Thursday, January 29, 2009

Social Partnership process - will we get real reform?

The current social partnership process is important as a means of reassuring both ourselves and international markets that the country is working constructively to find a way out of the current economic mess.

However, the Social Partnership model is also responsible for many of the compromises which have left us with the burden of an overpaid, oversized and under-delivering public sector and political system. What confidence can we have that the current process will not repeat the mistakes of the past and deliver fudged, temporary solutions which fail to deliver the fundamental long-term reforms required to terms of employment, work practices and organisational structures? This reform challenge applies just as much to the Oireachtas as it does to the wider public sector.

As someone who remembers (and paid) the very high personal tax rates of the 1980s, the prospect of paying more tax now is unwelcome; but it can be endured, if there is equity in how it is applied and if it is coupled with a transparent process which delivers meaningful reform in terms of efficiency, effectiveness and value for money. I do not wish to pay higher taxes simply to maintain the status quo.

This raises the question: who is representing the interests of ordinary taxpayers in the current process? They are not represented by employers, unions or politicians, who all have the agenda of their own vested interests foremost in their minds.

While the Government would claim to represent taxpayers’ interests, the reality is that the primary concern of most politicians is retaining power and preserving political careers. These same politicians have created their own bubble, enjoying high salaries, bizarre pension arrangements and an over-generous suite of tax-free, unvouched perks. And all the while TDs tell us how hard they work, regarding many activities which are solely aimed at their own re-election as the legitimate employment for which they are paid.

Therefore, we must see, within the "Framework for Economic Renewal" currently under discussion by the social partners, the clear commitment of the Government and the public sector unions to meaningful reform and a robust process to get us there.

If we can’t get commitment to fundamental change in the heat of the current crisis, we’ll never get it.

Footnote: Published as a letter in the Irish Times.

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