Paying the charge

Tue, Jul 3, 2012, 01:00

IN SPITE of all that has transpired since the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, overblown rhetoric and wishful thinking remain the staple output of many opposition politicians. They ignore economic realities and offer the electorate a succession of free lunches. The fact that they abused Dáil funds to promote an anti-household charge campaign appears not to matter. Similarly, they complain of reduced public services while urging the withholding of taxation designed to pay for them. Such behaviour offers a return to our dysfunctional past and a revival of auction politics.

Discipline is a suspect word in Irish public life. Like accountability, it is mentioned, but rarely applied. That must change if the State is to recover from the current economic downturn and offer its citizens the prospect of jobs, rising living standards and a secure retirement. A major step on that road will involve balancing government revenue and expenditure through rising exports, productivity and a restructured taxation system. It will not be easy or painless. Fiscal concessions at EU level and a sharing of banking debt may help. But the job of getting the domestic economy to function effectively is our own responsibility.

Government mishandling of the household charge issue allowed Opposition politicians take the initiative and launch an aggressive campaign against the embryonic property tax. For a time, it looked as if a majority of house owners would ignore the requirement to register. In the event, an estimated 60 per cent complied with their legal obligations and paid the relevant local authorities. The shortfall in income arising from non-payment now threatens the provision of local services

More than 100,000 official reminders will be sent to non-compliant landlords, second homeowners and other householders this week, inviting them to pay what they owe. Further reminders will issue before the possibility of legal action is raised. The likelihood that jail sentences will be imposed for non-payment is remote. But penalties and fees will continue to accrue to the property and they will have to be discharged before it can be inherited or sold.

Of greater concern in the short term is the impact this campaign of public disobedience, involving a limited household charge, may have on the introduction of a full-scale property tax next year.

Latest indications suggest that the tax will be based on the value of a property, rather than on site value. That is an equitable approach and would remove the charge of unfairness used in the campaign against the flat-rate household charge. In spite of that, political resistance is unlikely to evaporate. Defeat of Sinn Féin’s efforts to repeal the household charge in the Dáil has made no difference to that party, while Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party continues to fulminate against attacks by the Government on the “decent backbone of the taxpaying community”.

Such a populist approach and disregard for democratic institutions is nothing new. What is required is a different public response.

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