We need a clear vision of a fairer future to guide policy
Better governance, social protection and a just taxation system are essential
‘In February 2014, 85 per cent of the members of the Convention on the Constitution convened by the Government voted to afford greater constitutional protection to economic, social and cultural rights.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Ireland needs a clear vision of its future to guide policy development in the decade ahead. Yet, there is an extraordinary reluctance to address the question of Ireland’s future, in a comprehensive and inclusive way, to be specific about the kind of society to be built in the years ahead.
While the Government focuses almost exclusively on its oft-repeated mantra of building “the best small country in the world in which to do business”, and most policy developments are justified on the basis of that target, there is little or no discussion of what Ireland should look like 10 years from now, of how the common good and the wellbeing of this and future generations are to be promoted and attained in a fair and sustainable manner. Yet these are critical issues.
Ireland’s future should be based on the values of human dignity, equality, human rights, solidarity, sustainability and the pursuit of the common good.
These values should be at the core of a just society where human rights are respected, human dignity is protected, human development is facilitated and the environment is respected and protected. In such a society all men, women and children would have what they required to live life with dignity and to fulfil their potential: including sufficient income; access to the services they need; and active inclusion in a genuinely participatory society.
These values matter. They are not minority views, as is sometimes stated, but reflect the aspirations of the majority of Irish citizens. Indeed, in February, 85 per cent of the members of the Constitutional Convention convened by the Government voted to afford greater constitutional protection to economic, social and cultural rights. This included a recommendation to include explicit mention of rights to housing, social security, essential healthcare and the rights of people with disabilities, as well as linguistic and cultural rights, in the Constitution. These are rights for which Social Justice Ireland has argued over many years.
But there are challenges to developing a society based on these values. The current trajectory of Government policy is for reductions in total expenditure (including interest rates) and in total revenue (of which tax revenue is by far the largest component). Many in Ireland’s policy- making system still seem to believe we can have European levels of infrastructure and services with US levels of taxation.
Can we provide high-quality public services to all while allowing total expenditure to fall as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP)? If there is increased revenue should it be spent reducing taxes or improving infrastructure and services?
A new policy framework is required, one that recognises the need to increase taxes towards the European average to fund the public services we need, while implementing new criteria for policy evaluation to ensure we get value for money.
This framework should also address the issue of how infrastructure and services are to be paid for and delivered. On their own the public sector, the private sector or the community and voluntary sector cannot deliver all that is required. I suggest a new policy framework should address five key policy areas for reform. Social Justice Ireland’s annual socioeconomic review, Steps Towards a Fairer Future , published today, outlines this in greater detail.
The first area is macroeconomic stability. This requires a stabilisation of Ireland’s debt levels, fiscal and financial stability and sustainable economic growth, and an immediate boost to investment, which has collapsed during the crisis. A break on Ireland’s debt is essential, as is increased investment.
The second area is the need for a just taxation system. This would require an increase in the overall tax take towards the European average. Such an increase must be implemented equitably and in a way that reduces income inequality. This would involve shifting taxation towards wealth, ensuring those who benefit most from Ireland’s economic system contribute most, in the most efficient manner.
The third area is social protection. This would require the strengthening of social services and social infrastructure, the prioritisation of employment and a commitment to quantitative targets to reduce poverty. The significant cuts to social services and payments since 2008 have had some very destructive consequences for a wide range of vulnerable groups. Investment in Ireland’s social infrastructure (education, social housing, etc) is as important as investment in its physical infrastructure (roads, telecommunications, etc).
The fourth area is that of the governance of our country, which requires new criteria in policy evaluation, the development of a rights-based approach and the promotion of deliberative democracy. Many feel they have not been heard when decisions affecting them were made. If people are to take responsibility for building the future they must be fully engaged in the decision-making that shapes that future.
Fifth, policies must be adopted that create a sustainable future, through the introduction of measures to slow down climate change and protect the environment, the promotion of balanced regional development and promotion of new economic and social indicators to measure performance alongside traditional national accounting measures such as GDP, gross national product and gross national income. Including the value of unpaid work in a new set of shadow national accounts would be a step in the right direction.
It is time that Ireland started to think long-term, setting out the kind of sustainable, equitable and democratic society it wishes to build and how it proposes to reach that destination. All Irish people should be engaged in this process in a real and meaningful way, focused on building a world in which people care for each other and for the natural world, with a commitment to building a compassionate society and a better future where wellbeing is promoted and secured for this and future generations.
Seán Healy is director of Social Justice Ireland