Newspaper watch: stamping out the facts
On 30 July, Alan Ruddock produced a long opinion piece in the Sunday Independent attacking stamp duty as "the mother of all rip-offs". Over the following weeks, the iniquities of stamp duty and its injurious effects on Irish society were repeatedly denounced by Independent Newspapers' writers. For example, on 13 September, the Independent ran an article, entitled 'Stamp duty is now the most effective contraception', which went so far as to blame the tax for Ireland's declining birth rate.
On 18 September, Michael McDowell expressed his support for "stamp duty reform" during a PD 'think-in'. Although his proposals were extremely vague and were dismissed as "unhelpful electioneering" by Fianna Fáil and "kite-flying" by Fine Gael, the Minister for Justice was rewarded with space to set out his arguments at length in the next issue of the Sunday Independent. Subsequently, the government repeatedly ruled out any changes in stamp duty and McDowell himself made it clear that his comments had related to the PD election manifesto rather than the current government's programme.
Nevertheless, October and November saw regular anti-stamp duty stories in Independent titles with headlines such as "Stamp duty reductions will be key to winning over voters"; "It's time for stamp duty reform"; "Reform tax with those overflowing coffers". In all of these advocacy pieces, the only evidence put forward was anecdotal and usually expressed by an "expert" with an obvious vested-interest in the matter. Meanwhile, statements against stamp duty by obscure politicians were reported as major news stories. For example, on 15 October, the Irish Independent described how PD senator John Minihan had "raised the stakes" by declaring that stamp-duty reform required "immediate action ". On 3 November, the Independent again provided space for Minihan's proposals and by 5 November his comments had become frontpage headlines. Although the Sunday Independent claimed the PDs had just "dramatically increased pressure on Fianna Fáil", the only evidence provided was a series of quotes from Minihan which were remarkably similar to a press release he had issued weeks before.
Virtually all the commentators argued that stamp duty was iniquitous and particularly unfair for those of modest means. For example, in the Sunday Independent, Brendan O'Connor described it as "one of the most regressive and unfair of taxes". However, this expressed motive was not even remotely plausible. In reality, stamp duty is disproportionately paid by the wealthy becuase they buy more property, property that tends to be more expensive and thus subject to higher rates. Anybody wishing to tackle iniquities in the tax system would find many other levies that are far more regressive than stamp duty. For example, a worker on a wage of €35,000 pays income tax at a rate that is almost four times higher than that paid by corporations on their profits.
In reality, the campaign that Independent Newspapers have waged against stamp duty is simply good old-fashioned right-wing economics. The government is in a position to deliver a pre-election budget giveaway. If the giveaway is in the form of investment in public services, the net effect will be to redistribute wealth towards the poor. If it is in the form of cuts to stamp duty, the redistribution will be towards the rich. Hence the campaign.