Speech by Brendan Howlin TD at Labour Party Central Council
Since we last met in July, there has been plenty of political activity.
But today, I want to focus my remarks on outlining Labour’s priorities for the months ahead:
Priorities that will inform our parliamentary work, but also our campaigns in communities all across Ireland.
This week saw the publication of a lacklustre Budget.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil conspired to deliver tax cuts that few will notice.
They used the Charlie McCreevy playbook to fund these from property revenues.
And in doing so, they failed to invest where we really need it – in health and housing.
We stood opposed to that approach.
For weeks before the Budget, we argued that tax cuts were an inappropriate use of scarce resources.
They may offer some short-term political attraction.
But they cannot resolve the biggest issues facing our state.
In truth, they prevent us from doing so.
In our alternative Budget, we stood strong on that stance.
We looked at where revenues could be raised, including in some of the same areas that Government ended up raising revenues.
But we then argued strongly that every cent available should be invested – half of it in capital spending, and half in current spending.
Our plans were fully costed; they were prudent, and they were progressive.
They would have reduced inequality, and put us well on the road towards a publicly funded healthcare system, and a properly functioning housing market.
It is a cliché often attached to Budgets, that they represent a missed opportunity.
For few Budgets over recent years has that been as true as it was this week.
The single most shameful aspect of the Budget this week was, in my view, the abandonment of Sláintecare.
Now, this is not a model that is yet widely understood.
A cross-party committee was formed after the last election.
They set out a ten year programme of reform of healthcare in Ireland.
It would deliver the type of primary and community care that everyone has acknowledged the need for.
It would eliminate prescription, GP, inpatient and other charges in healthcare.
And it would provide the funding needed to build a truly world-class, public healthcare system.
Five months ago, all parties agreed to that plan.
Last week, it was left in tatters, abandoned by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
And that’s not good enough.
It means that next year we can expect no expansion of free GP care;
No elimination of waiting lists for home care packages;
No real expansion of mental health services;
And likely no drop in waiting lists either.
It could have been very different.
Labour looked in detail at the cost of delivering Sláintecare.
We believed it was the right direction for public policy.
And so we said in our alternative Budget that it should be funded – fully funded.
All budgets involve making choices.
We chose transforming healthcare in Ireland.
It is a shame that the Government didn’t do likewise.
As I argued at our think-in in Athy last month, every party agrees that housing is one of the greatest challenges we face.
And yet, after three years of new plans being devised and implemented, it still appears that things are getting worse.
Whether looking at the Census returns which showed children under 4 as the biggest homeless cohort;
Or seeing the tragic ending of lives on our streets over recent weeks;
Or even watching as young people see the dream of home ownership slipping ever further from their grasp;
The problem is clear.
The solutions equally so.
And so every time Fine Gael say the market will solve the problem;
And every time that Fianna Fáil propose a tax cut for developers;
We will take them on.
Indeed, we did so again this week.
There is no reason the state cannot be the builder of last resort when the market is broken – that is what states should do.
There is no reason the remit of NAMA could not be amended now, to make it Ireland’s affordable housing body.
There is no reason we cannot dramatically increase capital spending in 2018, and get local authorities back building local authority homes.
There is no reason we cannot impose a vacant property levy.
And there is certainly no reason we cannot better control escalating rents.
But not one of these ideas featured in the Budget published by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil this week.
The only reason for that is a political one – these are not actions that parties of the centre-right will ever consider.
That’s not good enough.
Our alternative budget proposed funding for 5,000 public homes to be built next year.
A revamped national affordable housing body could have provided 6,000 affordable homes next year, using funds that NAMA has on deposit.
These measures could have made a meaningful difference.
So we’re not done arguing for them yet.
Health and housing were our two main priorities in the Budget.
Had the Government been less obsessed with tax cuts, they could have made much greater progress on both areas.
But those areas are not the limit of our ambitions.
For Labour, education has always been at the core of what we do.
Education liberates, and is the bedrock of lifelong opportunity.
And for us, it should always be free.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have once more fudged the question of how college should be funded.
We haven’t. We have said clearly: college fees should not rise. They should go.
Later this month, we will publish a detailed policy paper, showing exactly how this could be funded.
It’s not rocket science.
We will ask employers to pay a little more;
The state to pay a good bit more;
And students to give only their dedication to their studies.
But the question of free education cannot and should not begin and end with college.
The affordable childcare scheme introduced in Budget 2017 should have been a good start.
But by failing to freeze prices, the state subsidy has been wiped out by increasing prices in many cases.
Budget 2018 halted progress, and prices have not been frozen, so next year will see this situation get worse.
And meanwhile, too many childcare workers don’t even earn the living wage.
At school level, there was absolutely no change to the funding of our schools.
There was no additional funding for book rental schemes.
And no reduction in school transport charges.
These, again, are the real price of tax cuts.
Families might get a tax cut worth the price of a cup of coffee.
But the price they pay to raise their children will only grow.
The Future of Work
Since Party Conference in April, we have continued to develop our thinking on the Future of Work.
At public meetings across the country, we are teasing out the issues that were in our discussion paper;
Grappling with how we can make sure that decency is a feature of every workplace.
A recent survey found that almost half of those under the age of 35 are on non-standard contracts of employment.
So for us, this issue is not just about the future – it is very much about the present.
As we continue our campaigning work on this front, I am mindful of a call made by our Party Chairman at the SIPTU Conference.
Jack proposed that it was time for a referendum on collective bargaining rights.
That’s an issue we are looking carefully at.
Where employers and workers meet is where jobs are designed, and the benefits of output decided.
That simple principle underpinned the collective bargaining legislation we put in in Government.
It will define our approach to a potential referendum too.
There should be no complacency here – any referendum on this matter will pit us against big capital.
But we’ve never been afraid of a fight!
The eighth amendment
We’re going to focus on these issues – on health, on housing, and on free education over the months ahead.
We will focus on them because they are the biggest issues facing our nation.
And they deserve the efforts of every political party to resolve them.
We will fight for them in the Dáil.
And I want each of you – leaders of party sections and every constituency in Ireland – to fight for them in your communities.
But there is another issue that will also need our attention – the eighth amendment.
This is not, as some would have it, just a liberal issue.
This is an issue of social justice.
It cannot and should not be separated from other social justice issues.
From the right to housing; to publicly funded healthcare and education; to the rights of people at work; and to repeal of the eighth amendment – all of these can, and must be considered through the same lens.
Let me say this about the referendum.
People should not be complacent or downhearted about poll results in relation to the eighth.
There has not been a debate of any kind yet.
The many conversations that will take place over the months ahead can change the picture significantly.
The drive to get people to register to repeal will be an important factor too, and I know both Labour Women and Labour Youth have an active campaign planned on that front.
We often hear people say that this will be a divisive debate.
I don’t accept that has to be the case.
But certainly this is an issue on which people often have strong and contradictory views.
Views that change, and evolve – as has been the case for most of us.
And so the tone of the debate will be important.
Many know, for example, that there is a difference between how they feel about the issue at a macro level, as against how they would feel if it impacted upon them or their families directly.
Some might be content with the status quo, but still recognise the hypocrisy of exporting a problem.
People might have one view or another on the right to choose.
But they can still be aware that women are already exercising choices every day by traveling abroad.
Conditional of course on their ability to travel.
Our people, as we saw in the marriage equality referendum, have the capacity to be generous and considerate of others.
They are not necessarily judgemental about people who hold different views than they.
Nor should we be.
I say all of this to simply underline the need for us to not be blind to the concerns expressed by others.
I am not going to shout down people that don’t agree with my position.
Nor will I look to the next election, and seek to score political points from the issue.
We will debate and discuss, and we will seek to persuade people.
That is how we have always fought for social change.
I’ve been very taken by the outcome of the citizen’s assembly.
Ultimately, I think they were able to distinguish between how they might feel as individuals, and what they were prepared to impose on others by way of law.
Because it is possible to hold a view, while knowing that the decisions others make are not yours to influence.
Decisions around the termination of pregnancies are informed by a myriad of personal and interrelated factors.
Legislation to allow for terminations should be informed by all of those factors.
When it comes to the shape of that legislation, there will be considerable debate.
But bluntly, this article should never have been in the constitution.
As a political party we were almost alone to oppose its introduction.
35 years later, it’s still there.
It needs to go.
And we now have an historic opportunity to do that.
Let’s not lose it.
This is too complex, too evolving an issue to be dealt with at a constitutional level.
It is a matter for legislation.
Simply put, the Oireachtas needs to do its job.
We will assess where we stand once the all party committee has done its work.
In Jan O’Sullivan we are represented on that committee by a principled, passionate and empathetic advocate for women.
She knows the issue well.
As an experienced politician, she knows only too well the endless possibilities that might arise.
I won’t second guess Jan’s work.
But we, as a party, have a bottom line.
We will not be party to a proposal to insert new restrictions into the constitution.
As I said at Party Conference, repeal means repeal.
While there are many views on this issue, it is increasingly clear that this should not be a constitutional matter.
And so we will not support any process that simply replaces one problem with another.
As the committee prepares to decide on this point, it would be useful if the leaders of other political parties also made their positions clear at this juncture.
We have done a lot of work over recent months.
We adopted a new party constitution that changed our structures.
We have been actively recruiting in colleges and towns across Ireland.
We have selected 9 general election candidates, and 50 local area representatives – the next generation of Labour leaders.
Our election posters and leaflets are ready to go.
The manifesto is being written.
Rest assured – when an election comes, we’ll be ready.
But in the meantime we must remain focussed on our core work:
Devising exciting and radical new policies;
Rebuilding our links with people and with communities;
Fighting for progressive change in the Oireachtas and in local councils;
And above all else, campaigning in every community.
Fighting every day.
For decency, justice and equality.
For our future – for Ireland’s future.