By Isla Binnie
ROME (Reuters) - Italians are fiercely divided over Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's constitutional reform, but there is one aspect of the plan everyone agrees on - scrapping a public body that even its own members refuse to defend.
Few Italians had heard of the National Council for Work and the Economy (CNEL) until Renzi said he wanted to abolish it as one of 47 constitutional changes being put to the vote at a do-or-die Dec. 4. referendum.
The council, housed in an imposing Rome villa, is in Renzi's cross-hairs as a symbol of public sector waste and inefficiency.
"The government is right," said CNEL vice president Gian Paolo Gualaccini, speaking at Villa Lubin, which overlooks a picturesque park. "CNEL in its current form is useless."
Set up in 1957 and enshrined in the constitution, the council was meant to advise the state on social and economic issues. But over the years, its army of well-paid officials have produced just 14 draft law plans, all of which were rejected.
Its abolition has been included in a list of constitutional changes proposed by Renzi alongside shrinking the upper house Senate and bringing power back to Rome from the regions.
The prime minister, who has promised to resign if the reform does not pass, lambasts CNEL at every campaign speech, holding it up as a target to show his desire for change.
"How can anyone defend the CNEL?" Renzi asked on state television this month, looking to depict opponents of his reform as conservatives eager to protect old privileges.
In a frescoed meeting room known as the "Little Parliament" a long-standing member of the council's administrative staff said it had been abused by politicians and trade organizations, who were meant to work together to draw up their proposals.
"They sent us bunglers, old people and unknowns," said the employee, who asked not to be named as he will move to a job elsewhere in the public sector if CNEL is abolished.
"They call us an elephant graveyard," he added, ruefully surveying the gleaming pews.
Renzi has said scrapping CNEL would save 20 million euros ($21 million) a year, but it is not clear how.
What was once a 120-member council has been shrunk to just 24, who as of 2015 work for free. The 61 support staff, whose salaries take up most of CNEL's 8.7-million-euro budget, are guaranteed a job elsewhere in the public sector if it closes.
Roberto Perotti, a former adviser to Renzi on spending cuts, has calculated the possible saving at 3 million euros.
Gualaccini argues the idea behind CNEL is still valid, and says it should be rebuilt from scratch however the vote goes.
He said rampant absenteeism among councillors, more than a third of whom had stopped turning up to monthly meetings by 2013 but could still claim a gross stipend of more than 21,000 euros a year, "was a sign of the respect they had for the place".
With opinion polls suggesting Renzi will lose Sunday's vote, the CNEL could well limp on. But few employees believe the unloved council will remain in such luxurious surroundings.
"Even if 'No' wins, I'm sure they'll boot us out to somewhere ugly on the ring road," said the veteran staffer.
(Reporting by Isla Binnie; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)