People accept decisions must be taken, but there is more than one solution

One of the legacies of the period from which we have just emerged was the complete failure of many in government to distinguish between a so-called genuine business person and one who was less than genuine. Those who have turned out to be duds and less than genuine, if not worse, were feted and celebrated by many members of the Government during the recent period. Therefore, I would not rely too heavily on the ability of certain people in government to make the distinction between so-called genuine business people and those who are less so.

I do not subscribe to the view that there is no hope. I do not for one minute wish to be lined up in anybody’s mind or book with people who believe the country is sinking or does not have a future, that there is no future here for my children or theirs. I believe very strongly that there is a positive future for us as a community, society and economy. We must restructure and rebuild a genuine and real economy based on production and the efforts of our people, the provision of goods and services based on innovation and all the qualities about which all other colleagues spoke during the course of the debate. In that sense, I am an optimist, although today it is very difficult to be one. Leaving aside political partisanship, I want to be counted among those who see a very strong future for the country in the years ahead when we will address seriously the shocking and horrendous problems we can see.

Neither do I subscribe to the psychobabble we have heard, particularly in recent days, although it has been evident for a number of months. I do not think it gets us very far. I refer to those who give out about people talking down the economy, the endless negativity and so on. Essentially, it is propaganda. Those who devote most of their speeches and spend their time preoccupied with others who, in their view, talk down the economy are not addressing the real issues. In a sense they are blaming and attacking the messenger. People do not need to read the so-called negative pieces by journalists in the newspapers or listen to the economists who appear on “Prime Time”. They do not need to be told by such individuals that things are bad. They can turn off the television and the radio and need never buy a newspaper, but they will still know that things are shocking for them and their families. People who have lost their jobs or have had wage or welfare cuts do not need to be told by anybody, negative or otherwise, that life is difficult and things are tough for them. Let us stop blaming and trying to take refuge in the notion that there is an army of people talking down the economy. There is an element of psychobabble in the notion that if only we could get people to be more cheerful and have smiling economists and cheerful journalists writing nice happy-clappy articles in newspapers, everything would be fine.

Trust is the next issue to be considered with regard to the future and confidence. I had a very interesting experience earlier, although people might think it strange for me to relate it. I listened to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, on “Morning Ireland” and said afterwards to a person that I thought he had done a good interview. That person said, “Yes, but do you believe him? I cannot believe him any more.” I asked what was meant by this. The reply was not necessarily a personal criticism of the Minister but one of the Government and its attitude. It has to do with trust. There was such a lengthy period during which the people were not told the full truth or given all the facts that now they are being given facts and the truth which we hope is the whole truth, they have lost faith in anything they are told. There should have been far more honesty much earlier in the process. We should not have had Members coming into the Dáil or the Seanad suggesting, for example, the bank guarantee would be cheap and that we would get out of the banking crisis relatively easily. I recall that at one stage a Minister came into this Chamber and more or less suggested to Members that we would make money out of the whole process, that NAMA essentially would be a money spinner. People simply did not believe it.

Senators MacSharry, Hanafin and others jumped up to make speeches to sustain the notion that not only would everything be fine but that we would come so well out of it that we would make a profit. The business people who are looking for an opportunity to invest, employ people and develop into the future are hard-nosed. They did not believe this and it has turned out that they were right not to. Ordinary citizens who were sceptical about what they were being told now find that it was actually wrong and that the current position is that they cannot believe what the Government tells them. It is like crying “Wolf!” The Government has come along at this late stage and started to level with the people, but they have given up believing it. It is paralysed and trapped in a situation where, no matter what it states, it will not be able to re-establish the trust of the people. That is the difficulty.

Both sides of the House must face up to the need for co-operation and the level of debate across the floor on the economic measures that require to be taken, the budget, etc. With all due respect to the Taoiseach, it does not really represent progress for him to say the Opposition can avail of what is, metaphorically, a suggestion box to be placed outside the door and that if it has any ideas, it can toss them into it for the Government to look at. That is essentially what has been said. If we are to have a debate at a level beyond the somewhat cynical approach suggested by the Taoiseach, we must all participate in a deeper discussion of the options. I am willing to concede the four-year programme mentioned by the Minister and announced by the Government which is intended to be published in November could offer us a very useful opportunity to debate, perhaps in this House, the various options facing the country. We all accept big decisions require to be taken, but we do not accept there is only one set of decisions, or one set of solutions. As one approaches the budget which is only a few weeks away, one can have less confidence in the willingness of the Government, perhaps any Government, to engage in a lengthy debate on the options.

Perhaps the time to do this was earlier in the year, but I would like to have that debate tomorrow. However, I am being realistic because when it was suggested last year that the Opposition might bring forward proposals and they did so – just to remind people I will outline some the proposals made by the Labour Party – they were completely ignored. There was no genuine engagement.

With respect, Senator MacSharry was wrong when he said the announcement by the Department of Finance that it was prepared to brief Opposition parties was unique because it briefed the Opposition last year. However, the problem is that the detail available to Opposition parties dried up as we got closer to the budget, perhaps understandably on the part of Department of Finance officials. It is a pity all of this happens so quickly and in such a rush over a period of a few weeks. I hope the four year programme will contain options, as much as purported decisions by the Government which will not it appears be in office for too long beyond the forthcoming budget.

The outgoing Government – that is how I regard it – could serve the country well by setting out the various options in detail and costing them. This would inform a general election campaign and the debate that would require to be held in the course of such a campaign. There would be political pitfalls in this for all sides. However, we have moved beyond the day when we can afford to allow ourselves to be influenced by pure political considerations in terms of what is in the interests of the Labour Party or Fianna Fail as political parties. There are greater issues at stake. Let us have the price tags, for example, on what appear to be the unmentionables, namely, property taxes, water charges and corporation tax. If one even utters the words “corporation tax”, people conclude one is seeking to increase it. What I am talking about is facilitating a meaningful public debate on the cost of a range of measures. We could then engage in a fight.

For example, prior to last year’s budget, the Labour Party, following a briefing by the Department of Finance, proposed a higher income tax rate for higher earners. The price tag in introducing a third rate of tax of 48% on earnings over €100,000 was €355 million as costed by the Department. Informed by the contents of the report of the Commission on Taxation, we also proposed a reduction in pension relief and the price tag was €330 million. We did not make up that figure, rather it was based on information provided by the Department of Finance for us. We proposed modifications and reductions in investment property relief and the price tag was €430 million. The same applies to property schemes.

Deputy Varadkar, when describing the Labour Party proposals on the revenue side, was, I believe, misled into thinking the Labour Party was proposing an attack on the middle classes to the tune of €2.5 billion. I would like to debate that figure with him. Few people, middle class or otherwise, would be affected by many of these reliefs which, in many cases, ought not to have been introduced in the first instance. They ought to have been curtailed more quickly. According to the Commission on Taxation, there is no genuine compelling economic benefit to be gained from their continuation and they should be removed. A debate on these measures would be helpful. The only measure in the list brought forward on the revenue side last year by the Labour Party that could conceivably be regarded as an attack on the middle classes is a third rate of tax at 48% on income over €100,000.

A real issue of equity arises. I had an interesting discussion last week with a colleague from the opposite side on the general economic environment. I agree with him that until people believe there is equality and fairness in the Government’s approach to economic recovery, whether in terms of taxation measures or the configuration of cuts in public expenditure, there will not be the public confidence, involvement or a shoulder to the wheel which the Government rightly, in a rhetorical sense, seeks all the time. That simply will not happen. I agree with what my colleague had to say during that general private discussion. Many people feel the same way. At the time of a general election the reality is that the public will have to be persuaded by way of debate that there are, regrettably, some public services that we simply are not able to afford. We can have the debate on how we have come to be in this situation at another time, but I will be happy to participate in it.

What upsets me a little is that people do not yet seem to understand or to have analysed what has gone wrong. Colleagues opposite have the idea that this has been a golden era and what we are facing is a blip caused by the international recession, but that is completely wide of the mark. We are where we are because Government decisions that ought to have been made were not. In the future there will have to be public discussion and confidence in measures that will be extremely difficult and affect ordinary voters, citizens and families. People will not buy into these decisions, unless they can see fairness across the board.

When speaking about how we order business in the House, I had in mind that which goes beyond the structured debate we are having today in which the Minister of State – I accept he is only doing what he is required to do and that he does it well – has made a speech and will reply to questions from colleagues. I would prefer if the two or three organisations with big picture proposals, including Social Justice Ireland, could be invited to come to the Seanad Chamber to defend their proposals. We could then pursue and scrutinise them with them, with the benefit of advice and information from the Department of Finance or the Civil Service. This would allow genuine public debate rather than set piece debates. That is what I had in mind in regard to how we could change the way we do business in the House. I urge the Leader to seriously consider how best we might do this.

I look forward to the four-year programme being produced. There is an air of unreality in terms of what some Government Members appear to expect from the Opposition. Without information and the facts, there will not be a genuine debate. I am, however, prepared to have a truce for a short while if we can receive the information we require. We could then have the argument, but this cannot be done the other way round. One might say this could be done in a general election campaign because that is when such things are done. The big issues will be debated in such a campaign. We want a general election but cannot have one because the Government intends to remain in office for as long as it possibly can. Short of having a general election, let us try to facilitate genuine debate. We could start by doing so here.