Parliament Returns: It’s The Economy, Stupid

Finland's parliament resumes for the autumn session today - but how much luck will the government have getting its legislative programme passed?

Composite photo / Credit: News Now Finland

Finland’s Members of Parliament get back to work today after the long summer recess, with a busy legislative schedule ahead.

The government has the economy firmly in its sights, and hopes to see more improvement as the country eases slowly from long years of recession and stagnation.

“The GDP-to-debt ration will level off by the end of the government term, and living on debt will be brought to an end in 2021” predicts Jari Haapiainen, the Centre Party’s International Secretary.

“The employment rate will be increased to 72% by the end of 2019” he adds.

That target for getting Finns back into work has been elusive so far for this government, but as the economy turns around, and working life reforms kick in, they expect to achieve it.

“The reforms will improve incentivization to work, the attractiveness of employment, the effectiveness of employment service activities and competitiveness” explains Haapiainen in a phone interview with News Now Finland.

Finland’s lack of competitiveness compared to economic rivals – it costs a lot more per hour to hire a Finn to work than a Swede, German or Estonian – has kept the cost of Finnish goods and services high, and unattractive to international buyers. The competitiveness gap is now closing, as a result of government deals with trade unions, and because worker costs in other countries have been rising.

File picture / Credit: Ministry of Social Affairs and Health

More Reforms Needed

But still, the Centre Party says, there’s more for the government to do.

“The most essential reforms are social and health care reform; digitalization and cutting down on bureaucracy and administrative burdens on citizens and businesses” says Haapiainen.

The social and welfare reform – known as SOTE in Finland – has been mired in political deadlock, and strongly opposed by health care professionals, political parties and trade unions alike. It will take a lot of horse trading to push through the reform even in a modest way, and certainly not in the form the government had originally imagined.

In recent polls, the Centre Party has been losing ground to the NCP and Greens. But Haapiainen says the fall in poll numbers has leveled off after the summer, and notes “a slight increase in popularity in the latest polls”.

The Opposition Agenda

On the other side of the aisle, the Social Democrats are also thinking about the economy and getting Finns back to work. But they criticize the government for not doing enough – even though their leader Antti Rinne rammed through high wage increases for workers when he was a union boss, which certainly did nothing to help with the country’s competitiveness problems.

“Employment is the crucial task in the upcoming parliament session” says Antti Lindtman, Chairman of the Social Democrats Parliamentary Group.

Antti Lindtman, MP (Social Democrats) / Credit: Eduskunta

“Although our economy is improving […] our unemployment figures remain high. The government has failed to create a sufficient number of jobs and there are many people on the edge of the labour market” he tells News Now Finland via email.

“The government should urgently launch the family leave reform that would improve particularly the job market position of women, and raise the employment rate towards the Nordic level” says Lindtman.

The Social Democrats, the fourth largest party in parliament with 34 seats, also want to see more done about equality and fairness – such as giving tax breaks to lower income groups like pensioners and students, instead of only affording tax relief to high earners.

They also want to focus on education and skills – the current government coalition made swingeing cuts to Finland’s education budget almost as soon as they came into office.

“In tomorrow’s labour market it is not possible to succeed without sufficient education and skills” says Antti Lindtman.

“We need to secure equal learning opportunities for all, and make the leap in skills in order to succeed in the future” he says. The Social Democrats also want to raise the school leaving age to 18, to ensure a more educated workforce.

And as for their recent poor form in opinion polls? The Social Democrats know they have to do better, lagging in third place behind the NCP and Greens, when they had been the most popular party in the polls just 18 months ago.

“Trust has to be earned every day” says Lindtman, who then sums his party’s fortunes up using one of the most cliched political metaphors. “Politics is not a sprint, it’s a marathon”.

What Does Civil Society Think?

While the course of politics is set by politicians, it can be influenced by civil society. So what are some of the ideas they wish the government would tackle?

Aleksi Neuvonen from the Demos Helsinki Think Tank wants to a shift in the focus of social security reform to better match employment opportunities – and a rethink of Finland’s basic income experiment. He wants the discussion to be more focused on the future.

“Although we have now the world famous basic income experiment happening, it still aims at creating industrial-era employment patterns, sending people back to similar work they had before unemployment” he tells News Now Finland.

“Instead we should see future social security, for instance basic income, as a tool that empowers people to try something to which they have a passion, for instance becoming entrepreneurs or training themselves with new skills” says Neuvonen.

Finland’s trade unions still play an important role in shaping policies, and act as a bridge between the government and workers, when negotiating collective agreements on employment.

Looking ahead to the autumn session of parliament, the Central Organisation of Trade Unions SAK wants to see more attention paid to workers skills, and educating young people “especially to vocational schools” SAK President Jarkko Eloranta tells News Now Finland.

“The Government should also pay attention to adults skills. There are lots of adult who have no vocational qualification. Those people have difficulties getting jobs and it also slows down our economical growth” he adds.