Greens seek major gains to offset budgetary pains
ANALYSIS:In recasting their marriage with Fianna Fáil, the Greens are seeking some far-reaching political reforms
THE GREEN Party wish list for a new programme for government is a serious attempt to extract as much as possible from Fianna Fáil to justify the risk of staying in office to underpin one of the most savage budgets in the history of the State.
The Greens will never have a better opportunity to get so much of their core values implemented in Government, given the current precarious position of the Coalition, but it will take delicate negotiation in a short time to get what they need to convince the party membership that it is worth the pain that will have to be endured after the budget.
What the Greens are looking for is a comprehensive set of changes that cover climate change, the economy, taxation, the electoral system, planning, transport, the equality agenda, as well as key elements of the forthcoming budget.
On taxation, the Greens are seeking changes to the tax system that they believe would make it fairer. For a start they want the income levy integrated into tax rates, although that would involve a significant increase in both rates. They are also seeking a third income tax rate for higher earners. A more popular measure is that they want measures to clamp down on tax exiles to ensure that all those who benefit from living in Ireland pay their tax in Ireland.
Another proposal is the abolition of the Pay Related Social Insurance (PRSI) ceiling on income. That would involve the higher income earners paying significantly more and it would effectively amount to extra tax.
The party also wants a new system for financing local government to ensure the viability of local services. The introduction of water charges based on a system where all households are allocated a free basic allowance is part of that reform.
Another key demand in the document is that the value of social welfare payments should be protected for the next three years. The party is seeking a commitment that basic social welfare payments will not be reduced or increased over the remainder of the term of Government and that cuts should be on secondary benefits and some universal payments.
A total revamp of the health service with the introduction of a universal single-tier system is another key part of the plan. Healthcare would be provided on the basis of equal access to a basic defined level of healthcare and would be funded through universal, compulsory health insurance. Tax incentives for private health insurance would be abolished.
The party is also proposing the introduction of the cervical cancer vaccine within the Government’s term of office. The withdrawal of a plan on this issue last year caused huge political controversy, with Donegal Fianna Fáil TD Jim McDaid defying the party whip on the issue in the Dáil and leaving the parliamentary party as a result.
Another reversal of policy being sought by the Greens is that the overall level of spending on education should remain at the level that existed in September 2008, before the series of cuts in public spending. Public sector pay cuts are to be excluded from calculations on the subject.
The document also seeks a restoration of a pupil-teacher ratio of one-to-27 in primary schools, the maintenance of capitation grants to primary and secondary schools at September 2008 levels and the reinstatement of library grants and book grants to the levels that operated a year ago.
The Greens also want the current system for third-level education maintained, with a commitment by the Government not to introduce third-level fees or loans and with no increase in registration fees. The party wants third-level education funded from general taxation.
Another Green demand is the creation of a new State infrastructure to deal with social inclusion and equality. This would involve removing the relevant sections from three existing Government departments – Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Social and Family Affairs, and Community Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs – to create a new department of community, equality and culture.
Key State agencies would be revamped into a single State agency to reflect these changes in order to pursue the equality agenda with vigour. An unsurprising proposal is the introduction of a climate change Bill to give a statutory basis to the annual carbon budget, with a target of a 3 per cent annual cut in carbon emissions, and with departments committed to ensuring that all policies are consistent with the achievement of this target.
An end to turf-cutting on designated raised bogs by the end of this year is also part of the plan to accelerate the transition away from the extraction of turf.
Another cherished Green objective is an animal health and welfare Bill to consolidate and update existing legislation in relation to the health and welfare of the country’s animals. Among the provisions of the legislation would be a ban on fur farming, a ban on the importation of wild animals to be used in circuses, a policy of badger vaccination in place of culling, and bans on stag hunting and hare coursing.
Transport policy is another key area for the Greens and the party wants to see a reversal of the current ratio of investment in public transport by comparison with roads, with 94 road projects at the design or earlier stages being scrapped. The Atlantic road corridor and the eastern bypass plans would be dropped, while the western rail project would be extended.
An important part of the Green document focuses on the need for reform of the political system. The party wants a commitment to a constitutional amendment to reduce the number of TDs and to change the current electoral system to a mixture of multi-seat PR and a list system. Also proposed are substantial cuts in the salaries of all politicians, with the Taoiseach taking a 25 per cent cut, Ministers 20 per cent and backbenchers 10 per cent.
Major reform of the public service is also proposed, with the establishment of a separate department of the public service to change work practices and introduce a performance-based culture that focuses on outcomes rather than processes.
The full document contains a detailed programme that will test the relationship of the Greens and Fianna Fáil to the limit. While agreement on many areas is likely, the Green negotiators will certainly encounter difficulty getting their coalition partners to accept the tax changes, a single-tier health system, the reversal of the education cuts and a change in the electoral system. A ban on hare coursing may not be the priority for most voters, but it could well be a sticking point for both the Greens and Fianna Fáil
Everything depends on how serious the Greens are about particular objectives, which of them are regarded as fundamental and which are negotiating ploys. The negotiating and bluffing skills of both sets of negotiators will be tested in the week ahead.
Stephen Collins is Political Editor