Life in the reality distortion field

1st November 2011

A deluge of media commentary about exit packages for senior civil servants is creating the impression that all public servants are feather-bedded. It ain’t so says NIALL SHANAHAN.

In recent weeks, a deluge of commentary about exit packages for senior civil servants has taken up a lot of media space. It’s easy to understand why people are angered by the figures involved. They stand in stark contrast to the reality for people struggling with mortgage debt, job losses and pay cuts right across the country.

But focusing on the pensions and lump sums of a handful of individuals makes it far too easy to create the impression that these types of packages are standard for all public servants. Some commentators have gleefully distorted the reality to indulge the impression that public servants in retirement enjoy multi-millionaire lifestyles at the expense of taxpayers.

The reality is very different.

A recent parliamentary question about pensions paid to retired civil servants revealed that most – 78%, in fact – receive pension incomes below €30,000 per year. Of the others, most get pensions of between €30,000 and €50,000. While some media coverage acknowledges that the vast majority of retiring public servants have modest incomes, headlines, opinion pieces and analysis articles tend to draw generalized conclusions from the small number of larger pensions, and this creates the inevitable distortion.

Meanwhile, a new – and virtually unreported – OECD report has found that Irish public service pay is on a par with OECD and EU averages when local purchasing power is taken into account.

The second edition of OECD Government at a Glance (2011) finds that only Irish hospital consultants and top central government managers – departmental secretaries – are paid well by international standards. Far from being out of step with other countries, as is frequently alleged, most of the rest are paid about the same as those doing similar jobs abroad.

Austerity fetish

Blurring the reality about public service incomes rides side by side with what US economist Paul Krugman describes as the “austerity fetishism” that has dominated discussion about Ireland’s economic problems over the last three years. This despite evidence that ‘austerity’ measures might actually be making things worse.

In a recent interview with RTE’s Morning Ireland, former Attorney General and chair of Goldman Sachs Peter Sutherland advocated greater austerity measures than those planned for the forthcoming budget. Among the measures he suggested was – surprise, surprise – cutting public sector pay again.

Sutherland justified this by saying that pay needed to be brought more into line with other EU countries, but admitted he could not give examples of how or where Irish public service pay was out of line. He wasn’t challenged on any of this, but he was given plenty of time to air his views. Former ECB official Jurgen Stark’s demand for more austerity and pay cuts was afforded similar unquestioned credibility.

The austerity fetish has become even weirder as former media champions of “taking the pain” are now railing against “austerity.” In a further strange twist, some commentators and publications now insist that more public service pay cuts are not ‘austere,’ but are the only alternative to austerity.

This delusion promotes the idea that cutting pay again provides a magic bullet solution to Ireland’s economic difficulties. Poor domestic demand continues to be the weakest link to getting the economy back to sustainable growth. So the problem with that magic bullet is that the gun is aimed directly at everyone’s feet – not just public servants’.

Getting things a bit wrong

The Sunday Business Post recently ran an editorial entitled the public sector remains shielded. Reflecting on the most recent visit from the Troika, and seemingly baffled by its determination that the Croke Park agreement is delivering on its targets, the editorial asked: “What does the public get in return for this extraordinary guarantee of safe passage? It is assured that work practices will be reformed. Actually, this means that the public sector will become a bit more like the private sector. But only a bit; not much. People will be transferred from one job to another similar job. Extra holidays may be curtailed. The workload might increase somewhat.”

It is a conveniently cynical view of what the agreement is designed to do; and a wilful dismissal of what it has already achieved. There is no mention of the huge savings already made, or that the reduction in public service numbers is ahead of target. No mention either that work practices and redeployment are the mechanisms that will ensure that, despite the huge decrease in numbers, services will continue to be delivered.

Back in the real world

On Monday 24th October, the east coast was hit with serious and sudden flooding after a month’s worth of rain fell in just a few hours. Members of civil defence, emergency services and local authority staff worked through the night to assist people, responding to the crisis with determination and selfless effort.

The reality distortion field that portrays public service workers as underworked and overpaid, that considers their retirement income too lavish, that fetishes austerity and devises bizarre magic bullet alternatives, and that refuses to acknowledge the significance of the ongoing efforts of public servants, remains active. But for a few hours that night, the blurring and distortions were brought back into sharp focus.

Niall Shanahan is IMPACT’s communications officer.