Tuesday 27 September 2016

Wooing the public sector vote risks trumping prudence

Published 11/05/2015 | 02:30

Fine Gael figures like Health Minister Leo Varadkar, pictured, and Jobs Minister Richard Bruton have issued warnings about the need for increased productivity (Reg Gordon)
Fine Gael figures like Health Minister Leo Varadkar, pictured, and Jobs Minister Richard Bruton have issued warnings about the need for increased productivity (Reg Gordon)

Tomorrow could see Ireland's first steps back on the road to economic perdition as talks open on a new public service pay regime.

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We already know the outcome: the 300,000 public sector workers will get more. The only issues to be sorted are: How much will they get? When it will be paid? And will there be any accompanying conditions about reforms and productivity?

If the opening sentences above seem negative and stingy - it is because they are meant to be exactly that.

Given the horror of the past seven years, such sentiments must inform our attitudes to public finances. The comments are also informed by the looming general election and the battle for the public sector workers' vote.

But those sentiments are not founded on anti-public service feelings. The reality is that all our public service workers have taken a big hit over the past eight years.

Most of them are not on big money, they did not cause our economic woes and they were very much part of the solution, like most of the rest of us.

In plain, simple language: our public service workers deserve an overdue break.

The central figure in all of these discussions is Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin. He has warned us many times recently that he is under a legal pressure to give our public sector workers increases. The Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest - unpopularly known as the FEMPI legislation - were, as the title implies, an emergency fix for a country on the verge of going broke.

It is becoming increasingly hard for the Government to state that this is the case. Mr Howlin rightly fears a successful court action by public sector unions, which would order him to change the law and land him with an immediate bill in excess of €2bn.

But a few other realities must also be factored in for those of us taking our chances in the private sector. Public service workers have job security, generous pensions relative to the majority in the private sector, and other perks like sick pay.

The public sector also began this recession with better pay than those in the private sector. The cuts and pay freezes have by now totally eroded that differential.

It would be totally wrong to approach any argument on workers' pay and conditions by trying to tear down the benefits the public sector enjoys. But they must in reality be factored into any assessment of the situation.

Equally, it would be wrong to try to foist a private sector profit model on the provision of public services. But the quality of service and value for money have also to be taken into account in real and tangible ways.

These pay talks will take place against a background of a host of public sector trade union conferences where there were loud calls for "pay restoration". The opening of discussions will be sandwiched in between two sets of bus strikes, where the bus workers are strongly resisting planned changes.

Another group, the Prison Officers' Association, has endorsed industrial action up to and including all-out strike in pursuit of a pay claim. Such sabre-rattling in the wings cannot be entirely ignored.

Nor can the political reality of an election, less than 11 months away at most, be ignored either. There is no doubt that the public service workers' vote is a precious one for a very battered Labour Party looking out for better weather.

Fianna Fáil was usually able to find little ways to keep this sector on side at election time. There is no doubt that they deserted the 'Soldiers of Destiny' en masse at the last election.

Labour were the beneficiaries in 2011. But the ensuing austerity has led public workers to become disillusioned with Labour, and many of the lower-paid workers especially are contemplating Sinn Féin and/or more radical leftist candidates.

It is to his credit as honest broker that Brendan Howlin is not suspected of rushing to do his party colleagues any big favours on public pay. Yes, Fine Gael figures like Health Minister Leo Varadkar and Jobs Minister Richard Bruton have issued warnings about the need for increased productivity.

But in the main, Fine Gael trust Brendan Howlin on this one. The reality is that both Government parties are to be looked upon with some doubt in relation to public service pay. Their imperative to win the next election may likely outweigh their longer-term duty - despite their rhetoric to the contrary.

The fairest way to reward every worker, in both the public and private sector, for carrying the can through the recession, is to cut taxes. Talk of "restoring" pay cuts is misplaced and unions' refusal to discuss reform and increased productivity must be faced down.

Everyone across the world faces a daily imperative to approach what they do in a more effective and efficient way. The Irish public sector cannot be any different.

Such commentary is not a threat. It is in fact an invitation to opportunity and a move away from some of the awful features of the public sector, whereby ambition was frowned upon and innovation dismissed as dangerous. A dynamic and innovative public service can be a more challenging and interesting place to work.

Pay increases have to be linked to real achievements by individuals and the public service unit in which they operate. Assessments must be real - not box-ticking exercises.

The temptation for this outgoing Government to go too far in pleasing public sector workers could mean we take our first steps back on the road to economic ruin. That is a prospect far too awful for anyone - in the public or private sector - to contemplate.

Irish Independent

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