News Comment

Thursday 29 September 2016

Next government has chance to build a fair, just society

Fr Sean Healy

Published 15/03/2016 | 02:30

'Any approach prioritising the economy over other areas will not result in a society that is balanced or fair'
'Any approach prioritising the economy over other areas will not result in a society that is balanced or fair'

The next government has a unique opportunity to develop a programme for government that will move Ireland towards being a society characterised by solidarity and fairness. While the last five years have been focused on rescuing the economy, this Dáil's programme should be focused on delivering five key outcomes: a vibrant economy; decent services and infrastructure; just taxation; good governance; and sustainability. Each of these outcomes is essential if Ireland is to have a just and fairer future.

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To move towards such a future that is just and fair, we must recognise that these five areas are interdependent and should be addressed simultaneously.

One of the lessons we should learn from recent years is that economic benefits do not automatically trickle down.

Any approach prioritising the economy over other areas will not result in a society that is balanced or fair and we at Social Justice Ireland believe that the result of General Election 2016 shows that the Irish people agree with this analysis. A recovery isn't fair unless it is felt by all.

If everyone is to benefit from economic recovery, then the services and infrastructure that the country needs must be put in place at the same time. If, for example, we don't have a good education system, then we won't have people with the necessary qualifications and training to take up the good-quality jobs that a thriving economy should produce.

Likewise, if we don't have the necessary infrastructure in areas such as rural broadband, then no business will be able to operate in rural Ireland and unbalanced regional development will remain.

Priority in the programme for government must be given to long-term outcomes. Many of the challenges Ireland currently faces, in areas such as poverty, housing, childcare, healthcare and broadband, cannot be successfully addressed in the lifetime of one Dáil. To this end, multi-annual budgeting is essential, as is a constant focus on medium- to long-term policy goals.

Substantial investment over a protracted period is required if Ireland's social and physical infrastructure deficits are to be addressed. Such investment is also required to ensure that Ireland can adapt to the demographic changes the country faces as the population grows and ages.

An area requiring major new investment, in addition to what is already planned, is social housing. The homelessness crisis will not be addressed effectively until the supply of appropriate accommodation equals demand.

There are more than 90,000 households on social housing waiting lists. Producing additional accommodation to meet this demand will be essential if the pressure currently being experienced in the private rental sector is to be reduced.

Creative responses are required to ensure that the investment required to meet this challenge is available and that good value is secured for such large investment.

How are these proposals to be paid for? It is not possible to provide the high-quality public services and infrastructure that Irish people aspire to while allowing total expenditure to fall as a percentage of GDP. The recent re-emergence of growth should be seen as an opportunity to secure our revenue base and revitalise our depleted social infrastructure, rather than reducing taxes.

Ireland can never hope to address its longer-term deficits in infrastructure and social provision if we continue to collect substantially less income than other European countries.

We cannot have Western European levels of services and infrastructure while collecting American levels of taxation.

Increasing the total tax take should be done in a fair and equitable manner. Social Justice Ireland believes that the necessary extra revenue should be attained by reforming the tax code, broadening the tax base and ensuring that those who benefit most from Ireland's economic system contribute most. This will also involve ensuring that the corporate sector pays a fair share of tax.

A starting point would be to insist on large transnational companies paying a fair share of tax. Government could, for example, introduce a minimum effective corporate tax rate of 6pc, which would ensure that large transnationals pay a fairer share of the corporate tax take.

The introduction of a Financial Transactions Tax on speculation on the stock market, in co-operation with the 11 other European countries who plan to do this, would curb speculation while raising money for the State.

To address the fact that the current social welfare and income tax systems are not fit for purpose, the next government should move towards the introduction of a basic income system, which would integrate the present tax, work and social welfare systems, and eliminate the disincentives that these currently contain.

Good governance is essential. Oireachtas reform is essential, as is the development of social dialogue and deliberative democracy.

Last, but not least, a new programme for government should have sustainability at its core. Every proposal it contains should be sustainable environmentally, economically and socially.

A deeply divided, two-tier society is bad for business, society and the future. The 32nd Dáil has a unique opportunity to plan for a fairer future. It's an opportunity that should not be missed.

Fr Sean Healy is director of Social Justice Ireland.

Irish Independent

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