Last year on Tuesday, December 7, as Finance Minister Brian Lenihan unveiled his Budget for 2011, a shriek of anguish and despair filled the Dáil chamber and reverberated through the corridors of Leinster House. It was the Labour Finance Spokesperson, Joan Burton, feeling the intense pain of ordinary families and the poor whose living standards were being flayed, and bewailing the extra economic harshness being doled out to women and children.
How dismayed the same women and children of Ireland must have been on Monday and Tuesday as they saw their champion of yesteryear – horribly transmogrified in twelve short months – reappear as their torturer, inflicting on them the same pain as Minister Lenihan, and then some more. The mother of three or more who will feel the lash as child benefit is slashed. The lone parent, most often a woman, doing her best on a Community Employment Scheme who has had the razor taken to her qualified child allowance. And the children also – those in homes that will be €120 the poorer due to fuel allowance cuts added to the cut in Back to School Clothing and Footwear Allowance of €50 and €55 for every primary and secondary school child respectively.
The squalid attack on younger disabled people with the intention of robbing them and their families of €46 million per year, has been rightly highlighted and roundly condemned. Minister Burton and her government have made a hasty retreat. That must not be allowed to create a smokescreen which hides these other savage cuts to people already in great economic distress.
How different it was twelve months ago when Deputy Burton rose to speak; ‘I daresay the Minister must be aware that people with children took the biggest cuts this year and last year. Let us remember child benefit is paid almost universally to women. I suppose that is a comment on how few women are Members of this House and what little political power women exercise compared to bankers. The Minister always says ‘Yes’ to bankers but he always finds it difficult to make payments in respect of children.’ Deputy Burton continued, ‘There is enough austerity in today’s announcement by the Minister, Deputy Lenihan, to make even the most ardent Tea Party fan grin in delight. There is pain for the poor, money for the rich, particularly for the bankers, and the rolling back of the State.’
Even by the dismal standards of the Labour Party in breaking faith with those whom they convinced with promises to vote for them, Burton’s about face is breathtaking. From the high pedestal onto which she had hoisted herself as the defender of women and the poor, she plunged with eyes wide open into the cynical pool of the same male dominated establishment politicians whom she had lacerated and wielded the axe at the behest of the bankers and the IMF/EU with the same crude callousness as the most crass male opportunist.
As for Deputy Burton’s charge against Lenihan that the bankers came before women and children, clearly now the very same bankers are every bit as safe in her embrace as Minister, as they were with her Fianna Fail predecessors. The €465 million cuts in Social Welfare in 2012 stand in sharp contrast to the €700 million paid only four weeks ago to the unsecured speculators who had gambled on Anglo Irish bonds. And the further €1.8 billion that will follow that by the end of next June even as the cuts to the income of workers and the poor are biting more deeply.
The United Left Alliance highlighted boldly in the course of the Budget debate that these cuts did not need to be made, had the radical taxation policy that it advocated been followed. It was pointed out how the Central Statistics Office had calculated wealth net of liabilities of €468 billion in this State in 2010. Credit Suisse, a multinational finance services company, in its Global Report 2011, calculated that the richest 5% of the population own 48.6% of that wealth, giving them net assets of €219 billion. A modest wealth/assets tax of 5% on that would raise around €10 billion. The ULA also calculated that the very wealthiest income earners could contribute another €5 billion in income tax per year and still have considerable incomes.
This means that if a political decision had been taken to institute progressive taxation rather than an assault on the low and middle income earners, not only would the cuts not be necessary but substantial investment could be channelled to public projects that would take tens of thousands off the dole and help to regenerate an economy broken by capitalist crisis which has been enormously worsened by the austerity supposedly introduced to fix it.