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Saturday 3 December 2016

Andrew Lynch: Enda's spending plan signals new era of auction politics

Enda Kenny
Enda Kenny

How much does it take to buy a general election these days? Enda Kenny has just opened the bidding at €27bn, cunningly disguised as the Government's new capital spending plan.

Clearly the Taoiseach believes he can bulldoze his way to victory - but a closer examination suggests that this strategy is built on shaky foundations.

The 54-page document unveiled at Heuston Station yesterday is certainly about politics just as much as economics.

Highlights include a new rail link between Dublin city centre and the Airport, a major expansion of the DART, and the relocation of two maternity hospitals.

Down the list, however, there are also building projects or road upgrades for just about every county in Ireland. Within minutes, a host of Fine Gael and Labour TDs were sending out press releases to boast about the improvements they had personally secured for their constituencies.

Of course, all of these promises come with a catch. If voters do not show their appreciation by rewarding this Government with a second term, then the plan may become null and void.

After all, Brian Cowen announced an even more lavish capital programme shortly before the last general election - but within months both he and it were history.

Yesterday's event was a curtain-raiser for the Budget on October 13, which will distribute around €1.5bn split between tax cuts and public spending increases.

The Government has designed these set-pieces as shows of strength, proving that our long economic nightmare is over. By now, their election slogan is blindingly obvious: we got you through the bad times, please stick with us for the recovery as well.

Nobody can deny that Ireland's infrastructure needs serious investment. Capital spending almost ground to a halt during the recession, as cranes disappeared from Dublin's skyline and Breakfast Roll Man was forced to join the dole queue.

Borrowed

In fairness to the Government, their new list contains plenty of good ideas and no obvious white elephants (remember the infamous Bertie Bowl?)

There is, however, a huge grey creature with floppy ears and a trunk in the room. Every single cent of this plan's €27bn will have to be borrowed and eventually paid back with interest.

The Government has spent over four years marketing itself as sober, cautious and responsible - but with an election in sight it has suddenly whipped out its (well, our) chequebook and extended the national overdraft.

At an Ibec dinner two weeks ago, Enda Kenny tried to hammer home his key election theme of stability. Referring to the positive recent economic news, he declared: "Some people will look at these figures and shudder, thinking, 'Oh God, here we go back to the political burlesque of 'showtime.'

"Except they can relax - with this Government, we are never going back to boom and bust. It's goodbye showtime, hello stability - maybe not as glamorous but definitely more sensible."

Today, those words are ringing pretty hollow. Kenny loves to criticise Charlie McCreevy, the former Fianna Fail Finance Minister who famously said: "If I have it, I spend it."

In fact, Enda has given Champagne Charlie's philosophy a whole new twist - "If I don't have it, I just borrow it before election day and let a new generation pick up the tab."

A grown-up capital spending plan would be much less flashy than the one delivered yesterday. It would prioritise areas that can deliver a decent financial return on any investment, not adopt the Late Late Show approach of something for everyone.

It would not focus on building works that create photo-opportunities for ministers with ribbon-cutting scissors, nor would it insult our intelligence by announcing a National Children's Hospital for the umpteenth time since 2006.

When Bertie Ahern went on a mad spending spree before the 2007 general election, Brian Lenihan privately observed, "he's lost his bottle".

Enda Kenny may not be exactly panicking, but he has clearly decided that bribing voters with their own money is not enough. The Taoiseach plans to bribe us with borrowed cash as well.

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