Thursday 22 August 2019

Kevin Doyle: 'Health insurance, pensions and fuel all in the firing line to pay price of going green'

Stance on water charges: Green Party leader Eamon Ryan speaking at the count centre at the RDS. Photo: Damien Eagers/INM
Stance on water charges: Green Party leader Eamon Ryan speaking at the count centre at the RDS. Photo: Damien Eagers/INM
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Five years ago, voters went to the polls to reject water charges in huge numbers. The ballot box rebellion cost Eamon Gilmore his job as Labour Party leader and swept a politician named Ruth Coppinger into the Dáil.

"Now a TD has been elected who's clearly associated with opposition to the water charges, so politically the parties implementing the water charges are severely weakened by my election," the Solidarity TD said at the time. She was right.

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The subsequent election in 2016 was seen as a referendum on charges.

Fianna Fáil denied being the one who originally proposed charges and set about dismantling the regime. And Sinn Féin repeatedly hardened its stance in a bid to out-outrage the left.

The Green Party was the only one to stand by its belief that water charges were a necessary evil in a country where we take the supply for granted.

Despite the charges being seen as politically toxic, Eamon Ryan continued to insist: "Avoiding any form of charge on water will not help to address the water shortage facing Dublin, or clean up polluted water supplies and waste water systems in Mayo and around the country.

"It will also see the investment we have already made in water meters washed down the sink, which makes no economic sense whatsoever."

Ultimately, he lost the war. Water charges were abandoned and it would be a brave government that would ever try introduce them again.

However, Mr Ryan is now updating his shopping list for after the next general election in the full expectation that Leo Varadkar or Micheál Martin will be knocking on his door.

It means one of two things has happened: Either the country has woken up to the climate emergency in a very real way, or people voted without considering the full impact on their pocket. Have the same people who rejected water charges endorsed the idea of carbon tax?

Fine Gael ran scared of hiking the tax on fuel in Budget 2019. The Green Party wanted Fine Gael to raise it from €10 per tonne to €30. This would have forced the price of a litre of petrol and diesel up by around 3c, when Vat is included; a bale of briquettes would be 26c dearer and a 40kg bag of coal would rise by almost €1.20.

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe strongly considered the idea. Sources suggest he was edging towards the hike but then the Cabinet got involved.

Ministers from rural Ireland told him they would be crucified in the local elections if the Government hiked tax on fuel.

At the time, one source said "political reality" kicked in at the last minute and Mr Donohoe used Brexit as an excuse for not hitting carbon.

Instead he went after hotels and restaurants by raising the special 9pc Vat rate, despite their pleas about the impact of Brexit. Now, on the basis of this election result, we are supposed to believe that Fine Gael would actually have been rewarded for pushing up the price of transport and home heating. Really? It seems a bit far-fetched.

But there's no doubt the Government will be able to use the 'green wave' as political coverage for moving on carbon tax next time around. The Brexit excuse will simply fade away.

The Green Party's pre-budget submission contains lots of good stuff that every generation would back if the country had an endless boom. The Greens want to increase child benefit, give free transport to students and have a universal basic pension.

But to pay for the positive stuff, they have a list of interesting revenue-raising ideas that many voters are unlikely to have thought about last Friday.

For example, they wanted to remove the tax relief on private health insurance in order to raise €330m.

They want to lessen the tax breaks on pension contributions and raise employers PRSI.

In fairness, the Greens don't pretend that they can save the world without inflicting some pain.

They are not populist like some other political parties on the left who tell voters that they can invest billions more in health and housing through a magic fix-all wealth tax.

Mr Ryan and his new band of councillors are well positioned to hold the balance of power after a general election.

But voters will need to ask a few more questions next time because climate action involves more than voting Green.

Irish Independent

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