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Our View: Government lacks the stomach for genuine reform

Interior Minister Socratis Hasikos, only tinkering with much-needed municipal reform

SOME TEN days ago Interior Minister Socratis Hasikos presented the government’s reform plans for local government. The plan envisages the creation of five second-tier local authorities – one for every district – that would be given many of the responsibilities currently handled by municipalities, such as the issuing of building permits, provision of services, rubbish collection etc.

Hasikos explained there would be economies of scale and a higher quality of service for residents as a result of the proposed reform. What he failed to say was that the government’s proposal was a half-baked rationalisation measure aimed at maintaining the unjustifiably high number of municipalities; there are 30 plus nine representing occupied towns and villages. The plan was the government’s concession to the foreign consultants that had been brought in to advise how local government should be re-organised and made more cost effective.

The consultants had proposed the creation of five municipalities, one for each district, which would make local authorities economically viable. But this would mean only five instead of 30 mayors, drastically fewer councillors and a lot fewer jobs for the party faithful. So the minister came up with a measure that would keep everyone happy. Mayor and councillor numbers would remain the same, but municipalities would have few powers other than to conduct civil wedding ceremonies and organise culture weeks in the summer.

Replacing the 30 municipalities with five economically viable entities, thus further reducing the cost of local government, which consist primarily of wage costs, was too radical and would have caused too much political unrest, so the government chose the path of least political resistance. But Hasikos still came under criticism from AKEL chief Andros Kyprianou who accused the minister of acting unilaterally and failing to engage in a dialogue with the political parties for such important reform. The reform was obviously not half-baked enough to satisfy Kyprianou; this could only be achieved through a dialogue that took on board the views of all interested parties, however ludicrous.

This has always been how we have done things in Cyprus – with disastrous results – because everyone has to be kept happy in the name of consensus. This is also the reason we have such a poor state education system – it evolved through a dialogue of the politicians, civil servants and teaching unions – that has been consistently letting down our children.

And now that the World Bank has submitted its proposals for improving the state education union chiefs and education ministry bureaucrats are up in arms because the main objective is a more streamlined and decentralised system in which teaching appointments would be meritocratic and the performances of teachers would be regularly evaluated. It even advised that promotions were determined by performance and not seniority.

The main gripe of the unions was the customary one – the World Bank technocrats, who prepared the reports, did not engage in a dialogue with them, while the education minister had set a five week time-frame for the completion of his discussions on the reforms with unions. How could the appointments system that has not been resolved after 15 years of efforts, be tackled in five weeks, asked one union boss, pretending not to know the answer. For his benefit, we should mention it was never resolved because the government has been engaged in a never-ending dialogue with unions, which are opposed to any change.

We are very naive if we think that those who have most of our society’s problems – political parties, civil servants, unions – are capable of fixing them. It was governments and political parties that created 30 municipalities in a country of some 850,000 people and then approved the creation of countless unnecessary jobs. What is the chance that Hasikos, a member of this ruling clique, would dismantle what it created? He will make some modifications, but parties like AKEL want to prevent even those through the obligatory dialogue.

The same applies to education reform. There is no hope of anything changing if the unions, which created and maintained this dysfunctional system, participate in the supposed reform drive. It is not in the interest of their members to fix the education system that exist to serve the teachers. Now we are witnessing a similar narrative for the national health scheme. An association representing private doctors has set a list of conditions, regarding pay and patient referrals, that need to be satisfied for it to give its consent to the scheme; it has the support of the government doctors who have also set a list of conditions.

The unions’ idea of dialogue involves the setting of ultimatums that politicians meekly give in to. No problems will be fixed by recourse to the discredited formula that created them in the first place.

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