News Brendan Keenan

Friday 21 October 2016

Brendan Keenan: It takes feisty women to shed light on how elite look out for themselves

Published 09/12/2012 | 05:00

Linking top civil servants' pay to the private sector meant they joined a tiny, privileged minority – and won't budge

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IT fell to Olivia O'Leary, on RTE radio, to mention the unmentionable; and no better woman.

Someone who can wind up the Queen of England before a couple of thousand people is afraid of nothing. This time, she was taking on senior civil servants who, if anything, are rather more intimidating than Elizabeth II.

She claimed that top officials look first at budget proposals to see what the effects would be on them. I have heard this myself, from what I would consider reliable sources, but that falls a little short of hard evidence.

Even senior civil servants are human. It would not be surprising if they looked to their own interests when budget plans are made. Not surprising, but disappointing just the same.

That's the thing about public servants. As the title implies, they are held to higher standards than the rest of us, who can openly lobby on our own behalf while claiming it is all in the national interest.

Just like politicians. The final decisions are supposed to rest with them. But then came another formidable woman, Roisin Shortall TD, to claim that they are being influenced in those decisions by the budgetary impacts on their personal finances.

She was quite specific about this, and she can certainly be regarded as a well-informed source. That is still not proof but it raises the question as to whether such conflicts of interest should be allowed to arise at all.

A surprising fact to most people is that only 1 per cent of taxpayers earn more than €100,000 a year. That puts those who govern us, ministers and senior officials alike, in a tiny, privileged minority.

It is also a fact of human nature that even if one is not particularly greedy, it is difficult to identify with those whose circumstances are very different from one's own. Marie Antoinette apparently did not say: "Let them eat cake," but the slur stuck because we can see why she might have done.

Politicians have the advantage of constituency clinics to keep them in touch with the general population but the income disparities can often make that look like those ancient rituals, still practised in many societies, where the plain people bring their problems before their rulers.

Disparities on this scale are a relatively new phenomenon for which, I am sorry to say, the media must carry a lot of the blame. TDs used to decide on their own pay in open votes in the Dail. That put political constraints on them but, even when pay rises were eminently justifiable, a furious media storm would erupt each time.

So they hit on the idea of linking their pay to that of civil servants. Not a bad idea in itself, perhaps, but then something unfortunate happened. Someone hit on the idea of linking top civil servants' salaries to the private sector and who better to undertake such a comparison than a banker?

That is how they got into the top one per cent and it is difficult to imagine that they will ever remove themselves from it. Behind this is the general, remarkable and largely unexplained explosion in the salaries of senior executives compared with the general workforce in many, if not most developed economies.

Economists have tried to find explanations. They range from the loss of trade union power, to the disappearance of owner-managers, to the rise of Asian manufacturers.

This growing disparity between top and bottom raises troubling issues but it is even more troubling when it spreads to public life.

Such thoughts are, of course, inspired by the Government's manifest difficulty over the "fairness" of the Budget. That was never going to be easy, when lower income groups are major recipients of public spending and public spending has to be curtailed.

There are also valid arguments, which government spokesmen have tried valiantly to make, that the well-off are paying their share. Coming from ministers who are indubitably in that category, such arguments are bound to provoke both mockery and anger.

Politics should not be a profession; still less a highly paid profession. People are entitled to be governed by their peers, not by those who enjoy lifetime earnings that the vast majority of the governed can hardly imagine.

The result can only be disengaged rulers and disgruntled followers.

It is a different matter for civil servants, who are following a profession, but one cannot help but feel that a sevenfold gap between earnings at the top and bottom damages the very idea of their particular profession.

It is said that without such salaries, the best and the brightest will leave or not take up a public sector career to begin with. Perhaps – although the case is far from proven – but better in the end to be poorly administered than badly governed.

Sunday Indo Business

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