Business Irish

Saturday 24 August 2019

David Chance: 'Economic event shows it really is good to talk'


Confab: Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe is flanked by Dr Orlaigh Quinn and Professor Alan Barrett.
Confab: Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe is flanked by Dr Orlaigh Quinn and Professor Alan Barrett.

David Chance

The National Economic Dialogue may not be perfect, cynics will inevitably see it as a talking shop, but there are a lot worse ways to formulate policy than by inviting lots of smart people to a big session and asking for their views.

On Wednesday and Thursday, government, business lobbyists, NGOs and a host of other bodies sat down to discuss the economic priorities for the State - questions like should there be a green tax - and more importantly, who would pay it, along with issues like housing and precarious work.

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It may say less about Ireland and more about the rest of the world how much this event surprised me positively in comparison with my home country, Britain, and others I worked in during a 20-odd-year stint for Reuters.

There is a value to dialogue that appears to be in short supply across the world - the entrenched and enraged position of the UK's pro-and anti-Brexiteers, Donald Trump's unending war of words with just about everyone; or the rage of France's gilets jaunes protesters at President Emmanuel Macron.

So the very fact that the Taoiseach and ministers including Paschal Donohoe were in the same room as opposition politicians, trade union leaders, NGOs and business lobby groups looks to me to be a big plus. At the very least it means ministers cannot say they weren't made aware of the big issues facing society or that there are alternatives to the policies they follow.

To be sure, Mr Donohoe gets his messaging around the budget - prudence, preparing for Brexit and investing in infrastructure - out loud and clear, but he also made a point of listening.

Patricia King of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions left no doubt as to what she thought of a tax system in which a nurse can no longer claim allowances for work shoes while hundreds of millions of euro can be written off by big corporations against their tax bills.

Ibec CEO Danny McCoy's timely concerns about growing signs of "private affluence" from investment, contrasted with "in many cases public squalor," is a message you simply won't hear from business in the polarised atmosphere of Washington, DC where the likes of the American Enterprise Institute and Chambers of Commerce appeared to want government to disappear completely.

Unsurprisingly, carbon taxes and who will pay them dominated the discussion. Sean Healy of Social Justice Ireland said the burden should not fall on the poor.

However, there is a risk with that approach, as Mr Donohoe noted. If you keep on giving exemptions, there will not be any money left from environmental taxes to pay for green projects. In other words, hard choices must be made.

"In relation to the debate on carbon taxation, the support that I have heard so far is at best contingent and what it is contingent on is reinvesting that money back into standard of living-mitigating factors which I think is a very legitimate choice to consider," he said.

Whatever the flaws of this forum - and criticisms from participants ranged from virtue signalling to the risk of being seen to provide policy cover for a media-savvy government - there was at least a place in which issues could be raised and heard.

Mr Donohoe sat through an impassioned plea for measures to reduce poverty from one participant that was delivered with the kind of quiet moral force you rarely hear in public dialogue elsewhere.

There were also challenges to the export-driven, hyper-globalised economy that Ireland has become, in part because there is a genuine fear that the tide of globalisation will ebb, as it has done for millions of other workers, but also because so many people have been left behind, despite an era in which record numbers are in work.

One participant who is highly critical of government policies did note that the administration did appear to be listening and said the agenda had changed over the years to reflect current concerns. At least the two days were relatively free of jargon like "future-proofing" that is beloved of management consultants and the people who write speeches for government ministers.

Perhaps it was just a PR exercise, or another exercise in pulling on the green jersey, but when the Government is held accountable at the ballot box, it won't be able to say it didn't know.

Irish Independent

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