Even in the climate emergency the Greens are all carrot and no stick.
By Michael Smith.
I attended the Greens’ manifesto launch.
I did it because, more than for any other party, their agenda – Green – matters. Being well-disposed I wanted to assess their fitness to deliver it.
The media were there in force and about a hundred fairly presentable Green activists were on hand. There would be internal training afterwards.
On the podium were three leaders of the party. The first two spoke mostly about particular sectoral issues, reading from scripts.
Then Eamon Ryan gave a bit of a framework to it, some vision, an aspiration to ten areas where the Greens wanted more ambition, and an ambition to 15 seats which everyone seemed especially excited about.
He said something, again, about senior hurling. There didn’t seem to be many hurlers in the crowd. Nearly half of the candidates in Dublin went to rugby-playing Gonzaga which brings its own biases.
Then there were questions, led by Brian Dobson and the Irish Times‘ Green Party person, Harry Magee. The questions were mostly what a non-Green would ask, with a fiscal bias. Harry asked about insulation, and the budget for it. Eamon Ryan said if Ireland was to reach its emissions-reduction goals it will need to spend a total of €50 billion over 20 years to retrofit 750,000 houses to improve energy efficiency.
I asked what they’d do about implementation of their agenda bearing in mind the problems with that the last time they were in Government. Eamon Ryan – an almost pathologically benign optimist – said what he always does, that you can achieve a lot in government (they didn’t) and that half the reduction in carbon in the period after they entered government was due to their efforts – the other half being due to the fact the imploded economy meant fewer people needed to get to work. He didn’t mention that any incursion on the soaring emission figures was highly temporary, and the energy improvements around that time were forced by the EU.
I asked what they would do about sprawl. The answer was delegate more decisions to the community level. That is the right answer to nearly all questions. But not to this one.
The answer is ensure the already-agreed National Planning Framework is implemented not just referred to. Indicatively, actually the Greens’ manifesto doesn’t even refer to it…or scandalously, outside of transport and climate, even refer to Planning.
Nobody addressed my question on quality of life. It is elementary that environmentalists think quality of life should be measured, across a range of indicators, so it can be advanced instead of pursuit of a simple economic GDP metric. This is one of the biggest features of a green agenda. But there’s no reference to it in the manifesto. They didn’t advance it the last time they were in government, and clearly they won’t do it this time if they’re elected.
The Green candidate in Dublin Central, Neasa Hourigan, often an impressive presence, mistook my question about introducing a constitutional referendum to reduce the power of property rights in order to promote a general pro-planning agenda for a question about housing. They seemed to be improvising on central policy issues.
This would not matter if it were not probable the Greens will shortly be in government and if they had not achieved so little last time out.
For it proves they have not learnt their lessons. When asked about what the Greens had learnt from being in government the last time out, and the question wasn’t particularly directed at the environment, then-aspirant-MEP Ciaran Cuffe stated that it was not to go into government in the worst depression in generations. That was not the right answer to give. Remember, this is the party that justified going into government with dodgy Bertie Ahern on the basis that the climate imperative necessitated it, and yet which failed to pass a climate act in three and a half years, leaving only a toothless climate ‘bill’ as their legacy.
The Greens needed, indeed still need, to be tougher and more strategic. They need to plot out want they need to achieve in government, in particular policies; and to monitor its success.
Just as you can monitor economic growth month to month they should be monitoring: quality of life, air quality, mortality rates and development patterns month to month; and adjusting policy to achieve clear strategic goals.
The Greens’ manifesto is fairly thin – by comparison with Sinn Féin’s magnificently unwieldly one for example – but imaginative and progressive.
It’s great to see a proposal for an 80% tax on windfall rezoning profits and the Green Party is serious about a site value tax. Implementing the Kenny Report on public compulsory acquisition would be exciting. Environmental journalist John Gibbons has applauded its plan to increase the amount of Irish land farmed organically to 20 per cent by 2030.
I would find it difficult to argue with almost any of it as far as it goes. Though unfortunately it is not always entirely clear that it is a party of the Left, or that it favours radical redistribution. Though they support the radical measure of a universal basic income, their section on ‘Equality’ illuminatingly doesn’t mention income or wealth equality.
It’s not even that detailed on the environment.
There’s nothing on architecture or design. Or on urbanism; or on curtailing sprawl and one-off housing. There’s a bit on density but nothing on high-rise.
Nothing from the Greens on Planning. It just doesn’t figure in the manifesto. Ciarán Cuffe must have been asleep.
The Greens aren’t going to stop one-off housing – as that would generate an unholy row. And their approach to the suckler herd is likely to be as gentle as that of the Polish government to coal-mining. It’s an exception where we have a competitive advantage after all. And the lobby is frightening.
Anyway, it calls for a 7 per cent per year fall in emissions to reach the EU CO2 reduction target of a minimum 50 per cent by 2030.
The current government target is a 2 per cent annual reduction.
The Greens also want net zero emissions in Ireland by 2040, ten years ahead of most other parties.
The Irish Times reported that: “Their manifesto does not give specific numbers for targets for housing, on tax measures and health spending (although it agreed that €5 billion in additional spending would be needed for Sláintecare over five years).
It refused to do so because it said it did not want to get involved in a meaningless ‘auction’ on promises”.
I’ve been campaigning on environmental issues for thirty years – from corruption to planning to carbon. I’ve honestly learnt a few things but one big thing. Ireland doesn’t really get the environment. It’s largely destroyed it in the lifetime of those who run the country and it continues to be disastrous on everything from land-use planning to carbon emissions where we’re famously performing the second worst in the EU after Poland which, remember, is run by coal-and-judge-burning ultra-nationalist demagogues.
There are two reasons for this.
First, we indulge rhetoric even if it bears no relation to reality. So we assume what politicians say about the environment has some correlation with what policies they implement.
Second, we don’t like to apply a stick if there is a carrot that works better, or even a carrot that doesn’t work at all.
In keeping with 1) and 2) we create a lot of environmental and planning legislation with no intention that it should actually be implemented. For example if we had carbon legislation that worked the amount of carbon we emit would be going down and if we had planning legislation that worked we wouldn’t continue to build one in four houses one-off in the middle of the countryside or to allow Dublin to sprawl all over Leinster when the idea, and even the plan, the so-called National Planning Framework, require channelling development away from Dublin into other cities and rural towns.
The key to an environmental agenda is legislation with teeth. No more ‘may’ only ‘shall’ for how Ministers and local authorities deal with the environment. No more ‘shall have regard to” only ‘shall implement’.
So the Greens need to be more hard-minded if they go into government.
Against this background it was depressing to hear that Saoirse McHugh, the most exciting Green and one with lots of practical ideas, declared on ‘Prime Time’ on 28 January that she is “personally” opposed to the carbon tax, apparently on the basis the theory behind it is a misrepresentation of the theory behind the, successful, plastic-bag tax.
McHugh had been hanging out on the canvas with Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan. Flanagan has lots of good ideas about equity in society and he is charismatic and persuasive. But he is no environmentalist. He has always been soft on the climate issue. His designated successor for his Dáil seat, when he won a seat as an MEP was Michael Fitzmaurice who was head of the turfcutters association and remains a rare and dinosaur-like sceptic about climate change or (latterly) at least its urgency. Their influence cannot conduce to enthusiasm for a carbon tax in rural Ireland.
I spent years travelling to Brussels in the early 2000s to meetings about what was termed ‘environmental fiscal reform’.
The idea was to tax bad things (like pollution, plastic bags, sugar, chewing gum) not good things (like labour and productivity).
It’s a simple message the Irish Greens have notably failed to embrace or publicise.
Carbon taxes, it was a premise for the endless discussions in Europe, were unethical unless they insulated those who were most economically vulnerable from the negative effects.
It is illiterate to say a carbon tax damages the poorest.
Actually it is an agenda to favour the poorest. As well of course as mitigating the miserable legacy we are leaving to future generations.
I remember we organised a meeting in Ireland about such environmental fiscal reform in 2002. A former EU environmental commissioner spoke. As did Richard Bruton, and Joan Burton; and Eamon Ryan. Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy, who was environmentally evil, boycotted the event.
Twenty years later there’s a cross-party consensus on carbon taxes. The idea that the Greens in government might include someone who says she’d be a voice against them is shocking.
It would be like a Sinn Féiner who opposes a border poll, a Fine Gaeler who thinks Michael Collins was a murderous thug, or an Irish Socialist who’s against a property tax (whoops!).
There’s some confusion about the idea among anti-capitalists. They say the burden of paying for carbon should fall entirely on the richest corporations who create most of it. But all of use that carbon. The richest corporations should be hammered but all of us should get a price signal, at least in a world where we have prices, and choices.
Some of us may prefer a socialist utopia where behaviour isn’t affected by the markets we loathe. But until that day it is legitimate to tax for all agendas – for a good environment and for good health for example and not just for social equity. Why should the central plank of environmentalism be the first rather than the last offering to social idealism?
In addition to being soft-minded on their own agenda, the Greens seem to be indulging candidates who don’t share the central plank of their agenda.
Discipline is tedious but the idea a Green with a voice would oppose carbon taxes merits a ticking off from the leadership that will never come. Ryan who eschews conflict said of what should be seen as a profound embarrassment needing swift resolution: “It’s a party which allows for different views”.
When the end is idealistic it is all the more important the means are business-like. The Greens should think idealistic, think Big and think Fair. But never think soft.
But actually I’ve been saying this about the Greens in government for years. For example all this in 2007 when they were last preparing for government: