Interview with Marina Kaljurand: On taxes, corruption, the justice system and refugee policy (5)

Presidential hopeful Marina Kaljurand. (Postimees/Scanpix)
By Aleksander Krjukov
9/17/2016 9:03 PM
Category: News

Presidential hopeful Marina Kaljurand told ERR's online news portal in a written interview that she is a liberal in worldview, who supports lower taxes on employment and bigger investments in higher education, is in favor of the state borrowing only if absolutely necessary and with great caution, and does not consider Estonia's current refugee policy to be remotely shameful.

What differentiates your worldview from that of Siim Kallas? And that of Mart Helme?

I would prefer not to compare my worldview to those of Siim Kallas and Mart Helme. I have a liberal worldview; I believe in humans' freedom and equality as well as in equal treatment. The rest can be deduced from my responses.

Do you support same-sex marriage?

I believe that adults should be entitled to exercise their free will and live together with another adult if their goal is to share and grow their shared happiness, regardless of how it is referred to — as a contractual partnership, civil partnership, marriage or something else.

Do you support flat or progressive income tax?

Estonia currently has a progressive income tax in the form of tax-free minimums, and the tax exemption set to go into effect for lower-income people will further increase the progressivity of income taxation — in other words, almost every year we have moved toward lessening the tax burden of lower-income individuals. I find that working and effort should be taxed less and spending, wasting and passivity should be taxed more.

Should Estonia take advantage of the current ultra-low interest rate environment and take out a loan? What level of national debt would be justified in your opinion? How should debt financing be utilized?

Why should anybody take out a loan simply because it is currently inexpensive to do so? The main question is what to do with this money. In the case of the Republic of Estonia, which is a small country whose passing on to the generations to follow must be especially dilligently supervised, I would be especially careful.

Of course loans are not inherently evil — debt bondage is. We have seen nearly firsthand over the past decade what too great a debt — whether household debt to banks or national debt to foreign lenders — can do to a country and how it can cripple its sovereignty and hand control over it to its creditors. We are after all one such creditor ourselves. The optimal level of national debt is certainly not for me to calculate.

I believe that the decision to take out a loan must be very carefully thought through. I am not ruling out borrowing. Figuratively speaking, if one's back is against the wall for whatever reason, then a loan must be taken; I don't believe that we should let our people starve. But those are extreme situations. Under normal conditions, loans should be considered for important long-term infrastructure projects whose risks the private sector does not want to or fails to account for or bear in Estonia's case and which nonetheless could be crucial for Estonia. I believe that the success of the state and the economy depend upon the community. Without proper communities, we risk turning into the periphery. With or without a loan, I too would like to see more investments in the technologization of the economic sector, in stronger communities, the development of higher education and research in Estonia as well as internationalization.

Did Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas display a distrust of public education in placing his child in a private school?

I think that Taavi Rõivas' domestic decisions regarding his child's education are his family's decisions [to make], which surely were based upon the child's best interests. Generally speaking I like the principle of an Estonian comprehensive school, but I also like the fact that we tolerate other kids of schools, including private schools, as well. I myself graduated from the Tallinn 7th Upper Secondary School, known today as the Tallinn English College, from which my daughter graduated as well, and my son graduated from the Tallinn Secondary School of Science. Overall, education in Estonia is very good and increasingly more uniformly so.

Is Estonia's current refugee policy conservative or liberal? Does it need changing? If so, how?

There's no point in denying that our refugee policy is conservative. This is influenced by both past traumas as well as our relative small size and fear of the inability to cope with the challenge. Of course receiving and helping refugees is a risk in some ways, just as it is also an opportunity if it is done well, as Priit Perens wrote in a good opinion piece published in Postimees.

But we have no reason to be ashamed of our policy — Estonia is solidly fulfilling its obligations as taken on together with its European partners. Yes, our contribution may be truly small in the big picture, but we are contributing because we know that one day we will need the support of our friends. Estonia's own refugee policy isn't currently an issue on the European level — [the issue] is Europe's biggest challenge of this century, which we will not be able to hold off with any sort of administrative decisions in the next few years anyway. The issue is broader — what will become of North Africa's weaker states, what will become of the Middle-East in the tempest, what role will Turkey, Russia, our allies and we together with our allies will play there? The waves of refugees are a result of these processes.

Would you support the implementation of a real estate tax or local sales tax?

A great deal of local taxes have been established in Estonia under the Local Taxes Act and Taxation Act — both advertisement and parking taxes exist in tens and tens of local governments. I believe that local governments should have the right to impose local taxes. This would be justified in the case of the current administrative arrangement. I don't see a problem if sales tax were allowed again.

But I have no illusions regarding whether this would do any good in a state like Estonia. At one point there was a sales tax in Tallinn, but this was abolished by the Riigikogu after businessmen challenged it in the Court of Justice of the European Union. The reason — sales tax cannot be imposed on excise goods. Sales taxes have likewise existed at some point in the towns of Maardu and Kunda and in multiple parishes — Harku, Peipsiääre, Torgu, Are and Kaisma. There was once a pet tax in Narva, etc. In Estonian terms we can't talk about the reasonableness of additional taxes outside of Tallinn and a few bigger economic centers, at least not if their goal is to be a long-term stable source of income for local governments.

Real estate tax is another matter. Intuitively I would like to be against it — my husband and I have built a home in Nõmme and summer homes with my husband and our children's families in Hiiumaa. At the same time, I know that economists generally respect real estate taxes, as they provide a broader tax base and revenue less dependent on economic cycles. In some societies, where real estate ownership is expensive and a sign of great economic security, real estate is a redistribution tax from the wealthy to the underprivileged. In Estonia, the acquisition of real estate has for various reasons been accessible and facilitated via state policy for various reasons, accessible and favored by national policy consisting of young family loans via Kredex, the homeowner land tax exemption. Real estate tax in the Estonian context would be a sudden step in the opposite direction from the current course, which is why I don't approve of it today. But naturally I would consider the positions of experts and specialists on issues involving tax policy — we are living in an era of scientific knowledge and facts and whenever remotely possible we should make our value-based decisions based on the best scientific knowledge available.

What, in your opinion, is the level of political corruption in Estonia? Is there little corruption, or a lot? Are the current penalties for corruption and economic crimes sufficient?

Experts claim that in the age of mass and scandal media, there is an interesting side effect to corruption: the number of incidents of corruption is decreasing, existing cases are investigated to completion, suspects are frequently found guilty and people's perception of corruption improves.

According to Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, we are ranked 23rd out of 168 countries to participate in the survey. This is very good — we are following on the heels of the best of the world's advanced economies and more prosperous countries.

I believe that the fact that corporate donations to political parties were banned in Estonia is very positive, and that this was accompanied by an increase of funding of political parties from public funds. Estonia's positive development has been supported by other factors as well: the restructuring of the economy, which among other things means that fewer sectors are dependent upon local politics, fewer endowments and subsidies, a decrease in the share of cash in the economy and the rapid introduction of electronic payments. In addition, the social acceptability of certain things has changed as well — having been ambassador to both Russia and Kazakhstan, I can say that Estonia, in terms of the everyday beliefs of its residents, definitely belongs to Europe on this issue as well.

I have never personally directly encountered political or officials' corruption in Estonia. I am under the impression that we don't have any issues with criminal law as it pertains to corruption or economic crimes.

Should the Internal Security Service (KaPo) have the right to investigate corruption crimes by gathering intelligence?

I believe and know as a servant of the Republic of Estonia that the KaPo does not use intelligence specifically to build up new "things" from scratch. Intelligence is gathered with the authorization of a judge; there must be a sufficient reason for this. If evidence of new potential crimes is uncovered while gathering intelligence, then that must be investigated as well. This also applies to corruption crimes.

Is Estonia's penal policy right? Are punishments for serious crimes too light?

In my opinion, punishments are generally not too light in Estonia, although it is clear that in each individual case, especially if it involved serious crimes, victims and their loved ones and often the public as well feel as though no punishment would be enough. Penal policy and laws provide the framework in which specific cases are resolved, taking into consideration the details and circumstances of each individual case.

What is your stance on the death penalty?

I do not support the death penalty as an part of penal policy.

Should the use of soft drugs such as cannabis be legal?

This is an issue on which I would like to draw purely upon expert knowledge, which would help find a solution that would lead to the best possible solution for and least harm to society.

What is your position on the issue of human-caused global warming?

This is a question for scientists. Scientists find that the climate is warming and the majority of them find that it is due to human influence. I am inclined to agree with them. At the same time, I know there are well-respected scientists in Estonia who believe in climate change, but do not find that humans have played an important role in it. Despite differing views regarding the cause, scientists agree that the climate is warming. Which means that, regardless of the cause, we must take the changes that come along with global warming, including species change, coastal erosion and climate change, very seriously. Estonia possesses a necessary strategy for this, the implementation of which is crucial.

Editor: Aili Vahtla

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