Household charge a communications fiasco
You would need to be living on Planet Zog for the last month not to be aware of the introduction of the €100 flat household charge, as a precursor to a more proportionate household property charge in a year’s time. For that time at least, the political opponents of the measure have been banging on, with very generous publicity assistance from RTE and other media outlets.
Notwithstanding this, we have encountered a vast array of play-acting from an array of opponents of the measure. ‘Ah, we never received a bill’; ‘we got no correspondence at all about the measure’; ‘we don’t know where to pay it’; ‘we don’t know how to pay it’. Imagine if any giveaway measure had been announced in a similar fashion by Government, would we have heard the same chorus of helpless know-nothings?
Of course not. However, opponents of this very necessary, very timid move towards broadening the tax base, and eventually achieving more balance between tax on work and enterprise, on the one hand, and fixed assets, like property on the other, have been allowed have a field day in the media using the pretext of not understanding what it’s all about. A plain “I don’t want to pay” stance would be far more credible.
Of course much of the scope for this play-acting has been ceded by the hamfisted manner in which the Government advanced the measure. Not one of Minister Hogan’s finest hours by any means.
As professionals in the communications business, now polishing off entries for the annual PR Awards which recognise best in class programmes undertaken in the past year, it is a fair bet that if there was an award for the worst communications programme in the public services arena, the prize would probably go the Government’s roll-out – or should that be muddle-out – of the household charge.
Absent have been the most elementary elements of any worthwhile communications campaign. There was also going to be opposition to this tax, that was obvious from the moment it was announced by Government and yet no concerted effort was made to proactively explain why it was being introduced and what the money would be used for. Expecting taxpayers to pay the charge without receiving a reminder or invoice was also probably a step too far.
At the very least, the measure should have been contextualised so that the ensuing debate could be set in a proper framework. For example, set out the level of household property charges faced by house-owners and occupiers in Northern Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland, and perhaps a few comparable sized other EU states, like Denmark, Belgium and Holland. That would provide valid comparisons and perhaps soften the cough of some protestors.
On that topic, Lucinda Creighton scored a neat bulls-eye hit on Sinn Fein’s Paraic McLoughlin on RTE’s Morning Ireland last week when she contrasted that party’s opposition to the new household charge here with their role as part of Government in Northern Ireland, exacting much higher household property charges from people there.
Aside from failing to frame the debate about the measure, the really lamentable communications failure has been the “making it up as you go along” approach to how the tax is to be paid. The confusion over whether or not the tax can be paid at a Post Office, and the proposal to get Local Authority staff knocking on doors to get people to pay up were indicative of both panic on the part of government and the lack of a proper thought through strategy.
Coming so soon after the debacle about the septic tax registration fee, one is reminded about the rueful comment of Albert Reynolds that as a Taoiseach “it’s the small things that trip you up”. It’s great for this country to see our current Taoiseach cutting such a dash across the global stage, be it Washington or Beijing. No doubt, meticulous planning went into every last detail of these adventures.
But the same kind of careful planning is just as important, indeed even more important, when the winning of the hearts and minds of householders here at home is at stake.