COLETTE BROWNE: Voters have only themselves to blame for last week’s budget cuts

THE furious reaction to yet another iniquitous budget, in which the most vulnerable in society are again expected to make the biggest relative contribution to our national recovery, belies the fact that 56% of the population in the last general election voted for right-wing parties that ran on a platform of maintaining tax rates and cutting services — which is exactly what happened last Wednesday.

Now, as the reality of that ideology begins to sink in, with low and middle income families disproportionately targeted by a government desperate to make crude savings, it’s time that the electorate asked themselves why they continue to vote in haste and repent at leisure.

If it’s true that we get the politicians that we deserve, then voters need to take some degree of responsibility for continuing to return right-leaning parties as the majority coalition partner in government because, unless voting patterns change, the same regressive policies will continue to be implemented and levels of inequality will continue to grow.

While it’s true that the Labour Party has ripped up many of the headline-grabbing commitments it made to voters during the last general election campaign, if everybody now flagellating the party for abandoning those promises had actually voted for a Labour candidate then it would enjoy a massive majority in government.

It doesn’t, having only secured 19% of the vote, so while it’s fair to hold the party to account for so abjectly failing to live up to its pre-election pledges, it should not bear the largest portion of the blame and those who did not vote for the party cannot now wail about its inability to act as a bulwark against Fine Gael in government.

Instead, perhaps it’s time that some uncomfortable realities were considered — that voters persist in voting against their interests and then react with outrage when parties that receive widespread support implement their core policy objectives.

Fine Gael, for example, received 36% of the vote and over twice the number of seats that Labour did, when it vowed that it would not change income tax rates for high earners — despite the fact that just 110,000 households earn in excess of €100,000.

This begs the question, why did over 800,000 people vote for a party that was upfront about its determination to protect the salaries of the richest strata of society when the obvious consequence of that commitment was going to be a raiding of money from the less well off in order to balance the books? One school of thought, among political scientists, is that voters act out of unenlightened self-interest because they fail to see a causative link between regressive tax policies and inequality generally.

When Fine Gael vowed to maintain income tax rates at their existing levels in 2011, it’s likely that people only thought about their own tax burden and failed to realise that wealthy people would reap far more relative advantages from a freezing of income tax rates.

People’s penchant for thinking only about their own pay packets blinded them to the fact that the measure insulated those on high salaries and meant the poorest in society would be forced to shoulder the resultant burden.

For example, in July, Finance Minister Michael Noonan revealed that introducing a 50% rate of tax for income in excess of €100,000 would yield €490m, yet this measure was never even entertained while child benefit, the carers’ respite grant and the back to school allowance were all subject to vicious cuts in order to raise a relatively paltry €179m.

Another tool that political parties use to pull the wool over voters’ eyes is what George Orwell famously called Newspeak — propaganda-laden language that disguises the real intent and impact of their policies.

Those who react with horror to the prospect of income tax rates being increased maintain that any such measure would deter “wealth-creators” and “job-creators” from setting up businesses in Ireland.

By implication, anyone who supports targeted tax increases on the richest in society is anti-jobs and anti-wealth — a hugely damaging charge at a time of such historically high unemployment.

This kind of incendiary language is merely a cheap prop used to stifle debate. Patently, not everybody who earns over €100,000 is a job creator and, even if they are, there is no evidence to support an assertion that such a marginal tax increase would result in a mass exodus of jobs and capital.

Instead, the Government prefers to demand that low-income earners sacrifice their income for the greater good.

Asked to explain his aversion to tax increases during the week, Mr Noonan said any such measure would scare off “the Googles and the Facebooks” — despite the incredibly low 12.5% corporate tax rate those companies enjoy and the Special Assignee Relief Programme, introduced last year, which reduces the taxable income of foreign executives, earning between €75,000 and €500,000, by a whopping 30%.

The narrative expounded by Mr Noonan, that a raft of costly concessions must be made to the rich so that some day, maybe, some of their wealth will trickle down to the serfs who are subsiding their tax breaks, is immiserating tens of thousands of workers who are unable to cope with the myriad stealth taxes that this myopic policy has necessitated.

WHILE there is no evidence to support Mr Noonan’s thesis, that cosseting the rich somehow protects the poor, there is ample evidence that reveals the retrograde nature of his financial policies.

Between 2009 and 2010, the most recent year for which figures are available, the deprivation rate, defined as going without two or more items that are essential for basic living standards, skyrocketed by 30% while the risk of poverty rate increased by 12%.

These figures do not take into account a host of punitive budgetary measures, like the USC, cuts to social welfare allowances, Vat increases, PRSI increases or the new property tax, so it seems likely that these rates have continued to climb in the intervening two years.

It could be that voters are willing to endure these regressive fiscal policies because they are socially conservative and opt for right-wing parties because religious fervour trumps economic rationality at the ballot box.

However, recent opinion polling, which reveals 85% of people support legislation to give effect to the X case judgment while 66% support gay marriage, indicates that these formerly divisive social issues are no longer as determinative as they once were.

In Ireland’s parochial parish-pump electoral system, it could be that voting behaviour is entirely predicted on the personality of local candidates with absolutely no consideration being given to the fact that each party candidate is beholden to a whip that ruthlessly enforces a particular ideology, be it progressive or regressive.

Whatever the reason that Irish voters continually opt for right-of-centre parties, the wailing about entirely predictable budgetary measures is getting a bit old. Maybe it’s belatedly time that voters grew up, thought a bit more about the implications of their preferences and took responsibility for the political ethos and they de facto endorse whenever they go to the polls and vote for the usual suspects.


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