The astonishment at Brian Cowen's admission that he was as surprised as the rest of us by the scale of the €2bn shortfall in tax revenues which accumulated in just the first two months of the year is no manufactured outrage.
Nobody can quite believe that, even though our economic independence is on the line, it is still part of civil service custom and practice that the Taoiseach of the day only gets the monthly exchequer updates at the end of each month. Even, it seems, when tax returns are crippled by total economic shutdown, as has happened in the past two months, it didn't occur to anybody to ring an alarm bell.
And so it was that when the Taoiseach told the Dáil of the sickening scale of the fall-off in tax returns, he looked unprepared – almost as shocked as everyone else. We now know that is because he was both shocked and unprepared. His slightly stuttering performance last Tuesday in which he obdurately refused to admit that 'budget' was the only word to describe the draconian fiscal "adjustments" needed urgently to maintain our debt at the already massive 9.5% of GDP set for 2009, was a reflection of his lack of preparation. The returns had only just dropped on his desk. He barely had a chance to digest them, let alone devise a coping strategy, and therefore he exposed himself to both the Dáil and the nation as looking utterly at sea.
The following day we got the announcement of an emergency budget, followed by crisis briefings for the Opposition parties, and more briefings with the social partners. Once again, the mantra of global recession and constantly changing events damaging our ability to export and compete was dragged out. These, we were told again, have to be met with social solidarity and everybody pulling together. Tax rises and spending cuts, maybe even social welfare reductions, are all on the list in the "nothing can be ruled out" nature of the April budget.
The jargon disguises nothing. The government was caught flat-footed. Ministers were let down by those who should have been alert enough to warn them sooner of the looming crisis. But the Taoiseach and his cabinet ministers have only themselves to blame for the inefficiencies in the public sector which they have left unchecked.
Labour's Joan Burton rightly identified the nub of the issue: "The credit controller of a small company would have kept, and would have looked for, weekly reports on their revenue situation."
Cowen and Lenihan did not. The killer business instinct that drives private sector companies to succeeding in the good times and to managing in a downturn simply isn't in cabinet. It is a definite area of weakness. It means the public service is not getting the direction – or the reality check – it needs to keep those who must take watershed political decisions about the direction of this country sufficiently informed.
This government clearly lacks the input of sharp-minded business experience and needs to draw from a wider pool. There is talk of a national government. Whether Fine Gael or Labour would be prepared "in the national interest" to form such an alliance with a government that has had nothing but contempt for their ideas for so long, is debatable. Politically, it is a huge gamble. But just as important is a government that taps into all the talents – not just the social partners but people with the broader, less sectional, experience of successfully running businesses and institutions in the international arena. A mechanism for picking the best brains in the country needs to be found. The ideas of people such as Peter Sutherland, to name just one hugely respected business and political figure, should be harnessed. They have too much to offer and we can't afford to ignore their analysis.
The priority for the emergency budget is the need to regain our competitive edge and thereby protect jobs. If 500,000 people are out of work by the end of the year, it will cost the exchequer a completely unaffordable €5.5bn in unemployment assistance over a full year. The dwindling tax base can't support that and there will be no hope of protecting the weak in any meaningful way.
The budget must contain no impediments to economic activity. All changes to taxation must be straightforward and simple – the scattergun approach of the last budget must be consigned to the dustbin of lost opportunities. Changes in income tax rates and bands must be easy for businesses to implement, easy for the government to collect.
The cost of doing business in this country must be reduced. We have made a start with electricity costs. But we must cut further. There is something wrong when the cost of everything is going down but the services provided by the state are going up.
The public sector needs its political masters to insist on new targets, on new practices and on new philosophies. Its expertise and the services it provides are badly needed, but they must be provided more efficiently and cost effectively, especially among the higher paid who must demonstrate greater management expertise and leadership.
The government has to show by example. All ministerial and TD salaries should be cut so that they are on a par, or lower than, their equivalent in similar-sized economies in Europe. The economy is shrinking fast. Whatever we can't afford has to go so we can grow again as soon as possible.