Olivia O’Leary In her radio column for RTÉ One’s Drivetime last night tackled taxation, ‘toilers’ and ‘dossers’. With even a dig at Denis.
Count the number of times, even in the last week, when you’ve heard the phrase, “the burden of taxation”, somebody said to me on Saturday. He’s right. Journalists use it, politicians use it, the Taoiseach himself used the same phrase in Brussels only on Saturday. The language we use is full of conscious or unconscious values.
Is taxation to be seen merely as a burden or is it something we pay proudly: our declaration that we want to have a decent society because you can’t, on one hand for instance, protest at the level of homelessness and, on the other, lobby for a reduction in your taxes.
There are thousands of people in the housing list in Dun Laoghaire and yet the council representing one of the most prosperous areas in the country opted to reduce local property tax by 15% for this year. Dublin City Council did the same – despite warnings from the county manager that it could hit services for the homeless.
There is a link between the two. The question of taxation and our attitude to it was a central theme, raised by participants on Saturday, at an Áras an Uachtaran seminar to mark the culmination of the President’s year-long initiative.
He is a thinker himself and he’s asked the rest of us to think whether it’s possible to live ethically in a contemporary world. There were community groups, NGOs and academics there. The academics addressed some of the philosophical questions: why can’t we be happy with what we need rather than what we want?
Needs can be satisfied but wants are insatiable and they discussed whether you can have a more ethical society when multi-national companies that are more powerful than democratically-elected governments and where the need to lobby for commercial research funding skews the independence of our leading universities.
But the more general discussion kept coming around to taxation as the most effective way of showing our solidarity with one another, of choosing a decent society.
One speaker criticised the fact that people who were tax exiles from this country were lauded here as being generous and charitable. She would be much more impressed if they stayed here and paid their taxes, she said.
She’s right. I mean you mightn’t be Michael O’Leary’s biggest fan but at least he lives here and pays his taxes here. And that brought me to thinking about our taxation arrangements with multi-nationals which are at the very core of our industrial investment strategy.
We are able to charge only 12.5% corporate tax because we never had the big industrial base that other countries had – a base on whose tax their exchequers became dependent.
We didn’t become dependent on it because we never had it. Our low corporate tax rate which brings so many companies and jobs here is one of the advantages perhaps of having been poor and I’m not going to apologise for that.
But we have been accused of facilitating multi-nationals in paying pretty well no tax at all. We have to decide ethically where we draw the line between using a fair advantage which history gives us and where we allow companies to dodge their taxes almost completely, robbing not only our own coffers but other countries’ coffers of their revenue which supports necessary public services.
And going back to how important language is, I got a magazine, called Business Plus, free with my Sunday newspaper this weekend. The editorial made the point that social democracy meant taking money from people who have it and handing it out to people who have less.
‘It only became possible when universal suffrage was rolled out in the 20th century,’ went the editorial, ‘thereby granting the same political clout to the dosser as the toiler’.
Well now, who are the dossers? If the writer means the unemployed, isn’t it interesting that, during the boom when jobs were freely available, people took them to the point that we had effective full employment, not too many dossers there.
And now that jobs are coming back into the economy, the jobless rate is going down again – most people want to work and pay their taxes and provide a proper safety net in case they, or anybody else, becomes jobless or homeless.
If they become jobless they get some income and an Intreo service which tries to get them back to work again – those are the services our taxes pay for. All that, it would seem to me, is at the centre of an ethical society. That’s why tax is not a dirty word.
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