Sunday 15 December 2019

Government will keep extending deadlines for water charges - eventually it'll bottle it

Cartoon by Niall O Loughlin
Cartoon by Niall O Loughlin

David McWilliams

There's a better chance of Roy Keane being named 'Evertonian of the Year' than of you paying water charges next year. Pardon the pun, but this Government will bottle it. It will simply back down and hope the whole thing goes away.

Once the deadline for the first payment has been extended, as it will be today, it will be extended again and again. In the end, the problem of charging for water in Ireland will be handed over to whoever wins the next election.

The reason for this is that the Irish Water disaster is killing the Government. In two weeks' time, there are likely to be more than 100,000 people on the streets. The polls reveal that this issue is hammering the Government. The economy is turning yet the Government's popularity is going down.

The issue is incompetence.

Once you lose the reputation for competence, what else is there? There's no ideology, no big idea, no fairness agenda. We have a coalition government and the very act of going into coalition dispenses with charades of ideology. Every coalition government compromises on tricky, inconvenient pre-election "core values" and gets on with the job of competence.

If it fails on this score, what else is there? If it also doesn't understand that the people are stretched to the limit with taxes and charges, it risks failure politically.

Finally, if there is a whiff of cronyism - such as a well-paid but not particularly well-qualified board, overseeing expense overruns that are, in part, attributable to bonuses intended to be paid out without merit - then what do you expect people to think?

'Jobs for the boys' is what we think of when we hear Irish Water.

The incredible thing is that all this needn't have happened.

What should have been a fairly simple process of moving from one income-based water charge to another income-based water charge, with a nice little bit of 21st century meter-based conservationism thrown in, has been handled so badly that the entire credibility of the Government is going down the tubes.

The fiasco has been totally unnecessary. We already pay for water out of our taxes. Most of us understand that to get clean water into our taps and into our sinks, someone has to pay for it. We also understand the Government's original argument that the water infrastructure is ancient and needs upgrading. Such investment doesn't come for free.

The idea that the more water you use, the more you should pay makes sense to the vast majority of people. One last thing to get our heads around is this small item of accounting jiggery-pokery that was actually the root of the reason for setting up Irish Water.

The State wanted to take the borrowing it would have to make to upgrade the water system off the balance sheet, so that the national debt didn't go up. This was a trick to allow the State to "pretend" it wasn't borrowing the money. A new entity, Irish Water, was borrowing. The borrowing would be paid back out of the water charges.

This package seemed to be a saleable notion, even to a population that has suffered from austerity.

But it was a population that probably could swallow paying for water but not the excessive salaries of the consultants, lawyers and others who appeared to be the first snouts in the bonus trough.

The people then questioned, why all the start-up costs? When we already had a water system operated by the corporations and councils? Then cronyism and the lack of costs controls - precisely because it was public money - became overwhelming.

Finally, there was the sense that this company would be fattened up with ordinary people's taxes only to be sold off to rich people via privatisation - after all, wasn't this part of the Troika's original script?

Within weeks, a marginal movement - which asked legitimate questions about fairness, cost and who would ultimately benefit - morphed into a mainstream movement with the very survival of the Government at stake.

This shambles seems to be associated particularly with the Taoiseach. No amount of al-fresco, back-slapping US executives can erase the incompetence.

Competence is something we all demand in everyday life. You employ the guy who can do the job. This guy inspires confidence. You know he isn't going to mess up. Once you are confident, he has your trust.

In fact, you trust him so much that if something goes wrong on the job, you believe him when he blames the weather or something implausible. Once you trust someone or something, you then have that other essential condition, which is 'peace of mind'.

You are assured, and by being assured you rest easy, safe in the knowledge that you are in good hands and everything will be okay. Governments too need competence, because competence is power.

Once you lose that, the perception of it, the mystic of it; everything else goes.

This is how governments fall apart. Pushing through unpopular measures in the second half of the administration is not an election-winning strategy. Napoleon once said that "to govern is to choose". The Government has to make a choice and my money is on it choosing to scrap water taxes altogether - at least until after the next election. Even if paying for water makes economic and environmental sense, Irish Water is beyond toxic and any politician that stays near it will be so contaminated as to be unelectable.

Irish Independent

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