Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Universal health care most important factor in Irish Happiness

Rory Hearne: It is an important time for thinking about the type of Ireland we would like to see developing through the recovery and into the future. What type of economy and society should we pursue?

The crash, bailouts and austerity have been harsh lessons for many people in the downsides of free-market, de-regulation, low tax and neoliberal policies. There is new evidence of a growing support for alternative policies and values that seek to protect people from the market through state provision in areas such as housing and health.

Next year will be the centenary of the 1916 rising and the Proclamation which outlined a vision for an Irish Republic that would guarantee
“equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally…” 
Importantly, next year a general election also takes place here in Ireland. This offers an opportunity to discuss the direction the country takes, the values we want to see underpin our society and economy and what policies should be pursued to achieve these.

If we are to address the major challenges that face us - such as eradicating inequality and deprivation, achieving sustainable and fair growth, addressing the various social crises from housing to health, and undoing the damage of austerity – there is a need to understand what are the values that people hold and what policies should stem from these.

The Future of Ireland Report , released yesterday, provides further evidence in this regard. The research for the report was carried out by Amárach Research during July to August this year and involved a nationally representative, online survey of 1,000 adults. It drew also on 10 focus groups to identify the main themes and ideas that would guide the questions - which is a good method as it allows participants a greater role in determining the questions rather than researchers.

One of the most interesting questions the research asked was what people’s views were on ‘the key ingredients of future happiness in Ireland’. The results in the chart below show that surprisingly, the key ingredient for the majority of Irish people would be free universal healthcare (for 52%), followed by a better work/life balance (50%) and freedom of choice (49%), democracy (46%), free universal education (46%), financial security (44%).

Even more interesting the ‘ability to become rich’ and the ‘free market’ were viewed as the least important ingredients in ‘happiness in Ireland’ (with only 10% supporting these).

Source: OMD & Amarach Research, Future of Ireland Report

The survey also found that while people believe universal health care is vital to happiness, they cannot rely on the public health services to provide it.  The report then asks about health approaches based on the very free market approach people rejected in the survey. It asks whether adults would be willing to wear technology that monitors their health and fitness in order to pay lower health insurance premiums in future!

These research findings support previous opinion polls commissioned by TASC and the Irish Times. The Behaviour and Attitudes survey commissioned by TASC in June 2015 showed that almost 70% of people felt the government should prioritise investing in public services rather than spending money to cut income taxes. While in the Irish Times poll in September a majority of people cited investment in health care and housing as their priorities for the Budget before tax cuts.

The trend in these polls indicate that Irish people increasingly want to see accessible and high quality universal health care, education and other key public services and they see these as a priority over tax cuts. These findings run countervailing to much of the commentary that suggests the Irish public are more ideologically supportive of a free-market, privatised, UK/US model of economic development rather than the more socially and publically oriented Nordic countries.

Given these findings there is clearly a need for more space in the public debate to be given to policy proposals and ideas that can meet these aspirations for universal public services.

The size of the yes vote in the Marriage referendum surprised many, as did the size of the water protests. It appears that the shock and awe of the crash and austerity, combined with technological and cultural changes in Ireland, is influencing a process of socio-political attitudinal change amongst the Irish people.

The harsh impacts resulting from the boom and bust of the Irish economy in recent years have opened many people’s eyes to the necessity of engaging with and trying to understand better the political and economic policies and ideas that have a huge bearing on their lives, their community and country. It is important that this continues with public debate about the nature of recovery –particularly its sustainability and equality dimensions.

Finally, the survey reflects an understanding that policy which prioritises creating ‘the best small country in the world in which to do business’ (which of course means in the Irish case the best tax avoidance hub through which to route your profits - not the highest investment in infrastructure for sustainable economic development) is not the most important ingredient for happiness and quality of life, but rather quality, universal, public services are the key.

Dr Rory Hearne is a Senior Policy Analyst at TASC. You can follow him on twitter @RoryHearne

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