On Wednesday, just before interviewing Brian Gallagher about his book on the Civil War, Taking Sides, one of my radio panellists quipped: "Which civil war is that, the one in 1922 or the one we're about to have?" Taking sides is right. It may not come to flying columns and reprisals but a divide in Ireland is looming and the words of the Billy Bragg song, "Whose side are you on boys, whose side are you on?" will soon ring in our ears.
There are two narratives about which "side" to take; the "haves" versus "have nots" and "public" versus "private". But if you ask me, the "haves" are not those with money, but those with power. And instead of the public sector we should be focusing on those -- public or private sector -- who to an undue degree are net beneficiaries of the tax system. The real divide is between "insiders" and "outsiders".
A Twitter debate with think-tank TASC last week started me thinking about all this. TASC believes our income taxes aren't "progressive" enough. High-earning public servants are -- in its words -- "taxpayers too". So instead of benchmarking their pay, raising tax on all "high" incomes is fairer. Joan Burton chimed in with this line last Friday.
Now our top 5 per cent of income earners pay 40 per cent of income tax revenues -- hardly "unprogressive". And as Mark Redmond of the Institute of Taxation in Ireland pointed out last Thursday, taxing this group more may actually reduce revenues, as happened in the Eighties.
That is because, as TASC logic ignores, private sector high earners are at risk of involuntary income and job loss. They are also more productive and suffer greater stress. Nor do they have taxpayer-funded pensions like the €128,000 a year about to be enjoyed by the retiring Secretary General of the Department of Enterprise, Jobs and Innovation, not to mention the €133,000 for the retiring Secretary General of the Department of Education.
But the key point is that, unlike their public sector income peers, those on higher incomes in the private sector are real taxpayers. As well as higher productivity and stress and lower job security, they do not derive their income from other taxpayers. They are net contributors to the tax system. Our "insiders", by contrast, are net beneficiaries of the tax system, taking far more than they give back.
Most public sector workers, however, are only net beneficiaries in the technical sense. Nurses, teachers and other frontliners earn modest pay for long hours. Their net pay is not a gift but a fair reward, and they are not insiders. By redefining the narrative away from "public" versus "private" towards "insider" versus "outsider", we increase the size of the majority for changing the Croke Park deal.
Besides top civil servants, who are the other insiders? Seeing as she wants to raise taxes, it seems fair to take a look at Joan Burton's former colleagues in DIT. On the DIT website click on 'Human resources' and select 'Resourcing and Benefits', then 'Leave and benefits' and 'salary scales'. Then you can judge for yourself: the link to the "January 1, 2010" salary scale will list salary scales that for most private sector workers are to die for: Between €74,006 and €104,770 for senior lecturers. But, like frontline public workers, industrial workers sweat a 40-hour a week 48 weeks a year. DIT salaries, however, are enjoyed for just 630 hours a year over 35 weeks, or between 10 and 20 hours lecturing a week.
By cutting pay and equivalent pensions in this range by 10 per cent, we would still have the highest public pay in Europe while saving over €1bn a year. But insiders are ruthless and to protect their higher incomes, greater security and better pensions they are willing to use something else they have a lot more of: power. Like Joan Burton, almost all other Cabinet members -- and almost all civil servants, economists in the Department of Finance, ESRI, NESC and so on -- are insiders. Instead of government "of the people, for the people" we have government "of the insiders, for the insiders". Even most appointed senators are double-jobbers, deriving both incomes from taxpayers. For these insiders, getting fired is impossible, pension worries are non-existent and there are never any consequences for mistakes. And these are the policy-makers who dictate that we pay more taxes while they remain almost totally immune from recession.
While it has done us great service and has many great public service broadcasters, RTE has also been immune from reality for too long. It is funded by a licence fee -- a tax -- a €55m annual transfer from the Department of Social Protection (while welfare was cut) and advertising and sponsorship -- it enjoys privileges unmatched even by similarly small European countries. As a result, pay levels exceed norms in the private sector broadcasting world where RTE's advertising ability creates a grotesquely unfair situation. Given its need to be independent -- and to be seen to be so -- any perception that RTE could have an "insider bias" is unacceptable. Those who -- rightly or wrongly -- could be seen to have any vested interest relating to its current affairs coverage should step down from its board and if RTE belongs to IBEC, that should end forthwith. Finally, that both Minister Pat Rabbitte and Press Ombudsman John Horgan -- and many people in RTE -- have left-wing backgrounds is of itself not a problem. But it does make it even more important that the real concerns and genuinely held beliefs of us who aren't of the left about possible bias at the station are dealt with decisively and thoroughly. As a taxpayer-funded body, RTE must not just be unbiased, but seen to be so by all of us.
Marc Coleman presents 'Coleman At Large' each Tuesday and Wednesday from 10pm on Newstalk 106-108fm