National Children's Hospital fiasco sums up why we don't trust the government with our money
Can you put a price on your child's health?
Of course not, it's priceless. You'd pay any amount of money in the world in order to keep your child healthy, and provide them with the best of care. No figure would be too high. Sorry, hang on. Did somebody just say €1.7 billion? Okay, well. That actually seems a bit steep.
Originally priced at €650 million — at the time, this was the most expensive healthcare investment project in Ireland's history — it is now clear that The National Children's Hospital at St. James' will cost more than €1,700,000,000. How much more is not yet clear.
Yesterday, Leo Varadkar announced to the Dáil that the government would be paying more than half a million euro to PwC for an independent inquiry into why the project ended up going so far over budget.
The official line from Minister for Health Simon Harris is that the increase is resultant of "hyperinflation" in construction costs. Harris also said this surge in costs was "no surprise" following a recession — which begs the question why the project was originally priced at €650 million.
Sadly, wage inflation never seems to match the inflation of anything else in this country — but sure look, when the money is spent, it's spent.
When people complain about these public spending projects gone wrong, we're not crying over spilt milk. We're crying that the government is pouring milk into our lap and expecting us to drink it and say 'thank you'.
Major projects going over budget is par for the course. Most of us can't get through a night out without going over-budget. Something like a children's hospital or public transport is a long term investment that could stand to a country for decades, if not a century. If the damn thing works then nobody will remember 50 years from now that it cost twice what we expected it to.
Another landmark infrastructure project of this government — the cross-city Luas — actually came in narrowly under-budget. The issue in that case is that it doesn't seem to have improved inner-city transport at all. It barely moves faster than a walking pace and has caused congestion at vital areas like College Green.
As with the cross-city Luas — the ultimate issue here is not one of money but one of trust. The Irish public has no faith, for all their hard-earned money spent, that the project will be successful. And why should they?
If your plans can be scuppered by the rate of inflation over the course of two years during a supposed economic recovery that you are overseeing then people are within their rights to ask whether you know what the hell you're doing.
And all of this leaves to one side the many issues with The National Children's Hospital that were raised long before it became such an unholy clusterfuck. Throughout the process of selecting and seeking planning to build the hospital on St. James' in Dublin 8, critics vociferously campaigned against the decision.
A Red C poll conducted in 2016 revealed that 73% of people believed that the government had chosen the wrong site for the hospital. A group called Connolly 4 Kids Hospital produced a petition boasting 60,000 signatures. The option to build the hospital on a greenfield site off the M50 — closer to any rurally-based patients — was there from the start. Instead, the government chose a congested site near the middle of Dublin city centre, a decision which has now gotten the best of them.
It was mistakes in the original decision making process — arrogance, stubbornness, etc — that left Ireland beholden to a rate of inflation that should have been predictable anyway. The issue is not economic, it's one of basic competence.
The reason that citizens in high-tax economies are happy enough to fork over so much of their money to the government is because that money is then visibly reinvested in public infrastructure that benefits the public in ways that are unavoidable.
The toughest tax increases ever faced by the Irish public came as a consequence of Fianna Fáil's bailout of Anglo-Irish Bank in 2009, quickly followed by our own Troika bailout. From that point onwards, all tax increases went towards servicing the debt as government spending fell by the wayside.
The Irish government will never be able to justify raising taxes on the middle-class, because its reputation for squandering public cash makes such increases untenable. A system where tax revenue is constantly playing catch-up with the latest fuck up is not one that will ever command much respect.
The National Children's Hospital is just the latest chapter in Ireland's long history of poorly spent public money. It is too late now for the government to do anything but compound the mistake.
Yesterday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced to the Dáil that the government would be paying more than half a million euro to PwC for an independent inquiry into why the project ended up going so far over budget. Never before has the answer been more clearly contained within the question.