Programme for Government - Austerity with a green tinge!
24 June 2020
That the proposed Programme for Government (PfG) - agreed by the leaderships of Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and the Green Party following weeks of negotiations - could be hailed as “progressive”, “transformative” and a major advance for the environmental movement really speaks to the utter dishonesty of what passes for political commentary in Ireland. Even a cursory analysis of the “Our Shared Future” document would reveal such claims to be false.
Although the PfG is light on detail it does contain a number of policy statements that clearly defines its character. The most important of these is in relation the broad budgetary objectives that would guide a new government. It states that “we will set out a medium-term roadmap detailing how Ireland will reduce the deficit and return to a broadly balanced budget.” As a means to this end the government will “utilise taxation measures, as well as expenditure measures”, with the focus of any tax rises on “taxes … with negative externalities such as carbon tax, sugar tax, plastics, etc”. The implications of these policy objectives is that a continuation of austerity with further spending cuts and regressive consumption taxes is planned. Indeed, given the likelihood of an economic recession and the need to recover the costs associated with the coronavirus pandemic, the policies of austerity are likely to intensify.
The one area of taxation policy that is made crystal clear in the PfG is on corporation tax. It states that we are “committed to the 12.5% corporation tax rate and recognise that taxation is a national competence”. This means that the Irish State will continue to operate as a tax haven. The government will also resist any efforts on an EU level that would eliminate Irish based tax avoidance schemes such as that one that saved Apple €13bn. The PfG also contains the promise of a tax cut to wealthy individuals in the form of the elimination or reduction of the 3% Universal Social Charge (USC) surcharge on self-employed income in excess of €100,000.
In terms of wages the PfG states that the government will seek to negotiate a new public sector pay deal that is “guided by the State’s financial position and outlook, challenges in relation to recruitment and retention, and conditions within the broader labour market.” In any pay deal there will be an emphasis “on embedding positive work practice . . . as well as general productivity gains and effectiveness based on measurable outcomes.” This is very much in line with previous agreements such as Croke Park and Haddington Road which saw attacks on wages and conditions and created the two tier workforce within public services that has been the source of recent disputes involving teachers and nurses. More broadly it shows the continued commitment of the Government to social partnership as the best method to achieve its objectives.
In a series of mission statements the PfG covers a number of policy areas, such as health, housing and pensions that had proved to be highly contentious towards the end of the life of the previous government. Indeed, it was the loss of confidence in relation to the health service that brought down the government and caused the general election. Given this background the continuity of policy in these precise areas in the PfG seems even more egregious.
While the title of the mission for health is “Universal Healthcare” the substance of what is proposed is far from universal. At the core of the policy is the implementation of Sláintecare and a commitment to “ensuring people have access to affordable health care services.” The problem with this is that Sláintecare is not a public health care system but one that involves
private finance and private providers. It is noticeable that “affordable” is the key word here pointing to both what the State can provide and to what patients can afford. There is a reference to univeralism but this is framed in terms of the government seeking to “expand universal access to healthcare” which again is made conditional on affordability. The continuing role of the private sector is made explicit in the commitment to “examine new ways to utilise community settings and create partnerships with our private hospitals to avoid placing increased pressure on the public system.” There is also a proposal to “ensure capacity for a COVID-19 rapid response . . . and for non COVID emergencies into the longer term by utilising some private hospital capacity if necessary.” This is not a plan for a publicly owned, single tier healthcare system free at the point of use but rather one that is subordinated to the demands of private finance and private medicine.
The section on housing in the PfG has the title “Housing for All”. This appears to imply a significant role for public housing but - as with health - the bold headline bears little relationship to the text that follows. Housing 'for all' is quickly scaled back to the notion that “everybody should have access to good quality housing to purchase or rent at an affordable price.” Again the key word here is 'affordable' which, in the context of housing, refers not to income but to market value. Yet another help to buy scheme - which will underwrite financial loans and ramp up the price of houses - is to be introduced. On the building side the private sector is to be the main supplier of housing, including that which is classed as 'social housing'. The main vehicle for this will be the Land Development Agency (LDA) which involves the transfer of public land into the ownership of private developers. On the rental side the PfG commits to developing “a cost rental model for the delivery of housing that creates affordability for tenants and a sustainable model for the construction and management of homes.” This again prioritises private interests with the availability of rental properties being made dependent on sustaining the profits of developers and revenues of landlords.
The pensions issue - which was prominent in the last general election - is fudged in the PfG. It appears that the state pension age will rise but those who retire at 65 will be able to access unemployment benefits without having to sign on and be actively seeking work. For those in employment there will be the introduction of a pension auto-enrolment system under which workers “will have a range of retirement savings products to choose from.” The government will also review PRSI (including the public pension fund) with a view to making it more sustainable. These proposals point towards the expansion of private pensions and the rundown of State backed schemes.
Other notable items in the PfG include the establishment of an agency, Childcare Ireland, to expand childcare provision “in community and private settings.” This will further advance privatisation within the childcare sector with the new agency acting as a commissioner of services rather than a provider. There is also a commitment to end the system of Direct Provision for asylum seekers and to “replace it with a new International Protection accommodation policy centred on a not-for-profit approach.” Once again this leaves a lot of scope for the involvement of private operators.
One item that was heavily trailed but didn’t make it in to the PfG was the Occupied Territories Bill although this betrayal of the Palestinians should hardly come as a surprise. A glaring oversight in the document is Brexit with the matter only referenced in a claim that the government would “continue to work with Dublin and Rosslare Ports and Dublin Airport to make sure they are ready for all Brexit scenarios.” There is no sense that any serious preparations have been made for the likelihood of the EU and UK failing to reach an agreement on trade.
Despite being hailed for advancing a green agenda it is on the environment where the PfG is weakest. The Green Party’s flagship policy on reducing greenhouse gas emissions is there but it is so heavily qualified as to be rendered almost meaningless. Critically the year on year
reduction of 7% demanded by the Green Party has been watered down to the extent that it is now a target for average annual reductions over a ten year period. It is possible that over the next five years no reductions will have been made. The suggestion by Fine Gael deputy leader Simon Coveney that the first five years of this timetable could be spent on preparations points towards this. Another doubt over the emissions target is the number of activities, such as agriculture and aviation, that are being treated as special cases despite their massive contribution to the problem. Yet if reductions can’t be made there how can the targets ever be met. The PfG also commits the government to the Mercosur Deal which threatens the deforestation of the Amazon to make way for the expansion of agriculture. Doubts have also been cast over the proposed ban on oil and gas exploration in Ireland and the import of fracked gas. Despite the hype the imprint of the Green Party on the PfG is minimal. At the core of it is the framework drawn up by Fine Gael and Fianna Fail in April which was essentially a restatement of the policies they had been pursuing for the last four years through the confidence and supply arrangement.
For the political class the content the “Our Shared Future” document is really secondary. All that matters is that agreement has been reached and that a government can be formed. This time round that process required some environmental window dressing to draw in the Greens but in substance the programme of that government will be a continuation of the status quo. Indeed, with the fiscal parameters of any programme already set by the Troika, the whole process is a bit of a charade. What is being negotiated is not a programme but a limited slate of policies that fit within a broader framework of austerity. These policies - which may lean a little to the left (increases in spending) or a little to the right (tax cuts or accelerated debt repayment) - exist in what has become know as the “fiscal space”. This is the financial discretion permitted to the Irish government originally under the rules of the Troika bailout programme. The degree of this can vary marginally depending on tax revenue and the general performance of the economy but on average it amounts to around €2bn a year (or 2.4% of total public expenditure).
Despite all the sound and fury the “battle” between the political parties (and that includes Sinn Fein and the left groupings) centres on what can be done within this narrow window. The acceptance of this across the political spectrum (including the trade union movement) renders elections, party manifestos or whatever combination of parties make up the government almost irrelevant. There only is one programme for government and that is the Troika programme - everything that is presented as an alternative is in reality just a minor variation.
The results of recent elections - and the difficulty of forming a new government - show that public support for unending austerity is wearing thin. The problem is that the decay and growing instability within the Irish political system does not in itself produce an opposition. Over recent years we have seen people rally to mass trade union led campaign against water charges and vote for “insurgent” parties such as Sinn Fein and the Greens. But as vehicles for political change - because they are locked into the status quo - they have proven to be wholly inadequate.
The task of overturning austerity can only be taken on by a political movement that has explicitly broken with social partnership, which binds workers to employers and government - and with the Trioka programme, which binds government policies to austerity. The imperative - as it has been for a long time - is the creation of an independent working class that is guided by revolutionary socialist politics. With the impending crisis in the wake of Covid 19 and Brexit the need for such a movement is becoming ever more urgent. This is a huge project but it offers more hope than manoeuvring within the fiscal space or constructing fantasy left governments.