Publishing the McCarthy report focused people's minds". So if people were so prepared by McCarthy, and others, for a horrific budget, the question arises as to whether Wednesday's budget was a missed opportunity in terms of implementing more of McCarthy's reforms?

When the opportunity was there, did Lenihan implement enough of McCarthy?

One of the most radical proposals in McCarthy's report was the rationalisation of 43 state agencies or quangos which would deliver over €170m in savings. Given the stark absence of this rationalisation in Wednesday's budget, perhaps the government should have gone further.

Lenihan poured cold water on the idea that more of the report should have been implemented on Wednesday evening and said that "€2bn of the savings in today's budget were identified in the McCarthy report". So as the political fallout has been minimal, do any Fianna Fáil TDs believe there were mistakes in the budget?

One backbench Fianna Fáil TD told the Sunday Tribune, "anger is brewing in the public sector. We cannot be complacent about this budget. People are very angry. The cut in public service pay of 5% on the first €30,000 of salary is the most controversial decision. That cut is severe and they could have graduated or tiered it in a different way.

"Perhaps these low earners' first €20,000 should have been exempt from this cut. Most people on these wages don't pay tax so they will end up paying a net 5% cut. The net effect for TDs is just 4% so this is severe on the lower paid when you do the comparison."

Lenihan's budget has been met with little more than a murmur from the Fianna Fáil backbenchers.

Whether the generals have failed us or not, the foot soldiers are not planning any mutiny.