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Harney Slams Higgins and Bin Tax Protestors
dublin | bin tax / household tax / water tax | news report Wednesday October 15, 2003 12:29 by Inside the Belly of the Beast
Ms Harney: The Opposition motion commends Deputy Joe Higgins for "his unswerving stand in the pursuit of equity in Irish society". I notice that a majority of those who signed the motion represent constituencies where people have been paying refuse collection charges for a considerable time. Charges appear to have become a big issue only when they were applied in Dublin. I say this as a Dublin Deputy. People in Cavan, Monaghan, Wexford and many other places have been paying these charges for a considerable time. I salute Deputy Gregory and others from the Dublin wing of the Independent group for managing to get their rural colleagues to protest against something their own constituents have been paying for a long time. Is it any wonder people in other parts of the country say things are unfair?
An Ceann Comhairle: The Minister, without interruption.
Mr. McHugh: The Minister should read the motion.
Mr. J. Breen: The Minister should not-----
An Ceann Comhairle: Allow the Minister to speak without interruption.
An Ceann Comhairle: Allow the Minister to speak without interruption. The Deputies had 40 minutes in which to make their contributions.
Mr. McHugh: The motion is very clear.
An Ceann Comhairle: I ask Deputy McHugh to allow the Minister to continue.
Ms Harney: What are the sponsors of the motion asking us to do? They are asking us to commend Deputy Higgins's activity in encouraging people in Fingal not to pay their refuse collection charges, which were approved by the democratically elected local council.
Deputy Higgins tried to prevent council workers from going about their legal duties and sought to prevent householders who had paid their charges from having their refuse collected. When ordered by the High Court to desist from these activities, he defied it. I see little to commend in anybody who engages in this kind of behaviour. We are all legislators in this House and we are put here by the people to enact laws and expected by them to abide by those laws. Nobody has been imprisoned for peaceful protest. Clearly, they have been imprisoned for defying High Court orders.
Democracy is not an à la carte menu. One cannot decide to pay the taxes and charges one likes and to evade the ones one does not like. What if Deputy Higgins takes a dislike to other public charges and levies or decides that people should not pay their television licence fee? What if he decides that people should not pay their gas or electricity bills? If we were to go down this road we would be writing a recipe for anarchy. As elected politicians, it behoves all of us to act responsibly and to be honest with those we represent. Public services have to be paid for. To pretend otherwise is nothing but political opportunism and grandstanding of the worst kind.
I have no doubt that Deputy Higgins has his own good reasons for taking the action which has landed him in his present predicament. His fans have been following me for the past few weeks. They were in UCD yesterday and in Bawnogue a few weeks ago. They are very committed to the Deputy and maybe he is very lucky to have them because they travel further than most of our political fans. Furthermore, they are louder than most when making their point. I have no problem with this in the main as they are engaging in peaceful protest.
The State is governed by majority vote in a democratically elected Parliament, not by the views of a single Deputy. If one substituted the phrase "income tax" for "bin tax" in this debate, I wonder how many Deputies would be cheerleading for Joe Higgins and his campaign.
Mr. Boyle: The Minister would.
Ms Harney: It has taken us------
Mr. Boyle: She does not like income tax.
An Ceann Comhairle: The Minister should continue and not listen to interruptions.
Ms Harney: Nobody has done more than me in recent years to try-----
Mr. Boyle: The Minister makes a virtue of not paying income tax.
An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Boyle, allow the Minister to speak without interruption.
Ms Harney: It is not a case of no tax but of low tax.
Mr. Boyle: The Minister bequeaths inequity in society-----
An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Boyle, please allow the Minister to continue without interruption.
Ms Harney: I did not realise community employment was a training ground for budding politicians or that Deputy Boyle had been a former community employment supervisor. I commend him for his capacity to be able to transfer from that into politics.
Mr. McHugh: He was lucky he got out in time.
Ms Harney: It has taken a long time to promote a compliant taxation culture. It is ironic that an organisation that calls itself the Socialist Party now seeks to undermine the very concept of civic responsibility at local level. The refuse charges campaign has for long sought political cover as some form of tax reform movement. Its slogan has been, "No double taxation". This is entirely spurious. The tax system has been transformed. The PAYE sector has enjoyed very significant tax relief over the past six budgets. Statistics show that, after the last budget, some 680,000 earners are entirely exempt from income tax, which represents 36% of all the people on the tax file.
This brings me to the charges in the motion regarding fairness and equity and the impact of Government policies on the lower paid. There is a notion that the coalition Government took power back in 1997 with the intention of robbing the poor in order to give to the rich. In this simple world of cartoon-strip politics, there are good guys and bad guys. The good guys - they are all on the left - are the only ones who care about the lower paid and the less well-off. The bad guys - they are all on the Government side - do not care at all about the lower paid and devote all their energies to helping the rich.
Mr. J. Breen: That is dead right.
Ms Harney: As somebody who brought in the minimum wage I note that there were lots of lefties in Government for a long time and Deputy Breen's former party-----
Mr. Boyle: The Minister campaigned against it in the election.
Ms Harney: -----was part of the Government. I am proud of the fact that we brought in the minimum wage.
If the simple world of cartoon-strip politics I described was accurate, it would mean the Government was not just bad but mad. It is difficult to see how any administration in a functioning democracy could ever hope to succeed with such a policy.
They say one should never let the facts get in the way of a good argument but I intend to give the House some facts. I intend to show what has been achieved in terms of tax equity over the past six years. We sometimes tend to live in a little world of our own in this country, blissfully unaware of what is happening elsewhere in Europe or of how other people see us. EUROSTAT recently published a comprehensive analysis of the tax treatment of lower-paid workers across the European Union. Specifically, it compared the tax rates for single persons earning two thirds of the average production wage in each country for the year 2001. The findings were interesting. The tax rate was 45% in Germany, 47% in Sweden and a whopping 49% in Belgium. These states are often held up as role models in social equity by left-wing commentators. The country that came out best in the EUROSTAT analysis was Ireland. We had the lowest rate of taxation for lower-paid workers of any country in the Union. With a tax rate of just 17%, we were way below every other member state. I prefer to regard this as evidence of Ireland being way ahead in its commitment to tax reform, lower-paid workers and real social justice. Some marvel at why, despite the international downturn, Ireland remains at or near full employment while other countries struggle with the effects of mass unemployment. The EUROSTAT figures answer this.
A similar picture is painted in a comparative study by the OECD which examined the direct tax burden of typical industrial workers with families. The tax burden was over 20% in Sweden, Belgium and Germany and was as high as 30% in Denmark. The direct tax burden on the average industrial worker with a family was lowest of all in Ireland. In fact, it was negative. In other words, when our very generous child benefit payments are taken into account, the typical industrial worker with a family is actually a net recipient of cash from the State.
These are very significant achievements. They put us at the right end of the international league tables and show that the reform measures introduced by the Government over the past six years have had real effect. As leader of the Progressive Democrats and as deputy leader of the Government, I assure the House that my party and the Administration yield to no one in their commitment to social justice and fair taxation. It is a sad reflection on the left that its main political campaign is to ensure that the people of Castleknock do not have to pay refuse charges.
Mr. F. McGrath: They pay their taxes.
Ms Harney: The polluter-pays principle is widely accepted not just around Europe but around Ireland. People recognise that waste collection is an essential public service and that it has to be paid for. They also recognise they should pay in line with the amount of waste they produce.
Politics is essentially about the interplay of ideas, the competition between differing views of the world and different approaches to economic management. Throughout the developed world, the great battle of ideas is essentially between leftism and liberalism. Leftism is losing that battle all over the free world now and it is certainly doing so in Ireland.
Irish success has been built almost entirely on the application of sound liberal values. We have reduced taxes on enterprise, investment and employment. We have opened markets to competition and reduced the role of the State in the economy. The net effect of these policies has been spectacularly positive. We have ended emigration, moved to full employment and achieved the effective elimination of long-term joblessness. We have used the proceeds of this economic growth to invest in new infrastructure, to fund better public services and to pay for huge increases in social supports for the less well-off in Irish society.
We take it for granted that the old-age pension is worth €157 per week and it is hard to believe it was worth only €99 six years ago. We take it for granted that child benefit is worth €125 per month, although it was worth only €38 when the Government took office. We also take it for granted that the respite grant for carers stands at €735 per year and it is hard to believe it did not exist some years ago.
This success was achieved by giving the people the freedom to achieve their full potential and live and work in their own country. This progress was not achieved by taking the country up the political culs-de-sac favoured by left-wing parties. We did not achieve success by nationalising companies, setting up hare-brained ventures such as the National Development Corporation or raising taxes to penalise personal progress. It is difficult to find any left-wing idea which has contributed anything to our social and economic prosperity in recent times. While left-wing politicians may have contributed something, left-wing politics has contributed nothing.
Deputy Joe Higgins seeks to lead the left into the wilderness of waste charge campaigning. Deputy Rabbitte, on the other hand, seeks to lead the left in the opposite direction and I wish him well in that regard. Social justice is about lifting people out of poverty and giving people opportunities and a real stake in society, which we have done. We have successfully tackled the problem of mass unemployment and moved tens of thousands of people out of long-term unemployment and into new and worthwhile jobs.
The key to this has been the low tax model of economic management pursued by this Government since 1997. Our approach is working for the people. It will keep the country at full employment, secure our future and do more to promote real social justice than any amount of opportunistic grandstanding by publicity hungry politicians in relation to charges which have been democratically-----
Mr. F. McGrath: The Tánaiste is out of order.
Ms Harney: If there was no publicity attached to some of the campaigns on the ground, I wonder how much support they would have.
Mr. F. McGrath: The Minister should tell that to her colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Parlon.
Ms Harney: The motion is about Deputy Joe Higgins. The Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, has seen the light.
Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Mr. T. O'Malley): I do not claim to be able to understand Deputy Joe Higgins's policy on waste management. I have tried but it is difficult. Although he has made several speeches on the topic in recent years inside and outside this House, it is difficult to make any coherent sense of them. He is opposed to landfills on the basis that local communities do not like them, incinerators on the grounds that they are unhealthy, private waste collection because it is profiteering and domestic waste charges because he regards them as double taxation. He has also voiced his opposition to the introduction of a 15 cent tax on plastic bags on the basis that it was, in his words, an unimaginative proposal.
Mr. McHugh: The Minister of State is clearly disturbed by Deputy Joe Higgins.
Ms Harney: These are the facts and the Deputy should be aware of them.
Mr. T. O'Malley: In a debate in the House in June 2001 he described the plastic bag levy as inequitable. I fail to understand how anybody could regard a simple 15 cent levy on a plastic bag as inequitable. Perhaps the Opposition Deputies could explain. The approach adopted by Deputy Joe Higgins offers no basis for the formation of a sound public policy in the area of waste management. I do not believe he was ever interested in making any serious contribution to the waste management debate. Rather, the whole campaign he and his allies in the Socialist Party have mounted has a great deal more to do with vote management than waste management.
Democracy is all about rights and responsibilities. All of us in politics have the right to put our policies before the people, seek support for them and, if successful, implement them in Government. Equally, we have responsibilities, above all, to respect the view of the majority and abide by it, as it is reflected in legislation passed by the Oireachtas and financial motions passed by duly elected local authorities. All of us who hold elected office have to bite our lips from time to time when the Government of the day or the local council makes a decision with which we do not agree. Democracy works on the basis that we accept such decisions whether or not we like them, but breaks down if elected politicians refuse to abide by the basic rules of the game and set out deliberately to obstruct the implementation of democratic decisions, which is what Deputy Joe Higgins is doing. It is wrong and indefensible and I am surprised his actions should merit any support in the House, not to speak of the tabling of a full-scale motion of commendation.
The House will be aware that the anti-charges campaign earlier today mounted pickets on council depots in the Dublin area and stopped refuse collection crews from going about their business. As a result, some 12,000 households in the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown Council area had no waste collection service today. This is nothing less than a deliberate attempt by the Socialist Party to prevent ordinary working people from doing their jobs, householders from having their waste collected and democratically made decisions from being implemented. I ask the Deputies who tabled this motion to think seriously about the action they are taking.
Deputy Joe Higgins was booted out of the Labour Party because it could no longer stand him and his tactics. Like any decent political party it was not prepared to be dictated to by one idiosyncratic individual. All the parties in this House aspire to be in Government at some stage, to influence public policy and have their say in how the country should be run. Even the Independent Deputies, as recent experience has shown, can have an influence on Government formation and direction. What is the point of it all if a single Deputy can walk out of the House, turn up his nose at the rest of us and attempt to force his views on everybody?
Deputy Joe Higgins and his supporters will not bring waste collection to a halt in this city or State. This simply cannot be allowed to happen and, as democrats, all Members should be giving clear leadership to the people. We all accept the polluter pays principle, that services have to be paid for and that special measures have to be put in place to help the less well-off. We cannot abandon all this in the face of bully-boy tactics from a single Deputy. It is hardly surprising that Deputy Joe Higgins is supported in his campaign by Sinn Féin, a party which has not been noted for its respect for the institutions of the State, its courts or police force.
Refuse charges are collected by every council and there is fairly widespread public acceptance of the need for them, a reflection of the growing level of environmental awareness. There is an increasing movement towards pay-by-weight and pay-per-bag systems, which is a positive development as it gives much better effect to the polluter pays principle than the flat charge systems operated until now by most local authorities. Our waste management policy is moving in the right direction. While we are a long way behind the rest of Europe in terms of recycling and reuse, we are making progress. In my county, Limerick, we have made considerable progress in recent years. The same is true to varying degrees in most other areas.
The future direction of public policy is clear. Recycling will increase, waste volumes going for final disposal will decrease and we will gradually fall into line with standard practice on the Continent, which is a long way ahead of us in the area of waste management. What we cannot afford is to reverse course at this stage. It has taken us several years to progress to the point where we have waste management plans and a coherent national waste management strategy. We cannot tell people that we are abandoning the polluter pays principle and they can produce as much waste as they like without any penalty as it would throw our waste management policy into chaos and cause major difficulties for local authorities.
There are now about 1.3 million households and the number is increasing with 50,000 to 60,000 new houses being built each year. The vast majority of households are complying with the law and paying the proper charges to have their waste collected. If collection charges are abandoned, we will see waste volumes rise and waste collection and disposal costs increase. Central government will be left with a hole of several hundred million euro a year to plug. Neither Deputy Joe Higgins nor his Socialist Party friends have come forward with any workable proposals as to how such a revenue shortfall might be met.
If he is serious about his politics, he should level with people and say from where this money will come.
No self respecting Member of the House can support this motion. It is fair enough for Opposition Deputies to attack the Government for its economic policies; that is part of the normal cut and thrust of politics. However, it is different for the House publicly and formally to commend one of its Members for defying the High Court in pursuit of political advantage.