Why students should vote Yes in TCDSU water charges referendum

Liam Cowley urges students to vote ‘Yes’ in this week’s water charges referendum, which would mandate the TCD SU to campaign for the abolition of water charges.

comment1This week, students are being given the opportunity to join the grassroots campaign gathering momentum across Ireland. Rejection of water charges as another austerity measure has mobilised citizens across the state. People’s self-empowerment is being realised, from remote rural areas to housing estates in urban centres and everywhere in between. The issue of water charges affects us all. It is wrong to say it is not a student issue. Anything that affects you or your family is your issue. Unlike what some would have you believe, students are not exempt from water charges.

Students affected

Living in Dublin is not cheap. As of December 2014, Dublin was the 18th most expensive European city, coming ahead of 31 others including Munich, Luxembourg, Milan, Strasbourg and Edinburgh. The Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland estimates property prices in Dublin soared by 19.5% in 2014. Rents are difficult enough to pay without such increases, and making ends meet are difficult enough without having to pay a charge every time you turn on the tap, have a shower or flush a toilet. And when you start paying for water, other costs won’t disappear. Electricity prices continue to rise. By last summer Ireland had the fourth highest electricity prices in the EU. In the six final months of 2013, prices rose by 5.1% in Ireland compared to an EU average of 2.8%. Grocery shopping is also costly, especially if you’re trying to eat decently. Your bus fare keeps rising. You have to pay enough without having to pay per unit for the single most important substance in life. Don’t forget you and everyone else has already paid for water treatment and delivery through VAT and Motor Tax. You pay for it on a daily basis. Anytime you buy something, you’re contributing to our water system and now the government want to coerce you into paying twice for the same thing. Legislation is expected which will allow landlords to force tenants to pay for their water. If you intend on renting next year, it’s in your immediate interest to seek the abolition of these charges.

What the Troika and its terms have meant for students here is increasing registration fees year after year (€3,000 in September 2015) and reduced third-level state funding, with the result that our universities are slipping down in the rankings. Reduced third-level state funding means increases in charges for things like the Sports Centre, new extortionate charges for supplemental exams and student cards and less money for student services and societies. Add to this the prospect of forced emigration, unemployment or effectively working for free on ‘JobBridge’ come graduation. If you are unemployed and under 26, you will get €100 instead of the ‘core’ €186 payment anyone over 26 receives. And to think the Labour Party are meant to be egalitarian and reject ageism. Maybe when Joan Burton was growing up, under 26s only had to pay half the price anyone else had to pay. More likely it’s that the government knows students are not the radicals they once were. We, for the most part, are not politically engaged with the real world or organised coherently. It’s time that changed.

Water charges inseparable from wider austerity

Having an extra charge will not make things better for you. Indeed, the reason why so much passion has been generated by this issue is that a large number of individuals and families will be tipped onto the wrong side of the poverty threshold by water charges. Levels of suffering in Irish society may not reveal themselves in Trinity as more than stats in a sociology class, but a visit to inner city communities or ordinary suburbs and talking to locals will put in perspective the accumulating damage of austerity over the past six years. Some voluntary work with VDP or the Capuchins’ soup kitchen on Church Street would open eyes that are content to see only a rosy picture of life. 50,000 people are due to be evicted from their homes this year, another feature of the austerity era. Water charges cannot be separated from wider austerity. Water charges will be harmful to people’s already diminished quality of life and harmful to a domestic growth-led recovery by the erosion of disposable income. Taking more money from people’s pockets only shrinks economic activity.

Water charges are being implemented as part of the ECB/IMF/European Commission loan conditions agreed with Fianna Fáil and the Green Party. Fine Gael and Labour, since taking office in 2011 have made it their job to ensure the Troika are kept happy and that we all keep our heads down. The state owes the Troika €70 billion plus interest. Ireland was ‘bailed out’ because we ran out of money after pumping it into the wider European banking system to stop its collapse. The government made private debt sovereign debt. Accepting water charges is a legitimation of the banking debt being put on the backs of the Irish people. During the past four years, austerity in the forms of reduced public services and increased and new taxes (Household Charge, Property Tax, Septic Tank Charge, Universal Social Charge etc.) have taken their toll. The time of mass protest has finally arrived. The government likes to talk about all the difficult decisions it apparently had to make, but has never even asked its European ‘partners’ for a debt renegotiation. That’s what politicians with backbones would do. They wouldn’t close hospital wards, oversee hospital overcrowding, cut schools’ special needs assistants, attack carers’ allowances, pay new teachers and nurses much less than their older colleagues for the same work or allow food banks to become an accepted feature of life. Fortunately people are organising, not just in Ireland, but elsewhere. Greece’s new government has done more in two weeks, by their work for a debt conference and rejection of the unelected Troika, to achieve a write down of Irish debt than Fine Gael/Labour have in four years.

Don’t trust the government line on water charges

Having broken their promise not to raise registration fees, can you trust this government not to break their current commitments on water charges? Since they were forced to row back on Irish Water plans in November, the government’s revised plans now centre on capping water charges at €260. If you register with ‘Irish Water’, you will receive a bribe ‘conservation’ payment of €100. No conservation is involved whatsoever. The water charges are the antithesis of environmentally-friendly, they actively incentivise the overuse of water. You will want to get the most out a newly commidified natural resource once you’re paying a set €160 or €260. This scam is not about saving water. It’s a pocket picking exercise by a pick-pocket government that has spent your taxes on banks’ debts. Taxes that should be spent on provision of basic services. Is there anything more basic than water? The government has also said the cap will be lifted in 2019. Despite this, it continues to install water meters even though they have a lifespan of fifteen years. That means if your meter was installed in 2014, one third of the value of the actual meter has been left to rot away in the ground. ‘Irish Water’ is expensive, unnecessary and wasteful. About a billion euro has been spent by the company to date, including €20,000 on its logo. 

The government has also denied it intends to privatise our water. Yet, it refuses to legislate so that a referendum must be held in the event of ‘Irish Water’ being proposed for privatisation. Instead the Oireachtas, where a government majority is guaranteed, will decide on whether the company is privatised. ‘Irish Water’ is a semi-state company. It is owned by the state. But that does not mean it will always be state-owned. Telecom Éireann (now Eircom), Siúcra, Great Southern Hotels, Bord Gáis Energy and Aer Lingus were all once state-owned. Now they are privately owned. There’s nothing to prevent the same thing happening to Ireland’s water supply. Ownership of our water should be treated with more concern than ownership of a hotel chain. The government doesn’t think so.

Why TCD students should vote Yes

Yes, there is a lack of investment in public water systems. Yes, 40% of Dublin’s treated water is lost to leaks. But, water charges are not the answer. Progressive taxation and commercial water rates are the fairest ways to provide water to everybody as is everyone’s entitlement. God forbid we get to a stage where most people think it’s better to let some go thirsty than give them access to water that they can’t afford on a pay-per-use basis.

The idea that the Trinity student community should not have a stance on the issue is without logic. Students will be affected by water charges as much as anyone else. We are not a special case and our families will also suffer from these charges. Even if water charges were not relevant to us, it would still be right to advocate their abolition. Trinity students have taken a stance to oppose Direct Provision. None of us are asylum seekers, detained for indefinite periods by the government, yet we are courageous enough to look beyond ourselves in this instance. Similarly with regard to the SU shop’s refusal to stock Coco-Cola products during last year’s Winter Games in Russia in protest against discrimination of that country’s LGBT community by their government. None of us are affected personally in a direct sense by Russia’s homophobic laws, and the likelihood our boycott had an impact on either Coke or the Russian state is a lot less than minimal. But we took stances in both cases in solidarity with others. On the Water Charges issue, solidarity with others in Ireland, austerity-plagued Europe and Detroit (where those who cannot afford to pay are being disconnected from the public mains), and our own direct interest meet, intersect and are one and the same. It’s time to see the totality of austerity and challenge it at its most vulnerable point, water charges.

Just because people in other states pay for water on a per-use basis, it doesn’t make it the right thing to do. In 2004, this state was the only state in the world to ban smoking in the workplace. The fact we were in a minority didn’t negate the merits of our actions. Last week Oxfam reported that 1% of the world’s population own 48% of the world’s wealth. Seeking that universal access to water, regardless of one’s ability to pay, be established as a guaranteed fundamental right is a positive step in the direction of defeating gross inequality. Voting this week in Trinity to abolish water charges is a small step in a long journey against powerful opposition to challenge inequality and poverty. Think global, act local.