Because they’re worth it… only 13,000 to go, the new Martin Mansergh’s staunch defense of the Ministerial Pay Increases November 23, 2007Posted by WorldbyStorm in Fianna Fáil, Irish Politics.
I have enormous time and respect for Martin Mansergh. You know, the one who assisted in the Peace Process. Who was Director of Research, Policy and Special Advisor on Northern Ireland. He’s a good guy. Patriotic, a Republican in the best sense of the term. Even willing to put himself forward for election. But there seems to be a new Martin Mansergh abroad.
This one apparently is the…
Martin Mansergh, … South Tipperary TD and former adviser to the Taoiseach, [who] pointed out that up to 13,000 Irish citizens would be better paid than Mr Ahern when his full increase comes into effect in 2009.Citing a reply by the Minister for Finance, Brian Cowen, to a recent Dáil question, Mr Mansergh said that up to 13,000 Irish citizens would be better paid in 2009 than the Taoiseach and other political office-holders.”They include, of course, a number of persons working at senior levels in the media, business people, professionals, and some higher-paid GPs. A vast majority, though not all, would be in more secure employment.
Or so reports the Irish Times…
This is deeply deeply problematic stuff. And to hear this new Martin Mansergh propound this is dispiriting in the extreme.
Just what is the principle being argued here by him? There appears to be none other than the concept that others are better paid and therefore the Taoiseach is ‘worth it’. Where does this argument stop? If there are 13,000 ahead of Ahern, well, what would then be wrong with 8,000, or just 3,000? Or 5, or 2 or just 1?
Basic pragmatism suggests that the reason why one doesn’t in a democratic polity pay the elected Premier a salary greater than any other in that polity is that that would represent an unconscionable sequestration of too great a proportion of revenue (or if we want to see it a different way – the money we as citizens pay in tax). That would, for many reasons not least in terms of the diversion of resources which could otherwise be distributed more widely, inequitable (and behind that there is a sense that too great a payment for public service can lead to those entering that service simply for the pay).
But it is also to evade a basic point about public life and public office.
Consider Martin Mansergh’s contribution to this island. His has been a life of public service. A citizen, if you will. One that has eschewed the limelight during that period of achievement – and challenge. And this concept of the public service is one that embodies within it an idea that public service is – to some extent – its own reward. That by serving the polity one is positioned within a virtuous cycle. That that service is of itself – and with no reference to others – of importance. During that period he was paid (one presumes) relatively modestly. So what? He did not, as far as we are aware, starve. His achievements speak for themselves.
But of course, being entirely cynical, public service isn’t just its own reward, because for those such as Mansergh, and Ahern, there are generous emoluments. The opportunity to shine upon the domestic and international stage. Subsidised restaurants and bars. A fleet of vehicles and Garda outriders to speed one from point to point. And that’s before we get to the pension.
I said earlier that I have enormous time and respect for Mansergh. But, really. This is hardly credible. “More secure employment”? This about a man who has that very handsome public service pension (paid – as it happens – directly from the public purse)? Are we seriously to believe that should Ahern lose his position in the morning that he would be out on his uppers on Talbot Street, a small bowl in hand seeking alms?
Bertie Ahern and Martin Mansergh will not die poor. They will, like as not, never experience waiting lists in A&E (like a close relative of mine who, at the age of 81, two weeks ago suffered a fall in a minor car accident and wound up with two broken knees on a trolley in a South Dublin hospital for three days). They already lead lives of considerable comfort, whatever about the pressure of the work they do.
And yet, what is so dismal about this is that despite these benefits that they have there is a sense of further ‘entitlement’ that comes across in all the public pronouncements on the issue. And why? Because they raise their eyes to the commercial sector and also make – ahem – unusual comparisons with other governments abroad. I think that on a political level this is extremely foolish. It sits very poorly with the public. And for good reason.
There is already some hostility to the significant wage increases and rewards given to those in the commercial sector. Increases which appear to bear little or no relationship to actual productivity or output on the part of those who receive them. People tend to know instinctively that gross income disparities are something that can lead to negative outcomes. And not just people on the left either.
That the public service would emulate this is disturbing.
In 2002 the House of Commons select committee on public administration released a report entitled The Public Service Ethos. It’s worth reading in full for all of us, right or left, who have any interest in that ethos and in the changing nature of the Public Service. Firstly because change is happening. The nature of the state has already altered incontestably over the past three or four decades both for better and worse. But also because it’s logical and coherent and persuasive and should be compulsory reading for this particular government.
In a report in the Guardian it was noted that:
The committee calls for the creation of a public service code of conduct for staff and organisations as a way of re-establishing the best and most honourable traditional values.
This would comprise observation of high ethical standards; accountability to elected representatives; high quality of service; fair and equitable treatment of staff; respect of the citizen’s right to good administration, and the belief that “public service means serving the public not serving the interests of those who provide the service.” It concludes that the government has not done enough to renew the public service ethos and rejects as “inadequate” ministers’ frequently quoted phrase: “What counts is what works,” to describe their policy of encouraging a mixed public-private provision of public services.
“Whatever the shortcomings of the public sector as it is, there is something necessary, special and distinctive about those services which are provided as public services. They carry with them intrinsic assumptions about equity, access and accountability.”
It adds: “The public service ethos should not be seen as an echo from the past but as an indispensable ingredient any public service deserving of the name.”
The report recommends setting up a public service academy to teach and disseminate public service values. There should be a survey of public servants to establish how far professional values had been undermined by the modernisation of services, it adds.
The report itself (available here) argues that the ‘traditional view’ of the public service ethos is one that:
…The traditional approach to the public service ethos sees it as a long-established set of values and rules, mostly unwritten, that sets out the standards that public servants should uphold. This view suggests that, although the nature of public service might change in some respects, the principles on which it is based (in Britain these are often traced back to the Northcote-Trevelyan Report on the civil service in the mid-nineteenth century, with its stress on merit in appointment to public office, avoidance of patronage, and political impartiality) have served the nation well and should not be eroded. It involves a recognition of the distinctiveness of public service. The fact that in Britain public servants are not seen as corrupt or self-serving owes much to this tradition, and represents a huge national asset.
Intangible isn’t it? It’s like goodness, somehow we tend to know when it’s there, somehow we tend to know when it’s gone.
I’m not suggesting that the motivations we have heard recently aired are in any sense corrupt. But what I am suggesting is that the distinction between serving the public and serving the interests of those who provide the service is not great enough in this instance. That there is actually a disconnect between the society and the political elite, or at least sections within it. One that is dangerous for both. One that appears blind to the way in which actions such as this resonate beyond the close-knit community that is made up of our political representatives.
Even if the motivations of those who have taken this decision as regards salaries is purer than pure, whiter than white, it is absolutely necessary in a Republic that the outcomes are equitable, accountable and just and most importantly be seen to be so. If, as we know, there is unease across the society I would hazard that then that last condition has not been fulfilled. These increases do appear self-serving. Bizarrely so when put in context with other standards of remuneration across Europe and further afield (incidentally, I was enormously amused by the counter-argument that An Taoiseach did not have the White House or Downing Street at his disposal. Dangerous territory I think to be moving onto, but worth suggesting that when we punch at the weight of the US or indeed the UK, when indeed we have a truly significant fraction of their populations, then I think it only right that there is built a small semi-detached house for both the Taoiseach and the Tanaiste in the grounds of Government Buildings).
And while it might just be a matter, to some, of ten thousand here or ten thousand there, it is not unreasonable in a society facing into potential economic turbulence that at the very least those who call for restraint on the part of others might exercise it themselves, that they might see an implicit irony in asking those who earn – oh, say €32,ooo which is the average industrial wage to reduce expectations while they pocket a cool €38,000 in a single increase. Because the idea that the Taoiseach should get an increase near equivalent but greater than the average industrial wage is both a symbolic and very real example of a lack of equity.
Which brings me to another point. Much has been made of the fact that it was an ‘independent’ body which oversaw the pay increases.
On Wednesday in the Dáil we heard the following (as reported in the Irish Times):
During leaders’ questions in the Dáil on rising trade union discontent, Mr Ahern dismissed an assertion by Labour leader Eamon Gilmore that the unusual increase in disputes was linked to the “public’s perception that the Government is feathering its own nest with the pay increases it awarded itself”.
Mr Ahern believed “the rule the trade union movement fought for in 1913 and has stood by since, as the deputy will be aware, is that when an independent body makes a decision on an increase, the government of the day should pay it”.
On a certain level this is true – well, bar the hyperbole about 1913 and the bizarre turn into labourist language. But it is entirely irrelevant. The review body is composed by entirely capable people with strong records in both the public and private fields. A preponderance of those on the group are people drawn from the business world. Again, let us note that there is already an unease about wage disparities in the business world amongst the broader society. An independent body is not infallible. It can arrive at a less than optimum conclusion. An independent body that sets a salary for the Taoiseach that is higher than that of the US President has almost certainly done so. The recommendations are not binding. The government could refuse to implement these increases. It would have every right to do so. It could be an exemplar in the very best sense. And let’s be serious for a moment. Does the government follow the recommendations of every expert group in every field? It does not. In some cases it delays, in others obfuscates and in still others it rejects. Yet in this case the holy lineage of Labour’s struggle on this island is invoked in order to justify obeisance before the Review Body.
It doesn’t wash.
When I was in the WP the TDs took the average industrial wage. I understand that SF do something similar, while Joe Higgins also did likewise with the Socialist Party in the last Dáil. Sure, it’s tokenistic to an extent – although not to small parties which are revenue hungry beasts (surely there is a thesis in how it is that Left parties operate somewhat like voracious companies much of the time in terms of generating funds). But it also indicates a bond between representative and party and more importantly party and electorate. It is a very public way of saying that ‘we aren’t here for the money’. When the average industrial wage is the figure itself awarded to some representatives… well, that tells us something about the current state of the ‘bond’. It tells us something about the self-perception of the political class. It tells us nothing good about this state.
A public service that emulates the worst excesses of the private sector is no public service at all and I want the old Martin Mansergh back…