Dan O’Brien: ‘Voters should care how their money is spent – broadband saga shows they don’t seem to mind’
Do we care what happens to our money once we have handed it over to the Government in taxes? It often seems we don’t, and that in the public consciousness “public money” materialises from some magical source unrelated to taxes paid.
If most people don’t consider the money the Government spends to be their money, then it shouldn’t be surprising if they don’t mind what it is spent on, whether grasping vested interests are handed large amounts of it, or how much of it is wasted.
Consider this in the context of the national broadband plan, which has been the subject of so much controversy in recent days.
Water and electricity are more essential for any home than high-speed broadband coming through a cable, but every house in the country does not have a right to ‘free’ connections to either the water or electricity networks.
Despite this, politicians thought it a good idea to promise billionaires with holiday homes in the country’s remotest places broadband connections at great cost to their poorer fellow citizens.
Although things may change, there doesn’t seem to be many votes for the Government in accepting that its current plan is a not a good use of taxpayers’ money – if universal connectivity was as essential as the Government claims, many other governments around the world would be making the same commitment. But they are not.
Because there are a lot of votes in appearing to give things away for “free”, the Government has decided to throw €3bn of taxpayers’ money at fulfilling its unwise promise.
An even more powerful motive for proceeding with the plan is the fear of lost votes if the Government does not splash out with taxpayers’ money. With local and European elections just weeks away, a rethinking of the plan would have the “rural-Ireland-is-neglected” brigade out in force.
It appears as if people in this group vastly outnumber the people who think value for money should be a consideration when their taxes are spent. That is the case despite the fact that, in spite of its challenges, rural Ireland is very far from dying.
After declining for 130 years after the Famine, the population of rural areas (classified as those outside conurbations of 1,500 people or more) bottomed out in the early 1970s. Since then it has grown by a quarter.
Even between the censuses of 2006 and 2016, a period which included the worst slump since the 1950s, it grew by more than 100,000. Only one county – Sligo – recorded a fall in its rural population over that tough 10-year period.
All of this has taken place in a geographically peripheral country in an era of ever-increasing urbanisation.
In Spain, Portugal and peripheral eastern parts of Europe, what the EU’s statistics agency calls “predominantly rural regions” are in decline. In the most extreme case, Lithuania’s rural regions lost almost a fifth of their populations in the 10 years after 2006.
Ireland is at the other extreme, recording the biggest rural population gains of any European country in the decade to 2016, as the accompanying chart shows.
Despite all of this, the rural-Ireland-is-dying narrative remains pervasive and widely peddled. Some politicians peddle it. Some even claim deliberate neglect is the cause. This happens, incidentally, despite huge transfer of taxpayers’ money from urban to rural areas and despite rates of material deprivation being higher in the former than the latter.
None of that is to say rural Ireland does not face challenges or that getting broadband to as many people across the country should not be a priority. But politicians need to show leadership and base their positions on facts and evidence.
The Government has not done that with its broadband strategy. That has become publicly evident in the unprecedented publication of the evaluation of the civil servant best placed to evaluate how taxpayers’ money is be spent. The Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Robert Watt, and his staff have shown beyond doubt the broadband plan is not good value for money. Committing €3bn to it will mean other projects, which are good value for money – including schools and hospitals – will be negatively effected.
In a democracy, people get the politicians they deserve. If voters do not punish politicians for the misuse of their taxes when they go to the ballot box, then so be it. But if anyone thinks failing to sanction this sort of behaviour will not impact them personally, they should think again.
The unthinking reaction to throw money at an issue as soon as it sprouts legs is central to the reason no progress has been made in reducing the mountain of government debt in recent years. If the economy hits the skids in the foreseeable future there will be no petrol in the tank to steer it back towards stability.
How the broadband saga plays out will say a lot about how we collectively view the role of the State and how it uses our taxes.
There has never been a case in which the politically motivated misallocation of resources has been highlighted in advance so clearly. If it goes ahead with a collective shrug of the national shoulders it will signal clearly to politicians that voters really don’t care about how their money is spent. That will not be without serious consequence.