Former Socialist Party MEP Catherine O’Neill and Paul Murphy TD at an Irish Water demonstration in 2014; Dr Julien Mercille
The Irish Water model wants to shift the burden onto ordinary people via water charges. But a better option is to fund water services via progressive general taxation, like any other public service.
Dr Julien Mercille writes:
Irish Water and water charges have resurfaced as the political parties are attempting to form a government.
Some in Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have even suggested that they would be open to consider scrapping the charges and perhaps even Irish Water itself.
Of course, a lot of that is probably just fluff to pretend they care about what the electorate wants, but nevertheless, it is possible that the next government might have to adopt a more lenient approach towards water charges if it hopes to generate the required popular support to govern with some stability.
This remains to be seen, but the debate of the last few days has been very interesting.
It reveals that people power does work, and it shows once again the hypocrisy of the establishment and the media in covering water issues. The points I would make are as follows:
1. Protest and civil disobedience do work: the reason why the main parties are now reconsidering charging us for water is because they don’t want trouble in the streets.
So we can thank all the community groups and people like Paul Murphy TD and Joan Collins TD who participated in the protests. It’s interesting that some on the Left, even the radical Left, have been reluctant to support civil disobedience.
But guess what: this is how rights are won. Marches and speeches could be organised every day of the year but it wouldn’t change a thing. Those in power can live with that and will even encourage marches and speeches since they’re quite ineffective and they give the impression that the government is open to hear different points of view.
Also, over the last few days, there has been a flurry of hypocritical arguments from the government and media about the dangers of abolishing Irish Water and scrapping water charges, such as:
2. “If we abolish Irish Water we’ll go back to the inefficient system of running water services by the 40 or so Local Authorities, which is an uncoordinated and costly system”:
This is so ridiculous that you can be pretty sure that whoever says that is being disingenuous. The truth is that abolishing Irish Water has nothing to do with going back to the Local Authorities. It means keeping a centralised, national system, which does provide better coordination and efficiency.
But that national body should be a public body, not a semi-state commercial body like Irish Water. The difference is that Irish Water is commercial and charges for water, whereas a simple public body, which could be called the National Water Authority, is not commercial in nature and remains in public hands, and can’t be privatised down the line, as Irish Water could be.
3. “If we abolish Irish Water, its workers will have to be fired and we won’t be able to invest enough in our crappy water infrastructure”.
Oh wow. Since when does the government actually care about people losing their jobs and the lack of investment in our infrastructure?
Since 2008, under austerity, the main parties have raised the unemployment rate and cut public spending. Now that their beloved Irish Water is under threat, they suddenly pretend to care about those things…
In any case, if Irish Water became a public body, its staff with expertise in running a water system would stay. It is the useless marketing bureaucrats, legal advisors and overpaid executives who would have to find a job elsewhere.
The issue of investment is important, however. It is true that our water infrastructure needs investment. The reason is because under austerity, the government has refused to fund it adequately.
This is the standard tactic to privatise public assets: first, underfund a public body; second, when it is collapsing because it is underfunded, cry out loud that it’s a scandal that our infrastructure is so bad and that we need the private “efficient” sector to fix it; third, privatise it, even if there’s usually not much difference at all in efficiency between the public and private sectors—in fact, the private sector is in important cases less efficient (e.g., health care).
The central issue is: How should water services be funded? The Irish Water model wants to shift the burden onto ordinary people via water charges. But a better option is to fund water services via progressive general taxation, like any other public service. The reason why the government never mentions that is because it means taxing the rich to fund services for everybody.
If the provision of water services remains in public hands, the government could also borrow cheaply on the markets to invest in infrastructure via a National Water Authority. However, the proponents of Irish Water say it would be better to set up Irish Water as a commercial semi-state and have it borrow on the markets and keep all that off the government’s balance sheet.
The problem with this is that it would mean charging us all for water instead of using general taxation. It is therefore better to make general taxation more progressive, to implement a wealth tax, and to tax businesses a little more (to bring them on a par with the norm in Europe, so we’re not talking about being unfair to businesses here) and to use that money to fund water services.
Julien Mercille is a lecturer at University College Dublin. Follow him on Twitter: @JulienMercille