Demonising the Public Sector

22 Feb

For over twenty years it has become an almost everyday occurrence to read an article or watch a TV news or discussion programme which is either demonising (too well paid, too much job security, too much holiday entitlement, etc), reporting on, or calling for, cuts to the ‘public sector’ without any contextualisation of what elements of the ‘public sector’ they are talking about, what the cuts would mean or even why the ‘public sector’ enjoys such benefits in the first place. (The public sector was given these civilised working conditions because a) (usually) it was less well paid and had no likelihood of overtime or extra shifts and b)  because  we, the people were the employer, and at the time we didn’t want to replicate the abuses and excesses of the unregulated and largely un-unionised private sector employers. We wanted to provide a model of civilised and equitable workplace conditions – thus mothers got time off to be with their children after they birth, people who were sick were not further penalised for their misfortune, etc. Did the system get abused and are there examples of selfish money-grabbing? Yes there are but that is  a reason to discuss and reform not demonise and eviscerate.

As I see it the public sector encompasses three main areas:

1) Providers of routine and essential services (which vary from country to country and depending on levels of ‘privatisation’) e.g. school teachers, cleaners, firefighters, traffic wardens, street sweepers, garbage collectors, nurses, midwives, other healthcare staff, social workers, welfare office staff etc. Cuts to this ‘public service’ implies job losses, lower wages, fewer benefits and worse services provided to you and I, the taxpayer.

2) The ‘executive’ e.g. judges, Attorneys General (public prosecutors), police officers, departmental civil servants in general including those in the regulatory and advisory branches e.g. the EPA, tax assessors and collectors, Customs and Excise, Ombudsmen and their staff and policy analysis offices. Cuts in this ‘public service’ not only means job losses and lesser services but also crucially less oversight of the operation of the various parts of the society but also less long-term analysis and policy design which is (relatively) impartial and apolitical.

3) Politicians and their advisors. Cuts to this ‘public service’ …can’t think of any we hear talk of wage caps and hiring embargoes but less politicians? Not in this neck of the woods.

Of the three No 1 has ‘on the ground’ and ‘in your face’ ‘right here, right now’ effects which are getting people’s attention. The cuts on ‘public service’ No 2 are not. Yet it is this very ideologically driven exercise which is, I believe, behind the demonisation agenda.It is the reduction in the regulatory and enforcement arms which pose the biggest threat to our democratic system. After all if the oversight is lax for corporations and arms of the state  do they scrupulously comply with regulations (think self-policing voluntary codes of conduct for ANY industry you care to name, or Anglo Irish Bank)? I believe that the current ‘austerity’ climate is being used to further an aggressive Neo-Liberal Free Market agenda which began with Reagan and Thatcher destroying their respective manufacturing bases in order to dis-empower the Trades Unions. Then there has been a systematic dismantling of regulatory frameworks which gave shape and confidence to the ‘market’ now we are seeing the dismantling of the State itself and its replacement with what?

A globalised or regionalised power structure which is so large and so far removed from the lives of those who live in it (we are NOT citizens in the democratic sense any longer) and run by technocrats for the benefit of the clients whose lobbyists are the most persuasive.

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