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Our View: The mess we are in demands decrees not consensus

Unions round the table with President Nicos Anastasiades

THERE is a big misconception in Cyprus that dialogue involving all interested parties is the way to solve all the country’s social, political and economic disputes or problems. This has become dogma, based on the dubious belief that in a democracy all decisions must be reached by consensus because this is how social peace and harmony is achieved.

In an ideal world this may be correct, but in practice it does not work. Dialogue may be the best way to resolve differences and disagreements in personal relationships and business partnerships but it is a fallacy to believe that it comes up with solutions for a country’s problems. On the contrary, in Cyprus ‘social’ dialogue in pursuit of consensus is at the root of most of the major political and economic problems currently facing the country.

It is hardly surprising because ‘dialogue’ is a smokescreen for government by committee, which seems to suit presidents and their ministers because they do not have to take personal responsibility for unpopular decisions that would be criticised by politicians and media. ‘Dialogue’ allows presidents to shirk the responsibilities of their position and avoid the unappealing aspects of leadership.

But nobody gives a second thought to the negative consequences for the country of this pseudo-consensus that may have had a purpose when it was thought up in the aftermath of the 1974 events but ceased being helpful decades ago. After the invasion, representatives of unions, employers’ organisations and the government sat on what came to be known as the tripartite committee and agreed there would be pay restraint in order to help the recovery of the ravaged economy.

This was 40 years ago, but union bosses still hark back to that period, the only time in which they put the economy’s interest above those of their members. The tripartite committee continued to exist but was primarily used to fool people into thinking that the unjustified annual pay rises and unheard of benefits secured by the broader public sector employees by threats were the result of reasonable dialogue and consensus. Whatever the unions demanded they were granted by politicians interested only in votes in the name of consensus, which is a synonym for ‘interest group rule’.

Social dialogue and consensus not only bankrupted the state but also gave rise to bizarre decisions that are primarily geared to satisfying the interests of those taking part in the dialogue. The consent of ordinary citizens, who invariably pick up the bill and suffer the consequences of these decisions, is never sought. When he was president Demetris Christofias, despite the state being on the verge of bankruptcy, insisted that any decisions regarding the pay of public employees had to be reached by consensus – meaning the agreement of unions representing the affected workers – while ignoring the views of the rest of the workers who funded the consensus through higher taxes.

The Anastasiades government is now behaving in exactly the same way, so as not to be debited with unpopular decisions. Foreign experts were brought in to propose ways of restructuring the civil service and making it more productive. Their suggestions included linking promotions to job performance, ending combined pay scales, introducing a proper staff evaluation system among other things.
After the proposals were presented to House, the government announced that there would be dialogue with the social partners before any decisions were taken. The social partners are the unions which created the malfunctioning civil service that generously rewards the lazy and unproductive and does not discriminate between good and bad workers. How stupid is it to believe that the union bosses who caused the problems could now help fix them?

As stupid as it is to think that teaching unions, which created an education system that, exclusively, serves the interests of teachers at the expense of children, would help reform the system through dialogue. Foreign experts have made proposals for reforming the state education system as well but teaching unions, which will be invited to take part in the dialogue, have already rejected them because they threaten the easy working life of their members. What constructive contribution could these shameless defenders of the right to well-rewarded laziness and professional inadequacy make to the dialogue?

We have wrecked our country through social dialogue and pseudo-consensus – handsomely rewarding mediocrity and failure while penalising excellence and hard work – also bankrupting the state in the process. The government must give up on the misguided idea that our dysfunctional state services could be fixed through dialogue with the people whose primary objective is to limit or water down changes in order to protect their privileges. The mess the country is in today necessitates rule by decree rather then consensus.

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