Votes for emigrants must come with a price

 

It’s not reasonable that people who don’t pay taxes should have a say in how those taxes are collected and spent, writes SARAH CAREY

AH, IT’S time for the “votes for emigrants” slogan to be inserted into the election chatter. It’s an idea no one wants to crush because it sounds so worthy. Instead, we politely indulge its advocates but do nothing about it.

The lament goes that since the State failed emigrants by not providing a sustainable living for all its citizens, emigrants should have the right to “fix” the State so they can return. But that ignores the fact that even during the best of times, including the peak of the Celtic Tiger, Irish people emigrated in their tens of thousands. Emigration is not just a symptom of bad times but a cultural legacy. It has positives and negatives, both for those who go and those left behind.

Of course, there’s a big difference between a single young man seeking adventure and the heartbreak of a dad forced to Saudi Arabia so he can provide for his family back home. Separation is one of the most painful human costs of the recession and you can understand why those who must endure it would want their chance to install a better government.

Having said that, I thought Peter Geoghegan’s opinion piece on Monday made an odd argument in favour of allowing emigrants to vote. He noted there are three million passport holders living abroad and accepted that was a very large number of potential voters, considering the State’s population is just 4.5 million. The obvious response is that the number is too large.

Then he said we shouldn’t let the size of the electorate scare us off because, going by other countries’ experiences, only a small portion of those would vote anyway. He might be right but lack of interest seemed a curious argument to employ.

If we’re going to make a huge change to our democratic system, it has to be for reasons that make sense in good times and bad and it should work whether the entire three million want to vote or not.

So we have to go back to first principles and think this through.

We base our franchise partly on citizenship but also on residency. Irish citizens resident here can vote in all elections. British citizens living here can vote in elections though not in referendums. European citizens can vote in European and local elections. non-EU citizens can vote only in local elections. Meanwhile, Irish citizens without residency here can’t vote at all.

That makes sense. There has to be a mechanism whereby those who vote have to consider the personal consequences of that vote. Living here means you have to live with your decision. Sadly, you have to live with other people’s decisions too but that’s another day’s work.

I like too the guiding principle of “no taxation without representation”. It’s not reasonable that people who don’t pay taxes to the State should be allowed to have a say in how those taxes are collected and distributed. Those living in Ireland, no matter how poor, will pay tax, directly or indirectly.

If we are to change this system and insist that citizenship and not residency is the basis of the franchise, the right to vote must come with some corresponding obligations. Paying tax is the obvious choice.

This dovetails nicely with that other populist cry to “tax the exiles”.

While your vote depends entirely on where you live, your tax bill is a function of both where you live and where your money is earned. Any income earned in Ireland is taxed in Ireland, irrespective of residency. That applies to the millionaire sunning himself in the Caymans with a business back here or a working family gone to Canada but renting out the house at home. This group of people pay tax on Irish income but have no representation, due to the residency obligation.

Now, many people have said – thinking only of how to snare the millionaires – that tax should be based on citizenship and not residency. This is the American system. But native-born American emigration is tiny compared with its population – its Census Bureau estimates it at just 27,000 each year. In Ireland, where the numbers are vastly higher, both relatively and absolutely, taxing citizenship would effectively be a tax on emigration. The “exile” would pay, but so would the “emigrant”.

Still, if they got the vote in return, wouldn’t that be a fair deal? How much do the emigrants really care about Ireland? Enough to vote? Peter Geoghegan thinks only a small number. Enough to pay? Hmm.

I’ve a funny feeling that the emigrants, for all the tragic eloquence offered up on their behalf, wouldn’t be a bit happy about that quid pro quo and those three million passports would be hopped back to us pretty quickly. In the US, 1,218 citizens gave up their passports in 2009. Though their motives can’t be proven, the presumption is that many of them don’t want to pay tax while they live abroad. As for the US millionaires, apparently $200 million is the income threshold that pushes those so inclined to abandon citizenship and leave the country solely to avoid tax.

It’s very easy to say “tax the exiles” and “votes for emigrants”. If we make the changes people think they want, we could say “tax the emigrants” and “votes for exiles”. But that doesn’t have quite the same ring does it?

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