Let's for a minute pretend that Charlie McCreevy had no hand in turning the country into a basket case. When he retires on 1 January, McCreevy will begin drawing a pension of €173,000 per annum. This sum is index linked and he will be entitled to the pension for the rest of his life. McCreevy is just 60 years of age.
If he had nothing to do with the messing up of the country, the awarding of a such a pension would be merely obscene. As it is, the sum he will receive in perpetuity is also insulting. Apart from destroying the tax base, sorting out developer friends with a 20% tax rate and using the exchequer like a Fianna Fáil election fund, McCreevy is also remembered for greatly boosting the earnings and corresponding pensions of politicians. €173,000. Remember the figure. Remember the obscenity. We can't afford to forget.
On Wednesday, Brian Lenihan has an opportunity to begin repairing some of the damage wreaked by McCreevy. Last year, he made a half-assed attempt to tackle the greed-fest that is politicians drawing pensions while still holding public office. Those who had the loot wouldn't play ball. Lenihan didn't push it.
In this budget it is incumbent on him to ensure that politicians share the pain. He must make deep cuts, particularly to office holders in government and he must tackle the pensions gravy train. No politician should be entitled to a pension before the age of 65.
There are other issues Lenihan is obliged to tackle if he really wants a proper Republic to develop in the wake of the oligarchy that sprang up over the last decade. If the pain being dished out does not come with a nourishing side order of social justice, then Lenihan will be merely compounding the problems currently besetting the country.
The judiciary must be brought back to the real world. The response of judges to a proposed voluntary pay cut last year was pathetic. They are unwilling to lead so they should be instructed to follow. Ignore the legal opinion on the constitution, cut the pay, let them sue. Let's see who will stick a head above the parapet to claim that the judiciary is being compromised by such a move.
Tax exiles must be dished a dose of reality. The rules as they stand effectively allow tax exiles to partake in national life while skipping off abroad for six months of the year with their loot. Tighten the rules. If JP McManus deigns to donate to charity in a high-profile manner, let him do so by posting money from abroad rather than dispensing notes to the peasantry from the gates of his garish mansion. Let's bring some republican sensibilities to the issue.
There is a compelling argument for a higher rate of tax for those earning in excess of €100,000. The government has no problem sticking it to people on the breadline. Let's share out the pain.
There is also a compelling argument for a property tax in the name of equity, but that won't happen this year. However, it is imperative that the tax on second homes be ratcheted up to a meaningful level.
As of 26 November, the €200 tax had yielded €49m. That represents 245,000 properties. Even allowing for multiple ownership, there must be upwards of 200,000 people who own more than one home. The tax should be increased to at least €500, or even twice that. At a time when some are being forced to go without the essentials, it's not too much to ask property owners to stump up at a mere €10 a week per property.
The racket that is professional fees has not yet been addressed. In areas like the law, finance and accounting, the government is in a position to influence the market by dint of the volume of state work handed out. Now is the time to bring these vested interests to heel.
There are other measures that an imaginative financial brain could apply in the name of social justice. Not all of them will garner huge sums, but the budget must be framed to accommodate more than just the balancing of the books. Otherwise, we are merely gearing up for a return to a huckster economy, rather than attempting to fashion some class of a sustainable society.
The portents are not good. From the leaks accruing, it already appears obvious that the government has bowed to political considerations in failing to reform child benefit. There is absolutely no case for continuing universal provision in this area. Scant resources should not be deployed to the wealthy or even those on middle incomes at a time of crisis.
Political consideration also informed the decision to cut payments to the unemployed who are under 23 years of age. The political fall-out from that move is eminently shippable. That was the prime consideration.
It's up to Lenihan and Brian Cowen to decide what kind of society they want to see emerging from the wreckage. We will learn a lot on Wednesday. By their actions in applying or ignoring social justice shall you know them.
One way or the other, it will be the hairshirt for the next few budgets to come. If we need a compass to guide us through the coming years, what better one than a large poster of Charlie McCreevy to be displayed wherever people gather in anger. Underneath his smiling face, the legend should read: 'This man was awarded a €173,000 pension in the name of service to the public. Never Again'.