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Public prefers investment in public services to tax cuts - and Fine Gael voters agree

Latest Irish Times/Ipsos opinion poll shows voters ready to adapt behaviour for climate change, and room to grow for the Greens

Poll Climate

Data from the latest Irish Times/Ipsos opinion poll shows that, at a time when domestic politics is often dominated by frustration at the State’s limitations, the public has clear views about how to spend the fruits of the State’s success.

In addition, the public is convinced of the need for climate action both in public policy and in their own lives – but views decarbonisation as one of several pressing priorities for the future, rather than as the only one.

The near-astonishing fact of the large projected budget surpluses in the public finances will be the significant basis that underpins all political debate between now and the next general election. The Government will say that the multibillion euro war-chest is testament to its prudent economic management and warn that any alternative government puts that economic security at risk. The Opposition will say that the resources at the disposal of this and future governments finally provide the capacity to address the needs of society adequately – in health, housing, social welfare and social care. Well, you pays your money, you takes your chances.

The latest poll shows the public’s view is that investment in public services and infrastructure is a better use of the available financial resources than tax cuts, paying off debt, saving for the future, increasing welfare, climate action or funding the costs of a united Ireland.

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Irish Times Ipsos Poll shows participants' responses on how public finance surpluses should be spent. Graphic: Paul Scott

Respondents were asked from a menu of options what their first and second choices would be. They were also offered the opportunity to make their own suggestion. Investment in public services and public infrastructure were significantly popular compared to everything else.

Remarkably, given the emphasis that the party has put on tax cuts recently – a pre-budget departure that caused significant tension within the Coalition – Fine Gael voters are no more interested in using the surplus for tax cuts than anyone else: just 9 per cent of them choose tax cuts as their first choice, the same proportion among voters at large. Almost three-times as many Fine Gaelers nominate spending on public services as their priority, while more than four-times as many want spending on public infrastructure.

Of course, in reality the Government will do a bit of all these things. And the argument may well be that voters will appreciate tax cuts when they get them. But it appears Leo Varadkar is going to have to convince his own party first, and then convince everyone else.

The preference for investment over tax cuts is all the more noteworthy when combined with the poll’s finding about the continuing squeeze on voters by rises in the cost of living. More than half of all voters (52 per cent) say they are finding it “a lot more difficult” to manage financially, up by four points since February. A further 39 per cent say they are finding it “a little more difficult”. The cost-of-living crisis is leaving very few people untouched.

Cost of Living question for Irish Times/Ipsos poll. Graphic: Paul Scott

The poll also examined attitudes to climate action among voters. The results showed a nuanced view. They are not opposed to the Government’s climate action programme, with just one-fifth (21 per cent) saying it was proceeding “too fast” (38 per cent said “too slow” and 30 per cent said it’s going “at the right speed”). But they want climate action to be one of a number of priorities – not the “top priority”.

When it comes to climate action in their own lives, there is an openness to simple steps, such as using their cars less or flying less. With the exception of “eating less meat”, voters think it is reasonable to ask people to make these changes to reduce carbon emissions.

Irish Times Ipsos Poll: Question on reducing Ireland's carbon footprint. Graphic: Paul Scott

So, voters are open to using their cars less, taking fewer flights, promoting biodiversity, being climate aware when shopping and recycling – or at least, they don’t think it’s unreasonable to be asked to do these things. However, the questions are deliberately framed in a voluntary context – we have seen in previous polls how many people are resistant to the suggestion of mandatory climate action measures, such as higher taxes on petrol and diesel cars.

The Government has made progress in bringing climate action to the centre of politics and convincing people that the nation must make changes. But slow and steady wins the race; the public seems more receptive to the carrot than the stick.

For the Green Party, it depends on whether they are inclined to view the glass as half-empty or half-full. The public does not – yet anyway – view the threat of climate change in the apocalyptic way that many of the party’s members do. But they are open to changes in public policy and in their own lives. The challenge for the party’s advocates is to meet the public where it is, not where they would like it to be.

The poll also asked specifically about the public’s views on the impact the Greens are having in Government on climate action. Again, the results are mixed. More than a quarter of the public (27 per cent) view the party’s contribution as positive, while 31 per cent say it is negative, and 28 per cent say it is neutral.

Irish Times/Ipsos poll. Graphic: Paul Scott

This suggests that there is opportunity for the Green Party to grow its support, even though it often appears battered by the day-to-day challenges of Government. Take the findings of the poll together: nearly one-fifth of voters want climate action to be the number one priority for the Government; more than one-quarter view the party’s contribution positively. That is a large potential pool of voters for the Greens – which, let us not forget, is currently at just 4 per cent.

The Greens must seek to translate that widespread concern about climate action into votes for the party most associated with it.

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