Sunday 25 August 2019

Jason O'Mahony: 'Awkward truth about the Irish left and taxes'

Lessons of the past: Anti-water charges protesters march through Dublin city centre in March 2015. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Lessons of the past: Anti-water charges protesters march through Dublin city centre in March 2015. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Jason O'Mahony

There's an awkward truth at the heart of the debate over Richard Bruton's proposals on the reform of the RTÉ licence fee. Consider what we are actually talking about: a tax to specifically fund the national public broadcaster. It's true to say it's probably not the most efficiently collected tax, but it is almost certainly one of the most transparent, in terms of what public service it funds and what we get for our money.

Yes, you can complain about the salaries of RTÉ personalities, but that is in itself a sign of transparency, in that we actually know what we are complaining about.

RTÉ News is watched or listened to by all shades of political opinion, who all believe it is biased toward the other side. That's an achievement in itself.

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Nobody ever accuses Fox News of being biased toward the Democrats.

On the negative side, you do often wonder who exactly RTÉ is competing against with some of its Lotto-win salaries. I mean, if you slashed half of the big-name salaries, where would they go? But an evening of RTÉ gives one a fair snapshot of our country in a way Netflix can't.

That's what public service broadcasting is supposed to do.

Why then will those who purport to support public service broadcasting not defend the licence fee openly?

Many of them are very quick to demand that more taxpayer money be spent either on RTÉ, or its ancillary contributions to the arts and culture scene in the country. But not the actual collecting of the RTÉ tax.

For the record, I have no problem with the licence fee. I use the RTÉ Player frequently and while I regard it as expensive, my licence fee is not one of the taxes that I pay in anger.

I believe in public service broadcasting and therefore accept that I should put my money where my mouth is.

But I also enjoy the awkward squirming of those same public service broadcasting defenders who disappear at that tipping point where if one supports more public service broadcasting funding, then one logically should support an increase in the licence fee.

It's once again proof of that old adage about the Irish left, that they are very socialist with other people's money but Thatcherite with their own.

A similar view was on show following recent remarks on social media by Social Democrat TD Roísín Shortall.

Commenting on the Hyde and Seek childcare scandal, she tweeted: "The market doesn't work for key public services. The for-profit model of privatised provision is entirely unsuitable for childcare, healthcare or elder care."

This is a perfectly reasonable point of view to hold, but I often wonder which public agency does she currently have in mind as a superior service provider. The HSE? Tusla?

It's not unreasonable to suggest that if one supports a State childcare agency, then it should be run by Tusla, an agency that has been set up by the Oireachtas with a specific goal of the protection of children as its key and over-riding priority.

I ask this question as someone who does hold the public sector in a certain amount of high regard. But it's fair to ask those who advocate the effective nationalisation of childcare to state publicly if they wish for childcare services to be delivered to the level comparable with our satisfaction with Tusla.

This is where the wheels come off the 'public sector good/private sector bad' debate.

The same people who genuflect in front of the golden calf of public ownership or public spending can rarely point to a level of public service they are happy with.

They then blame a lack of tax revenue but go fleeing for the hills when tax rises are actually proposed on actual people.

Remember the debates about Irish Water; how evil it was, how it was all a right-wing scam, how its employees were getting bonuses and all the rest?

You'd be forgiven for forgetting it is 100pc publicly owned. We could have a national childcare agency. It would cost billions every year and would almost certainly warrant a national childcare tax because the cost would be so big.

It would then be swamped with scandals about how much its employees are paid, while large numbers of childless people would pay that tax with much greater anger than they ever paid the RTÉ licence fee.

But that wouldn't be the funny bit.

The funny bit would be that the people who advocated for State childcare would then refuse to defend the tax needed to fund it.

Indeed, Ireland being Ireland, it's very likely that large numbers of them would protest it and call for its abolition; for every loud interest group to be exempt; and for funding from that everlasting gobstopper of Irish politics, 'general taxation'.

There is a very reasonable argument to be made for the State provision of affordable childcare and also for public broadcasting. But we need a few socialists in the country to actually take ownership of the socialist means of funding these things.

Who will stand on the doorstep and defend taxation paid by actual people to their faces, not imaginary twirly-moustached plutocrats?

The problem is that even the Irish left are unwilling to argue with Irish voters, who believe their own money is better off in their own pockets, rather than given to the State.

Or as it's called in other countries: Thatcherism.

Irish Independent

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