As the report of the Commission on Taxation and Welfare points out, taxation and welfare policies are among the most potent instruments available to the State to influence the living standards of the country and its people.
As such, tax and welfare policies are central to the wider social contract and, therefore, lie at the heart of this country’s democratic tradition.
The commission’s report was published to inappropriate controversy last week in a period of rapidly rising inflation that is having a serious impact on household living standards, giving rise to great anxiety among the majority of citizens.
Members of the commission were drawn from a variety of backgrounds and brought a range of expertise to its work from relevant areas, including taxation, social policy, economics, public administration, business, enterprise, law and broader civil society.
Referring to the commission’s proposals on inheritance tax and increasing tax on savings in particular, Mr Varadkar also said: “There’s no way that’s going to happen while Fine Gael is in government.”
These comments were nakedly political, notwithstanding the Tánaiste’s subsequent denial he had politicised the work of the commission, which was established in April last year on foot of a commitment in the Programme for Government.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin has distanced himself from the Tánaiste’s remarks.
However, in making these comments, it is clear Mr Varadkar was seeking to highlight a distinction between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin in relation to tax and welfare policy, and was using the publication of the commission’s report to directly pitch to the electorate, specifically on two recommendations that could be said to concern better-off voters.
A commission member subsequently said he was “stunned” and “very disappointed” by the Fine Gael leader’s remarks, as indeed its members are entitled to feel.
Mr Varadkar has since sought to row back from the controversy of his own making, his spokesman later describing what he had said as a “fairly throwaway remark” and pointing out that the Tánaiste was referring to a “couple of items” in the commission’s extensive report. Mr Varadkar belatedly also thanked the commission for its work.
As the commission also states, its role is to stand back from day-to-day concerns and provide advice to the Government and to the public on how the taxation and welfare systems should be reformed to respond to the country’s needs.
During a period of rising inflation, with no end in sight, and at a time when shifting geopolitical alliances are threatening established globalised systems, it could be said the commission’s functions were never more relevant or important.
It is disappointing that Mr Varadkar could not have taken a leaf from the commission’s book and availed of the opportunity to stand back on this occasion from his day-to-day political preoccupations.
Given Ireland’s demographic profile, level of public debt and a number of other fiscal risks, the report demands detailed consideration by the Government and future governments.