23 October 2008

Long hair down and sneakers on your feet

Ah, the students are revolting!* Yesterday saw the biggest student protest in Dublin in many, many years, with somewhere around 10,000 students turning out to protest at the merest hint (well, to be fair, its been a fairly unambiguous hint) of the return of third level fees**. Coupled with an earlier protest of up to 15,000 senior citizens against the introduction of means tested medical cards for the over 70's, yesterday saw possibly the largest day of mass protest in Ireland since the anti-war march in February 2003 when 100,000 marched through the streets of Dublin to protest over America's imminent invasion of Iraq.

My only question in all of this is where are the unions? It still shocks me that the two flashpoints in the budget have been a means tested medical card for the over 70's (less than 10% of the population as of 2006) and college students facing possible fees (around 3% of the population). With unemployment hitting 6.3% in September surely the biggest impact in the budget to the widest number of people has been the imposition of the 1% earnings levy?

While the government has reversed direction on the medical card issue in the face of overwhelming protests from its own backbenchers and the real threat of being wiped out in next year's local and European elections, the move announced on Tuesday to remove the levy from those earning minimum wage (up to €17,540) is farcical, because as soon as someone crosses that threshold they are then charged the full levy on all their income, not just the excess above minimum wage. The government has also indicated that to make up the resulting shortfall the threshold at which the 2% levy kicks in, currently €100,000, may be lowered. At no stage has it been suggested that a 3% levy for earnings above a higher level, say €250,000, or a third tax band for high earners be introduced. In his budget speech Minister Lenihan told the nation that in these tough times everyone must shoulder the burden however it is obvious that low earners and the disadvantaged are being asked to shoulder a disproportionally high share of that burden.

And yet the unions have been noticeable in their absence from the streets. Why is it that the only voices to be heard raised in outrage are the elderly and middle class students?

When the Labour Party abolished 3rd level fees in 1995, I was vocally against such a move. I attended college on a County Council grant, a means tested award that paid my tuition fees, and gave a token stipend that didn't even cover the cost of my bus fare each term. The challenge for me was not the paying of annual fees, rather it was daily subsistence, rent and food, and the thought of actually buying any course books was never even a remote possibility. From second year on I worked full-time in a shop across the road from the university, and basically attended lectures on my lunch break (theology not being the most class-intensive course). This was less than ideal, continuing on until two months before my final exams, but was by no means unique to me.

What would have been of greater benefit to me and thousands like me would have been an increase in the level of money granted to me personally to cover my living costs, and not paid directly to the university for fees. By universally abolishing fees the government simply take a pool of money that could have been used to increase maintenance awards to those who needed it most, and squandered it on a measure that ensured middle class families could afford a second car that year. I, and many others at the time, saw it as a cynical vote winning exercise as it did nothing to defray the true costs of 3rd level education.

I have found myself in heated arguments recently with other left-wing associates, as I do not believe in universal measures. I passionately believe in the justice of wealth distribution, and think that those who can pay for something, should pay for it. The challenge though is always in establishing a fair system of means testing that ensures those who need assistance qualify, and those who don't cannot game the system. The government's introduction of flat income levies rather than increases in the income tax levels is an admission that the current system of tax allowances and loopholes is broken, allowing too many to game the system. If everyone paid their fair share, the exchequer wouldn't have a projected tax shortfall of €6.5 Billion this year.

And as for yesterday's student march, I am reminded of the 'Student Petition' card in the board game Junta where playing the card has absolutely no effect. Apparently the students all need to wait another fifty years before the government quakes in it's boots at the sight of them (slowly) approaching Leinster House en masse. Sad, but true.

* You said it! They stink on ice!

** Ironically although I was in town at the time of the protest, I missed it completely as I was walking to the James St post office to pick up a parcel that contained, amongst other things, a selection of books by Kropotkin and Emma Goldman. I was too busy being a leftie to actually do any protesting. Sigh.


Some good photos of the protest at IndyMedia here and here.


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