Sunday 25 August 2019

The public sector won't feel the pain like the rest of us

If we'd listened to the ICTU in the Eighties there would have been no economic boom, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

There's nothing journalists like more than bad news. In recent months, RTE has practically been salivating with delight at the succession of grim statistics it has been able to lay before the viewing public: rising oil and food prices, job losses, credit crunch, sub- prime mortgage meltdown. You name it, it's been been rubbing its hands with glee over it, delighting in playing Cassandra with predictions of how the world's going to Hell in a handcart.

You might say that the RTE newsroom has been acting as a sort of unofficial PR guru for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse -- a role which reached an almost surreal nadir last week on radio's Drivetime. On the show, crackly snippets of Charlie Haughey ticking us off for "living beyond our means" and Eighties news stories about record unemployment were segued seamlessly with The Specials' anthem for doomed youth, Ghost Town, with its undercurrents of menace, simmering violence, urban blight and despair.

If listeners got the impression that the broadcasters were revelling in the return of the bad times, they weren't wrong. This was the recession replayed as nostalgia.

Yet now that it looks as if there may be serious consequences to the economic downturn, journalists are running faster from the implications of all their teasing than a shy courtesan on her first date. The tone of some of the commentary on Ibec's call for a public sector pay freeze in light of the stuttering economy was so disapproving that you could have been forgiven for thinking that the Irish Business and Employers' Confederation had just resurrected Dean Swift's old idea about eating the children of poor slum-dwellers.

Thus it was no surprise to turn on Six One News on Wednesday to find the outraged reaction of David Begg, general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), to Ibec's call for pay restraint being given such congenial prominence. According to the headlines, Begg's had been a "robust" response; and Sharon Ni Bheolain later described it as "passionate" -- neither word of which would exactly have displeased the trade unionist.

Passion's a good thing, right? Passion implies caring. Passion implies conviction.

Robust? Well, that's a bit more tricky.

"Robust" was definitely intended to sound a positive chord, but if anything it was Ibec which was showing the genuine robustness in the face of the economic squeeze. Robust implies the ability to

cope with change, a certain unflappability in a crisis, whereas the unions in general knee-jerked to the spectre of pay restraint with a shrill hysteria, demanding to know why their workers should be made to suffer when bosses were raking in millions.

"Old-fashioned rhetoric" was Ibec's weary verdict on that, but from the amount of coverage David Begg was getting, it was as if he had transformed suddenly into John the Baptist, giving voice to a holy truth in a wilderness which refused to listen to him -- or a knight in shining armour even, riding to the rescue of the proletarian damsels in distress.

What short memories we have. If we had listened purely to ICTU and its cronies in the Eighties there would have been no economic boom to begin with. As recently as 2004, it was still publishing policy papers denying that Ireland's low tax regime was a major factor in the country's success, and calling for higher tax rates to finance bigger public spending. And it's still at it, seeming to believe that the current difficulties can be overcome by carrying on as if nothing had happened and bridging the gap by -- yes -- bottomless borrowing.

ICTU calls this standing up for the ordinary worker, but it doesn't even speak for a majority of workers out there anymore. No wonder the trade union movement is so desperate to hold on to the affiliations of public sector employees, at whatever cost to the wider economy, because these are the people who provide its most reliable power base.

They are, what's more, the people whose threats of strike action if their demands aren't pandered to have the capacity to cause maximum pain to their fellow citizens. So ICTU knows that we all have to listen. Hostages can rarely afford to ignore their captors.

Outside the comforting embrace of the public sector lies the harsher, colder landscape where most Irish people actually live and work. These are the true huddled masses, gazing longingly on the comfortable ramparts of public sectordom where recessions are for other people and talk of pay freezes can be airily dismissed, in Begg's word, as an "abomination".

It's not public sector workers who'll be forced back into emigration, if the ESRI predictions turn out to be correct, after all; or public sector workers who'll be rejoining the dole queues. The security that comes from having the State pick up the tab is what allows public sector workers to get bolshie at the talk of tightening belts when workers in the private sector are just trying to keep their heads down and weather the storm.

Expecting RTE to confront this monopoly is futile, since it's hooked up to the same gravy train. It's a cliche that turkeys don't vote for Christmas, but if turkeys had their own TV station then they certainly wouldn't rush to give Santa a fair hearing either.

There's a convergence of two things there: the first is the deep-seated leftist political instinct of most journalists to regard any State-run, tax-subsidised entity as, ipso facto, a good thing, and business, boo hiss, as bad; and second, there is self-interest -- why knock the very system of wrapping the public sector in cotton wool when that's what has worked for them?

RTE is unlikely to rock the boat when it's got the best of both worlds: guaranteed public income through the licence fee, and the lion's share of all advertising and sponsorship going. RTE has cleaned up its act in recent years, even if it had to be dragged kicking and screaming into a 21st Century of accountability and openness about its finances, but for a long time the national broadcaster was operated like some jolly financial Black Hole of Calcutta into which viewers' money could be endlessly poured with impunity, and with precious little to show for it.

Mind you, that could be a conspiracy theory gone mad. Perhaps the real reason that RTE journalists are so useless at challenging bloated public sector monopolies and out-dated ways of thinking about the economy is because they're just, well, useless.

Whatever the cause, that sure is the way the unions would like them to stay.

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