Ben Lowry: Politics is telling us what we want to hear, not what we need to hear

Spend, spend, spend is often the attitude of political parties in Northern Ireland
Spend, spend, spend is often the attitude of political parties in Northern Ireland

The arrival of election week has highlighted a problem facing the governance of Northern Ireland, which reflects a wider problem in all western democracies.

The main political parties are not inclined to tell voters some of the things that badly need to happen in society.

Instead, they are quick to make promises to the electorate as to what their proposed administration would do, and those promises invariably cost money.

They are not so keen about talking about how their promises will be funded, unless of course it is to say that it will all be paid for by some villainous rich people who are not currently pulling their weight.

But while NI parties might tell you that they will shift the burden to rich taxpayers, they then undermine that very principle by promising to cut corporation tax.

Lower corporation tax is a bid to entice wealthy businesses on the basis that you have to offer them an incentive, such as lower tax.

In summary, the main Northern Ireland parties want to spend, spend, spend.

They then want to ensure that the voter pays little or nothing (in terms of things such as water charges).

They sometimes point to rich people or businesses who are not paying their way. And yet they also want to cut taxes for some of those rich businesses.

It is not hard to see the problems that such an almost incoherent combination of policies might cause.

At an election press conference that I attended some years ago, Peter Robinson described the DUP as a low tax party. It is, and so too are his rivals. But they are high spend parties at the same time.

If a government is both low-tax and high-spend, then one of a number of things can happen:

• You go bust as a country.

• You find other ways to meet your shortfall, such as inflating your way out of debt (thus wrecking the economy)

• Or you can get someone else to pay.

In Northern Ireland we are lucky to have had English taxpayers who foot the bill for us indefinitely. It is risky to assume that this will continue, given that the assertiveness of Scottish nationalists is beginning to cause the English to wake up to perks that the Celtic fringe enjoy, such as free prescriptions, that the English themselves – the largest net contributors to the Treasury – do not enjoy.

You might expect unionists to be worried about this state of affairs, given that the UK will be in grave peril if the English start losing interest in the Union (as a growing minority of them are doing when it comes to Scotland). But there is next to no indication that the unionist parties are concerned about such a possibility.

The party that has been bold enough to moot increased university fees, and some form of water charges, and end to the absurdity of free prescriptions for people such as me (a mild asthmatic who can easily afford them) is Alliance.

As anyone who reads this column will know, my views on many issues are to the right of Alliance, but of the five main parties it is closest to demonstrating fiscal responsibility and that has to be recognised.

Alliance was right to mock the SDLP demands for investment in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects while Colum Eastwood’s party also insisted on segregated, and thus more expensive, teacher training.

As I walk into work each day from South Belfast I pass an SDLP poster that says the party want tougher prison sentences for people who attack the elderly. So do most people, and many of us want longer sentences for a range of offences (such as for David Lee Stewart who killed a student Enda Dolan on a wild drunken driving spree).

But which of the parties supports building more prison cells?

There are many issues that they do not mention, including the fact that 11.3% of the population on Northern Ireland is on Disability Living Allowance.

Politicians are terrified of being seen as attacking the disabled. You could argue, though, that it is the failure to tackle DLA that is in fact unfair on the seriously disabled.

So much money is being spent on people who are barely disabled that crucial funds are diverted from those who are most in need.

These problems are particularly acute in Northern Ireland, but they are not unique to here.

Across the western world, heavily indebted governments cater to the short-term demands of electorates, because politicians are so terrified of losing office.

This failure to talk honestly about what can and cannot be afforded, including things such as Northern Ireland’s bloated and inefficient hospital provision, is unfair on the younger generation, who will one day have to deal with the consequences of that debt.

They will have to pick up the tab for unaffordably generous pensions that people who are now retiring aged 60 will enjoy until they die aged 90 something.

They will have to pay for our failure to tackle the excesses of DLA and other bottomless financial liabilities.

One day, perhaps, we will be able to use computer models and bodies akin to the Office for Budgetary Responsibility to price the manifestos of big political parties and to tell voters what it will mean in terms of taxes and expenditure.

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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