Opposition parties opened fire on the government during initial debate on the 2018 budget proposal on Wednesday. The discussion essentially involved opposition benches poking holes into the government’s budget proposal, forcing government MPs into a defensive position.
The biggest points of contention centred on the growth in income disparity, cuts to benefits and reductions to holiday pay.
The period in the prelude to the debate saw much discussion about income disparity among politicians and the wider society. It was fuelled by parliamentary research commissioned by the Left Alliance that showed an increase in the income gap between rich and poor during the Juha Sipilä administration.
The budget debate proved to be an opportune moment for the opposition to revive that discussion.
"The poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer. A Finance Ministry assessment of next year’s spending plan has also confirmed this. We will be giving the rich an extra 400 euros every year, while lower income earners will lose 37 euros," charged Left Alliance chair Li Andersson, referencing a Finance Ministry report published on Tuesday.
The government defended its policies, with several MPs arguing that reduced unemployment is the best way to combat income disparity.
"There are nearly 50,000 fewer unemployed than one year ago. The people who have benefited most from this turnaround are those who were previously jobless and now have work," said Antti Kaikkonen, chair of the Centre Party parliamentary group.
Last week Prime Minister Juha Sipilä admitted that government's austerity measures had disproportionately affected the poor, but said that he hopes to do something about it.
Deep cuts still unpopular
During the animated discussion, government tried to highlight new allocations and investments, but the opposition remained unimpressed, saying that they did not measure up to previous gouging spending cuts during the administration's early days..
"Flexibility in public finances is especially being directed to reinforce skills development and education. As an example, I will mention university research, development and innovation projects done in conjunction with local businesses," said Finance Minister Petteri Orpo.
However Green MP Emma Kari reminded the government of punishing cuts to education spending.
"You have cut precisely from children in the weakest positions of all. Taken their rights and increased class sizes and this won’t fix that," she said in her reproach.
Less holiday pay for public servants
During its turn on the floor, the largest opposition group, the Social Democratic Party, looked to assign blame for cuts to vacation allowances for public sector employees. It concluded that the government was the fall guy, but Kalle Jokinen, chair of the National Coalition Party parliamentary group, pointed a finger at labour market organisations.
"I must correct some parts of the opposition’s statements. The government did not decide to cur vacation pay, it only laid down the goals and framework. The decision to cut vacation pay was made among labour market organisations," he countered.
However the SDP insisted that reality painted a different picture.
"This kind of hand-washing practiced by the government and especially the National Coalition Party has not been seen since Pontius Pilate," said SDP parliamentary group chair Antti Lindtman.
Lindtman accused the Finance Minister and the Ministry of rolling out an "extortion package", that would not only reduce holiday pay but would also weaken the status of workers. He noted that employer and employee groups tempered that package during their negotiations.
Who gets credit for economic growth?
Government and opposition MPs also clashed on the issue of economic growth, which opposition MPs attributed to Finland inevitably being pulled along in the wake of global economic growth.
"Global economic growth has given Finland strong impetus. The economy is growing but the cuts continue," the SDP's Lindtman said.
Several government MPs questioned why the global economic environment was only now impacting on Finland.
"It has often been said that the economic growth we are now seeing is just based in changes in the global economy. It is odd how long the change took to affect Finland," said Blue Reform MP Sampo Terho, who is also the European, Culture and Sports Minister.
Government MPs –- the Centre and National Coalition parties and MPs from the Blue Reform parliamentary group – praised ministerial decisions that they say led to the restoration of competitiveness and an improvement in the environment for investments.