‘I would be a lot more popular with people if I was giving them €100 per head’
Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government Phil Hogan says being the focus of public discontent comes with the job
Following the introduction of the local property tax and a promise that water charges would arrive on his watch, it’s understandable that “Phil Hogan” was one of the people Irish internet users searched for most this year.
Curiosity, disappointment and anger occasionally fuel our online habits, and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government found himself in unlikely company – alongside the likes of the “selfie”, “twerking” and “Ryanair” – as part of the “Google Zeitgeist” in 2013.
Hogan accepts familiarity does not always breed popularity, and imposing new taxes on every home in the State, even if dreamt up before his ministerial term, was always going to secure notoriety for the Kilkenny man.
“If a Fine Gael politician was to be worried about personality politics over the years we would never stand for election and party leaders would never become taoisigh,” he said in an interview with The Irish Times.
“I would be a lot more popular with people if I was giving them €100 per head but unfortunately the legacies I inherited from my predecessors mean I have to take a different course of action . . . We are reforming the [tax] system which, of course, is going to cut across people from time to time.”
The property tax has cut across more than its fair share but Hogan is pleased “the silent majority”, which he puts at 92 per cent, registered for the tax.
A certain level of dissent over the measure was expected but he felt opposition to it, and the household charge previously, was “blown out of all proportion” in some of the coverage it received, even if the vocal minority still feel differently.
“It has been a storm in a tea cup and the people of Ireland have rallied very strongly behind the Government’s move to implement the necessary policies to get us out of our financial difficulties as quickly as possible.”
The water charge is the next thing on the Minister’s agenda likely to rile the wider public. He says it is essential, as 40 per cent of water in the system is leaking from pipes and “costing the taxpayer an enormous amount of money”.
The first water bills will arrive in January 2015 and, before then, decisions on matters such as free allowances and unit costs will be closely monitored. Asked how much the average person could expect to pay, Hogan said it would be “some time yet” before such decisions are announced.
“If I could give you that figure, we wouldn’t need the [water] regulator to do those calculations.”
Much like the public, Dublin City Council does not appear too pleased by the prospect of the upcoming sea change in water services. City manager Owen Keegan last week said the council will be left with a €330 million pension liability and lose €2 billion in assets after the transfer of its services to Irish Water next month.
The intervention caught Hogan by surprise, but more for the “lack of knowledge” displayed than anything else. Both the water-related assets and liabilities will be transferred to Irish Water, he said.
“The nonsense which was portrayed that €330 million of a pension deficit will accrue to Dublin City Council arising from this move is a clear indication that they haven’t done their homework on what is actually happening.”
He said the €330 million figure “arises if all employees of Dublin City Council retired today, all at the one time. We know that is not going to happen, so I am surprised that officials at Dublin City Council sought to misrepresent what actually is.”
As a keen election observer and Fine Gael strategist, Hogan was always going to keep a keen eye on May’s local and European elections.
The votes will mark the rollout of what he considers one of the keynote issues of his term – what he calls the largest reform of local government since 1898.
The Minister has legislated to eliminate 80 town councils and 700 councillors, and to devolve more services to local level, with these largely funded from 2015 onwards by property tax income collected in their county.
“We saw the damage that was done with the local government system in the past where we had more than one local authority in a county,” Hogan said, pointing to territorial competition between Waterford City and County Councils for rates.
“The local authority in Waterford county decided to put a business park next to the boundary of Waterford city and . . . it has sucked out the economic and commercial activity in the centre of Waterford city . . . We’re a very small country and the notion you could have a varying commercial rate within the one county makes a nonsense of local government.”
Of the elections themselves, Hogan expects Fine Gael to at least match the 32 per cent share it won last time out, even after a series of tough budgets and three years in government. It could run as many as seven candidates for the 11 European parliament seats, with name recognition “critically important” in selecting who carries the party brand in the newly redrawn constituencies.
Fine Gael support has held up well in the polls since it entered government but the popularity of Coalition partner Labour fell to a 25-year low (6 per cent) earlier this year before a modest recent recovery.
“I think the Labour Party Ministers have been exceptionally strong in Government in sticking to the plan laid out by the troika and it has caused difficulties for some of their support base,” Hogan said.
“As things improve in the economy I expect to see further improvements for the Labour Party, as we have seen in the last opinion poll, and their supporters will see more clearly that the sacrifices made by the Irish people have been worthwhile and that we are on an upward trajectory in terms of the economy. That will lift political support of the Labour Party.”
A Cabinet reshuffle is expected to coincide with the May elections, as will the appointment of a new European commissioner, a position for which Hogan has emerged as the frontrunner from within the Fine Gael ranks.
Does he expect a promotion, demotion or move to Brussels?
“I am very happy to be Minister for the Environment, where I am getting the job done in terms of reforming service delivery and structures,” he said. “I’m not looking for any other position and all of these appointments are a matter for the Taoiseach.”