The spinning line said it all. We're just going a few years back to the future. Tax rates from 2006, spending levels of 2007. Remember those heady times? Don't you all want to be back there, bigging it up, partying through the last days of the bubble empire?
The National Recovery Plan was published last Wednesday to the tolling of much doom and gloom. Anybody insane enough to have followed the coverage through the day and evening (commit me, now!) would have been left with a sore head. All those specially extended programmes added up to a specially extended headache.
The most depressing aspect of the plan is that it wasn't a plan at all. Neither was it national in the true meaning of that word. And it certainly had nothing to do with recovery from where we are now at.
Instead, all we got was an accountancy exercise, illustrating how all the books in the public finances would finally be balanced in four years' time. Once the sums are fixed, it's bob's your uncle and off we go again, back to where we left off.
Equally depressing was that the so-called plan reverted to political type. In the great tradition of these things, there was something for the various elements of the electorate.
Cutting the minimum wage presented a fig leaf to business, irrespective of the callousness of such a move, or even the relevancy. Keeping Croke Park intact bought off the unions. Steering clear of the state pension – after initially flagging the prospect of a cut – ensured that the valued grey vote stayed onside. And heaping plenty of pain on the young – cuts to wages of new entrants to the public service, nothing on youth employment, or massive mortgage debt – was not a hard choice, as the young tend to avoid the ballot box.
There was no creativity in this exercise, no ideas, nothing to which the word 'hope' could be pinned. It reflected the party's current station, clapped out, exhausted, punch drunk from two years of trying to clean up a mess it had created.
For instance, where was the imagination in the area of jobs? The only serious measure proposed was to cut the minimum wage by €1. This might look good in the international press, or among the ideological footsoldiers who deal in bonds, but only 4% of the workforce is paid the lowest wage.
Proposing something in relation to training would have made far more sense. Instead of walloping the lowest paid and those on the dole, they could have moved to reform welfare and training to better incentivise the unemployed to take up part-time work while retaining some benefits. Flexibility is a major issue in the modern workforce. Training and welfare policies need to better reflect the demands of the workplace, and this requires some imagination on the part of policy makers.
Elsewhere, it was the same old same old. While battering those at the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder, our gilded friends at the upper reaches continue to be treated with kid gloves. There was nothing on the system of so-called professional fees that belongs in the 19th century. The IMF have been called in here, yet our hospital consultants are paid up to twice that earned by their colleagues in a functioning economy like the UK. So it goes in the legal business, accountancy, auditing, consulting. So it goes in politics and the upper echelons of the public service. How can a government minister in a country run by the IMF be paid more than €100,000 per annum?
The Tasc thinktank has produced figures which show that a single person on €40,000 and those earning €300,000 will both see their income tax bills rise by €1,860 under the plan. Fairness, along with imagination, is nowhere to be seen.
With nothing but pain to offer for the future, the thrust was to psychologically drag the citizenry back to the heady days of 2006. Oh what fun we had living on a dream back then.
There was shopping in New York, apartments in Bulgaria, cocaine on tap for the heralded beautiful people. And it was a pre-election year so the streets of every town and village were paved with euro notes to let the electorate know that the government was really just a big, cuddly sugar daddy. The distant rumbling of thunder was nothing more than a trick being played on the nation's hearing.
Our leaders quite obviously want to return to those illusory times, but what about the rest of us? Are we to accept that the deep-seated problems which cumulatively led to this point can be tackled by simply imposing austerity?
The first item on any plan to rebuild the country has to be political reform. Only from that can structural reform follow. If we continue with a system which hoards centralised power in the executive and reduces parliament to a talking shop, nothing will change. If the role of a TD continues to be that of a glorified county councillor, incompetence and apathy at the highest level will come back to haunt once more. Without reform, the destructive modus operandi of taking care of vested interests first and foremost will not be tackled.
Fine Gael has proposed some changes that amount to little more than tinkering around the edges. What is required is real engagement by concerned citizens in order to find a better way forward.
There are some stirrings in groups like Claiming Our Future. The journalist Fintan O'Toole has written a book entitled Enough is Enough which is worth a read. His proposals for political reform consist of little more than well-articulated common sense. That they appear radical in the context of this country is a sad indictment on the moribund political culture that has dragged us into the mire.
Change will not come from the top. We have to look beyond austerity to a country which will never again be so recklessly abandoned by its leaders. The future is unwritten and it can be full of hope, but we need to begin looking in places other than a discredited exercise in figures.