GIVEN the severe impact of the VAT ‘grab’ by the UK, and the ongoing credit crisis in our major markets of the UK and Europe (with Greece looking ever more likely to leave the euro and to default on its borrowings, and both Italy and Spain likely to be dragged into deeper financial turmoil), our government was elected in the full knowledge of us all that the island faces difficult economic times – and that painful decisions would be required of the new team in Tynwald.
The government has made its first hesitant steps to implement the necessary cutbacks – in the library services, pre-school provision and the long overdue closure of the MEA retail outlets, for example – but immediately walked into the difficulties of the ‘entitlements’ economy, of vested interest groups and the near impossibility of retreating from state provided services.
The electorate knows the island’s economy is in serious difficulties – most of us are having to think carefully of just where we spend our (limited) cash, while a walk down Strand Street quickly reveals the lack of consumer demand hitting the retail sector.
Nevertheless, knowing that cutbacks are essential, and that the government books need to be balanced, most voters seem to believe that the burden should be borne by someone else, not them. The threat of cutbacks perhaps seemed OK, unreal and abstract, when only an election issue, until the talk became reality and the government started to implement the very modest first steps of its austerity programme.
At which point, the vested interest groups and those ‘entitled’ to what they believed were ongoing services come out of the woodwork. Understandably, but perhaps naively, voters prefer the status quo, of continuing entitlements and services.
Given the choice, would turkeys vote for Christmas ? Which then makes life tough for those in government !
And those in government, all honourable men, what do they do when they need to enact legislation likely to be unpopular with their electorates? Even when they explain at length the necessity to make economies, and the limited budgets at their disposal, they no doubt fear that unpopular decisions may rebound on them in four years’ time – and nothing strikes fear in a politician faster than an angry electorate.
And again, one must ask the question whether turkeys vote for Christmas? Hence perhaps the grandstanding by some members when Mr Karran made his announcements about the library service and pre-school education.
Heaven help us (and them!) when Mr Robertshaw starts to deal with the issues facing his department – with benefits, social housing, residential care homes, etc – or Mr Anderson with the ever increasing health budget.
This government is allegedly a government of national unity, a government of all the talents. It is becoming clearer by the day that in reality it continues to be riven with factional interest, and opportunists seeking their own advantage.
Mr Bell needs to get a grip on the members of his government and to make clear the need for action – whether unpopular or not.
He was elected on a platform of transforming our public services, of changing the culture of public sector workers, and of re-balancing our national budget.
So far, the measures taken have been cosmetic and relatively minor, more creative accounting than reality – and the sooner he starts the task of real change, the better it will be in the long term.
The updated Report on the Structure of Government is a useful first step to understanding the issues – but the choice is stark. A little pain now, or a lot more pain in five to 10 years’ time if not addressed.