Wednesday 17 January 2018

'We won't be printing any Burton for Taoiseach posters,' says Joan

Tanaiste Joan Burton tells Daniel McConnell the minimum wage will be increased in the upcoming Budget

Tánaiste Joan Burton outside Government Buildings
Tánaiste Joan Burton outside Government Buildings
Tánaiste Joan Burton outside Government Buildings
Daniel McConnell

Daniel McConnell

She is the most recognisable female politician in the country and the second most senior person in Government.

But Joan Burton and Labour are facing an uphill battle to avoid electoral wipe-out as the party has endured a tough time in office. She is leader and Tanaiste since July 4 last year, but several of the party's heaviest hitters are retiring and poll ratings remain stubbornly low.

In the run-up to the last General Election, Labour under Eamon Gilmore were riding very high in the polls and touting themselves as a lead party in government.

Is that beyond them this time? I ask her.

"I don't think it is beyond us but I inherited a situation where the Labour vote has dropped. What I am doing is working to basically restate very clearly to people the Labour message, to say to people to judge us. But we have a lot of catching-up to do in those areas," she says.

So there won't be any Burton for Taoiseach posters next year? Her response is typical Burton.

"I don't think so, but should that be the people's choice, I'll be delighted," she says with a smile.

While the polls suggest Labour is some way short of having enough support to be re-elected, Burton does press the case for why it should be.

"I think you can be confident Labour and Fine Gael in government will seek to continue to improve things for people and with careful prudent management we should be able, we should be in a position to go forward and build up, rather than have to go back to an era of cutting," she says.

Burton then confirms that the Government will have a bigger scope than previously thought in relation to next month's Budget.

Only last Tuesday, Taoiseach Enda Kenny was adamant that the budgetary expansion would be no more than €1.5bn.

"So what we set out in the spring statement was the parameters of the Budget, which is between €1.2bn and €1.5bn between spending and tax, and we are not going beyond that. While minsters and the departments will come looking for much more money than that, we cannot and will not go beyond those limits," Mr Kenny said.

Ms Burton gives a different answer, however.

"Everything in this year's Budget will be modest enough because you know we have a spending space, a fiscal space of €1.2bn to €1.5bn based on the figures so far. It is very clear that it is going to be at the top end unless there is some very big alteration," she says.

I ask her is she committing to €1.5bn and no more if the latest tax revenue and jobless figures at the end of September are better than expected or is there scope?

"There is scope and there is an amount of scope and all sorts of scope for additional revenue raising, which Michael Noonan has indicated might be in a couple of different areas. We haven't really had a detailed discussion with him about that but it is a relatively small scope, it is not going to massively change the figures," she says.

I ask her does that mean the extra spending could be €2bn?

"At this point in time I would doubt it, honestly, but I think there may be some space," she says.

As to specific Budget policies, Burton reveals a lot about what the public can expect and it appears that low and middle-income earners will fare the best.

She reveals that the minimum wage will be increased and that the USC cuts benefit those lower and middle paid workers between €25,000 and €70,000.

"We have in place a number of things for the Budget. First is, we are going to have agreed in terms of the Low Pay Commission, we are raising minimum wages. . . now minimum wages involve a relatively small portion of the population at work, often young workers and women, but they are critical to giving people in that category of earnings a boost," she says.

Government sources this weekend have confirmed that the increase will be in the order of about 50c, in line with recommendations from a Low Pay Commission report earlier this year.

But Burton claims the approach taken by Finance Minister Michael Noonan on reducing the USC for workers under €70,000 was done at her persuasion. She says that approach will continue this year.

"Secondly we are looking at significant changes in terms of USC and from my point of view, this is something that I persuaded Fine Gael on during the course of the discussions when I became leader of the Labour Party and Tanaiste," she says.

"The USC was probably the biggest shocker in the income tax package that came in just immediately after Budget 2011. I remember debating it because I was finance spokesperson for the Labour Party at the time and saying it was going to be a really tough imposition on people and very few people actually recognised at the time in the debate what it meant," she says.

"It became another form of income tax and it did do a lot of heavy lifting. I want to see the reform of that, particularly for low and middle-income earners, over time," she adds.

I ask her are we talking a flat-rate cut or an increase in entry point, or a combination of these things?

"We are talking potentially about a combination. . . my concentration is on people earning €25,000 to €70,000, people on low and middle incomes. We are also going to look at lower incomes again because we are looking to change once again and improve or raise the entry point at which people enter into USC. Secondly, we will be looking at the rates, but I would emphasis the lower and middle rates and that is not something we will sign off on until much closer to Budget day," she says.

Is there agreement in terms of approach with Fine Gael on this?

"Well we have it in the kind of written agreement between ourselves that it is between the €30,000 and €70,000 brackets. That remains the case," she says.

But Fine Gael would previously have had a desire to look at higher earners as well, not necessarily just people on lower, I say.

"I personally think that people on low and middle income, and the Labour Party view is that people on low and middle income come first. That also makes sense from the point of view of the domestic economy," she adds.

She says there is very good reason for increasing the lot of low and middle-income earners, as anything extra they get they tend to spend it locally, rather than saving it.

"If middle-income earners and low-income earners get a boost - the minimum wage, the USC reform, if you have a welfare package that puts some money into pensioners' pockets - these are the people who are going to largely spend it. They are not going to be like very wealthy people who may be so well off that they can afford to save it, or they can afford to spend it abroad.

"All the people I am talking about will spend it into the right economy - that is why the stimulus side of it, the confidence-building side of it into the Irish economy is very, very positive," she says.

I ask her about the exact nature of the pact with Fine Gael and whether the party will have any red-line issues which could preclude it from returning to power.

"Well I think both parties are clearly going into elections with their manifestos. For instance, the Labour Party has its own particular position where we believe over the lifetime of the next government, and sooner rather than later, the people should be asked to reconsider the 8th Amendment as to whether or not it is in the best interest of mothers and babies," she says.

She sent a note to members of the Labour Party ahead of yesterday's march in Dublin on the 8th Amendment.

She wrote: "I just want to make clear the party's position on the 8th Amendment. Put simply, it is one of the most retrograde parts of the Constitution and cannot be changed soon enough.

"As a woman, it horrifies me to think of the dreadful situations fellow women and their families have been placed in because of this archaic provision. But pledging to repeal the 8th is the straightforward bit - replacing it with a humane, compassionate, and legislatively sound approach is the complex part. It is absolutely essential that we get this right," she added.

"That is why I have asked Labour Women, under the stewardship of Ivana Bacik and Sinead Ahern, to bring forward a credible and detailed solution that will form the basis of our manifesto commitment. That commitment will be very clear - to repeal the 8th Amendment and ensure it is replaced appropriately," she added in her note.

In any subsequent programme for government negotiations, a referendum to repeal the 8th would be an absolute priority for Labour.

"Other parties will shy away from it in the election because they don't want to deal with this very difficult and sensitive issue. That's why anybody who wishes to see the 8th repealed should vote Labour," she wrote.

But is it a red-line issue?

"In terms of the aftermath of a government you have a set of negotiations and I think it would be a very foolish negotiator who basically showed their hand before the negotiations started, but the manifestos essentially set out key positions for both parties," she adds.

But then Burton details two matters which she wants to see finalised before polling day, issues which her Coalition partners are less keen on than her.

"I would certainly want to see the issue around housing certainty and rent certainty and rent levels, I would want to see that addressed. I also want to see - but this will be done by the end of the term of this Government - I want to see Willie Penrose's proposal for the one-year bankruptcy dealt with before Christmas.

"I mean I have made that absolutely clear to our colleagues because again I believe that is in the best interest of people who are struggling with mortgage debt," she says.

But what about the well flagged resistance from Michael Noonan and the Department of Finance?

" I think the one-year bankruptcy proposal by Willie Penrose just makes sense. Will its effect be monumental? Let's see. But I think it will make it easier for deals to be done with banks and that is the critical thing. We want to keep as many people in the family homes. I am very confident it will happen. I am really confident it is going to happen," she says.

I ask her is she convinced there won't be a November election. She is definitive in her reply.

"That's my view. I haven't changed it at all and never changed it from day one - even in the most difficult times - it was always my view to stay the course and don't bolt. . . being honest, and also I think there is also this promise to people that we said we would go in and work to fix it as best we could," she says.

"I think it is important to show that to people and actually show that and to do as much as we can so that, for instance, obviously we have to pass the Marriage Bill," she says.

But should the Taoiseach have a change of heart - the polls look good - would she not support him in going early?

"I have given my honest view and that is all I can say. Obviously, constitutionally it is the Taoiseach's prerogative but we have had enough conversations. We meet before the Government meetings every week about 8-8.30pm here in this room. . . but certainly I know there is all sorts of pressures on the Taoiseach but I think we share a common view on this," she says firmly.

Sunday Independent

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