I believe we should have a property tax in Ireland and I genuinely want to pay my fair share of a progressive property tax when it is legitimately and properly introduced in this country. However, I have many concerns about the ‘confusion’ surrounding the recently introduced household charge.

For example, is the new household charge a true property tax or is it another form of personal taxation masquerading as a property tax?  If it is a property tax, then why not simply describe it as such? The relevant enabling legislation is entitled The Local Government (Household Charge) Act 2011. But a household is not a house or a property – it’s a person or group of people living together in a single domestic unit according to Collins English Dictionary.

This raises another important question: does the personalization of this new ‘tax’ place it outside the domain of property and commercial law? Presumably those who have signed up to pay this charge have entered into a binding contract to continue paying it. But can those who haven’t registered be taken to court if invoices and associated receipts are not being issued in respect of payment for this ‘charge’ and if there is no evidence of a breach of any established commercial contract?

Of course, the whole thing may be an exercise in obfuscation and manipulation.  We may be witnessing another example of weasel wording /actions being employed for ulterior motives – in this case disguising the fact that a direct form of personal taxation is being deployed as the legal bulwark for a campaign to bluff people into voluntarily enrolling into a binding contract that can ultimately be enforced in the commercial courts.

The personalization of this tax undoubtedly permits the authorities to use the threat of deploying the Revenue Commissioners as enforcers against those who refuse to volunteer for the new ‘property’ charge – in effect, allowing the authorities to raid personal income via the PAYE route. However, to actually pursue this option would surely be a contradiction insofar as it would confirm de facto that the charge is not a property tax. It would also be ironic to go down the income tax route in view of the stated decision by the Irish government to rule out the option of raising the targeted revenue via income tax because this “would constitute a tax on jobs.”

As stated, I believe in property taxes. However, I do not wish to be duped, or bullied, into signing-up for a dubious tax. Moreover, I am not confident that the recent emergency introduction of the household charge will transform into a fully thought out or properly administered property tax system next year or in the foreseeable future. The record to date of our state authorities suggests that purported interim solutions to funding problems become entrenched as incrementalist and crisis-management approaches to ‘leadership’ compels our state representatives to move on to identify ever new sources of emergency revenues. In short, it is likely that the inappropriate and emergency ad-hoc arrangements introduced to collect the household charges will simply be left in place, with the prospect of higher charges being applied year on year to an illegitimate scheme.

Why not just take a little more time and introduce a genuine property tax – and do it properly, genuinely and transparently?  Indeed, surely the vaunted Fiscal Troika could be easily convinced about the merits of a slightly delayed but acceptable and sustainable property tax in preference to the current shambles.

On a weekend radio programme recently, I heard Minister Joan Burton deride those who refused to pay the household charge as an assemblage of two recalcitrant factions: those on the extreme left of the political spectrum and those who always seek to avoid paying any local charges. Setting aside the offensive tone of the remark, this classification is also surely incomplete as my observation suggests that many people fall into a third category – those who are willing to pay a genuine property tax but who are wary of the subterfuge and over-assertive behavior of the authorities. I know of many instances in recent times where individuals made queries to public servants about the legitimacy, appropriateness or fairness of crudely applied new measures designed to either make savings or raise new state funding. Too often these inquiries have been rebuffed with the stock response of “challenge it in courts”, something most of us simply can’t afford to do in these straitened times.

It would be interesting to see how the state authorities would react if the harassed taxpayers could combine to play this game and call their bluffs by taking legal action against suspect decisions. If those who haven’t paid the household charge to date contributed the equivalent amount to a solidarity fund to support legal challenges against doubtful state diktats, a substantial war chest (of up to €80 million or more) could be created for the purpose of safeguarding honest governance. If such a fund is created, its first challenge should, of course, be to test the democratic credentials of the household charge that claims to be a property tax.

Brendan Bartley

 

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