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Howlin proposes to hand full responsibility for property tax to local authorities

20 September 2017

Speech by Brendan Howlin TD
Party Leader and Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs and Northern Ireland

Remarks by Brendan Howlin, T.D. Leader of the Labour Party at the launch of the journal, Administration, "The ‘Democratic Revolution? Evaluating the political and administrative reform landscape after the economic crisis’, Wednesday 20th September at the Institute of Public Administration.

  • Howlin proposes to hand full responsibility for the LPT to local authorities

Firstly let me thank you for the invitation to be here. 

And of course I want to congratulate you all on the production of this edition of Administration.

The narrative of political and indeed administrative reform undertaken by the last Government is pretty much established at this stage. 

I’m not sure there’s all that much to be gained from revisiting it sequentially, but perhaps a few words of general commentary might be appropriate. 

This contribution might therefore be a little eclectic – if so, I apologise in advance. 

The first thing to say is that the programme of reform enacted by the last Government was considerable – enough, you seem to agree, to justify a whole series of articles in a single issue of administration. 

Indeed, the last Dáil was the most productive Dáil in our history – over 250 pieces of legislation passed against the backdrop of the largest fiscal crisis in the state.

And it is probably too early to assess the long term impact of those changes. 

Cultural change remains as important as regulatory change.

I think this is rarely acknowledged but the scale of the success is perhaps best illustrated by a perceived failure – reform of the legal profession – which nonetheless amounts to the most significant radical reform of that profession’s regulatory structure in centuries. 

That’s a high benchmark to have been judged as a failure!

It is unfortunate then that the last Dáil has been superseded by what is now widely regarded as the do nothing Dáil. 

In advance of the last election there was considerable debate about how we do politics in this country. 

The power of the executive vis a vis the legislature was a constant thread of discussion. 

How the academics who led this charge feel about where we are now I’m not sure. 

But I am satisfied that the current position is not satisfactory. 

If the purpose of the reforms of the last twenty years – and it is twenty years since the Freedom of Information legislation was introduced by the Labour Party – has been to increase public confidence in politics then it has conspicuously failed.

And in part that could be simply because politics is inherently messy. 

It is a contest not just of ideas but of tactics too.

I think though that we would do well to reconsider the genesis of many of these reforms. 

They do not, for example, necessarily have their genesis in the economic crisis. 

So, to take the examples of the lobbying register or overarching whistleblower protection, these measures had been promoted by my party, Labour, almost a decade before the onset of economic crisis. 

I say that because it would be a mistake not to consider the significance of political agency as a driver of reform. 

The economic crisis may have assisted but it was not the progenitor of the reform agenda.

I’ve been asked to reflect on my role as a Government Minister on the reform experience. 

I would refer people to the recent publication of one of this journal’s contributors Muiris MacCeartaigh’s ‘Public Service Reform in Ireland’ based on his time working within DPER in those years for a comprehensive narrative account.

Let me say a few words about the Department. 

I do have a fear that Government does not understand the importance of a Department committed to continuous change and reform.

I do not believe that the Department of Finance is fully committed to any new ways of doing things. 

And that a reversion towards the old way of doing things, however capable an individual minister might be, is to put public services and government renewal on the back foot.

For my part I think the economic crisis made the path somewhat easier. 

We encountered resistance along the way but when taken alongside the scale of change we were introducing it never reached the point where it became overwhelming. 

The day to day frustrations don’t seem to be as great in hindsight as they may have appeared at the time.

Muiris’ book details previous unsuccessful and untried attempts at public reform.  

I think it is fair to say, leaving the rhetoric of the Democratic Revolution aside, that our partners in Government Fine Gael were not reformers of this hue. 

Free market reformers perhaps, but proponents of openness and transparency less so.   

As an example, I think that can be seen in the Department of Justice, a Department held by Fine Gael from 2011 and which incidentally has never been held by a Labour Minister, where I suspect it is not so much as a case of reform failed as reform never really embraced.

Against such reluctance, I think it is fair to say that we in the Labour Party took advantage of some Fine Gael weaknesses too. 

When the Taoiseach and the Minister for Justice encountered their first difficulties with An Garda Síochána, Labour moved to achieve a long term policy goal of establishing the Policing Authority. 

When Fine Gael experienced difficulties in relation to state board appointments, Labour moved to enhance the involvement of the Public Appointments Service in that process. 

I’m on record as expressing regret at some of the changes we implemented during our time in office. 

The abolition of town councils for example in hindsight seems to me to downplay the significance of life in smaller urban centres as a facet of Irish life. 

Indeed, Labour will be seeking to revisit this issue over the months ahead.

I think one of the more far reaching changes made in the local government area is via the power of councils to modify the residential property tax. 

For the first time since rates were abolished we’ve restored revenue control powers to local government. 

What has emerged, again in recent weeks, is a far more interesting dialogue about party positioning and fundamental positions about governing philosophy than that which takes place during election debates. 

I think it’s healthy and could be the making of a  more accountable local government system in this country.

So I would go further. 

I’d hand full responsibility for the LPT to local authorities, with some measure of equalisation retained. 

Let central government afford councils a base that they would have to achieve but allow the councils themselves greater freedom to make decisions on not just variations but tax rates also. 

Let local people be offered a political choice on what they should pay and what they get for it. 

Let candidates decide where they stand on issues they will subsequently hold sway over.

If we achieved these objectives – the restoration of town-level Government, and the empowering of local authorities to have greater control over local taxation, I think we might do much more to truly empower local Government than perhaps we achieved in the last Government.

So, regrets, I have just a few. 

But the reforming achievements of the last Government remain a source of pride for those of us who worked on them. 

When I see more women in Dáil Éireann; when I see more whistleblowers empowered to come forward; when I see lobbying activity subjected to the bright light of day – I know we made some difference.

This edition of Administration does a fine job of recording some of our achievements, as well as some of our failures. 

For that alone, we owe the authors and the editors our thanks. 

For highlighting some of the areas we might tackle next, that is even more the case.

Thank you.