Friday 23 August 2019

Jason O'Mahony: 'Fine Gael should forget about tiny tax cuts and give us all one big rebate cheque'

Taxing times: Leo Varadkar will soon be facing into a general election campaign
Taxing times: Leo Varadkar will soon be facing into a general election campaign

Jason O'Mahony

Despite the added entertainment value of Prime Minister Harry Flashman (Google him) appearing on the political stage in the UK (and it is a stage), there's going to come a moment soon when the focus here will return to normal politics and our many domestic concerns.

The Varadkar administration has proven to be very much a placeholder government, not as much driven by a vision but in office because Hell, Someone Had To Do It, the political version of a folded up beermat put under a table to stop it wobbling.

Soon it will be time to focus on what direction our country and indeed society should head, and given that an Irish general election campaign is the very last place to discuss the direction of the country, we'd better start now.

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We're facing the prospect of either a Varadkar or Martin-led government, and you have to ask what we should expect, or indeed, should we expect anything?

Fianna Fáil will almost certainly offer a manifesto platform that will be eerily similar to the Fine Gael manifesto of 2011. Large tranches of it would happily survive a find "Fine Gael" and replace with "Fianna Fáil" session in Microsoft Word.

More social spending, "tackling" the health crisis, and with something about the environment for those Green transfers which will almost certainly involve more spending rather than carbon taxes. There'll be (of course) much woe and gnashing of teeth about housing and homelessness with more of the aforementioned "tackling" (Irish polls are tackling-mad, it seems).

The words dignity and solidarity will appear with such frequency you'll wonder does someone in Fianna Fáil HQ have a bet to see how many times they can shoehorn them in.

In short, Fianna Fáil, as is usually the case when the party is in opposition (or whatever this Schrodinger's Cat arrangement is), has decided to paint itself as soft centre-left, spending good, tax-cuts bad, and the blues as evil tax-cutting O'Tories.

There'd be something in it but for the fact that Fine Gael seems more interested in talking about substantial tax reform without doing much, which is odd because a) there probably is a market for tax cuts among a proportion of the country, and not just the well-off, and b) every other party seems to have come out against tax cuts save for the ghostly Scooby Doo apparition that is Renua.

If there is one crime that Fine Gael is nearly always guilty of, it's lack of imagination. It gets into government every now and then and suddenly believes it is there forever, and stops thinking. Instead it defaults to its historic position of national palate cleanser to get the taste of Fianna Fáil out of our collective mouth for a moment before we put it back in.

Fianna Fáil, Labour, the Social Democrats, Sinn Féin, the Greens and the Alphabet Left are all crammed on the Taxes Are Just Great side of the political spectrum in a country that hates taxes. How can Fine Gael not see that?

Of course, it doesn't mean that if it sees it, it could do anything about it. Its last tax cut in the budget was so mealy-mouthed and one-for-everyone-in-the-audience as to be politically dissipated within days. Here are two things Fine Gael could do to shake up the political arena.

Firstly, don't cut income tax. People always think that whatever weekly increase they get from a cut is a pittance anyway.

Instead, give people a single tax rebate, one big cheque which for many on PAYE will result in a lump sum of a few hundred euro. A few hundred quid in a Revenue cheque in your hand is a whole different ball game.

As for how to pay for it, and the pro-tax crew will wail about cuts in public spending, Fine Gael should come out and simply say that instead of very substantial public sector pay increases, it will give rebates to all workers, both public and private. Every worker benefits.

Picture the Fine Gael leaflets showing every worker the lump sum they'll get if the budget is passed, and assuming Fianna Fáil and Co don't take the money off the 83pc of the workforce who work in the private sector to give to the public sector unions.

Sure, the left will give out yards about people being bought with their own money as if that is somehow a bad thing, and demand yet more money be spent in the public sector without any guarantee of results.

I suspect that once people see the lump sum on leaflets and social media and think about what bill it could pay or holiday it could fund, it becomes harder and harder to claw back.

It also gives Fine Gael a nice clear narrative: you worked hard to make Ireland a success, to get us back from the Troika, so here's your cut. After all, it's your money.

The agreed narrative in large parts of the Irish media, that the Irish people don't want tax cuts, is what can politely be described as "round objects". Sure, they keep telling pollsters that they value public services over tax cuts but guess what: a large chunk of them are lying, operating under the What Will the Neighbours/ Pollster Think rule.

Of course, Fine Gael can also promise a get-out clause: that it'll put a box on the back of every rebate cheque where every taxpayer can simply post it back to the Revenue as a contribution to the State and public services, gladly received.

Revenue could even release a daily percentage of what share of taxpayers sent back their rebate to be spent on public services. Who knows, maybe I'll be shocked. Maybe a huge proportion of the Irish people will put their money where their (polled) mouths are. One thing's for sure: it would be a fascinating exercise.

Irish Independent

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