Friday, 5 December 2008

Hubris - Vintage 82

5th December 2008
The Malta Independent - Friday Wisdom

One of the advantages of accumulating a fair quantity of years is having lived through so many experiences that it is often possible to draw comparisons between a current situation and some distant event with similar characteristics.

Government performance since winning a third consecutive term last March is giving me flashbacks of the horrible third consecutive term of a Labour government between 1982 and 1987. Shall we call it the curse of the third term?

Both governments were returned without a clear strong mandate from the electorate. Labour won the election of December 1981 by winning a majority of parliamentary seats but a minority of electoral votes. The result eventually led to a series of constitutional changes aimed at ensuring proportionality between the electoral votes and parliamentary seats.

The third PN government elected last March also failed to get a clear majority mandate from the electoral vote and won government by thinnest imaginable relative majority.

One would expect that a government so elected would take the message delivered by the electorate that it is not happy with its performance and that it should grow a dose of humility to wash off the arrogance that accumulates with long tenure of power.

The opposite happened and this government is not behaving much differently from the Labour government of 1982 that had increased its dose of arrogance and hit out at the electorate with senseless education policies which kept Church schools closed for several months. It was as if Labour wanted to punish the electorate for failing to give it a clear mandate which hubris made it assume that it deserved as of right.

Rather than adopt a touch of humility, this government’s hubris has reached proportions which are making me re-live 1982. Instead of opening up to hear the concerns of the electorate, it is assuming we are all morons and that with a super dose of arrogance it can persuade us to be thankful even for its policy and operational gaffes.

It started with the supposed liberalisation of the public transport sector. The country at large was left at the mercy of public transport operators who took the law into their hands with impunity and we were told that the sacrifice was worthwhile as part of a process to liberalise the public transport with the promise of major benefits of the consumer. What do we have to show for our sacrifices? We have a supposedly liberalised hearse service which hopefully we would need very, very rarely when price considerations are the last thing on our minds and when we trust to be safeguarded from being overcharged by regulation rather than the workings of a free market.

Where we really need liberalisation in the transport services we use, or would use, every day, we are told that we have to wait till 2010 to move to execution stage. Permit me to say that I heard that before and that I am more inclined to think that the hoopla leading to the liberalisation of hearse service was motivated by considerations other than offering the consumer a better deal.

Then we came to the utility rates. Raising the surcharge from 50 per cent to 95 per cent last July was painful enough but we sort of accepted it as a logical consequence of enjoying low rates in the pre-election period and an exploding price of international energy when crude oil prices reached record USD 147 per barrel last July.

However the additional pain of a further rise in utility rates effective retroactively from October is unbearable economically, socially and morally. How can any sensible person accept utility rates to increase with a surcharge equivalent to 194 per cent according to Labour and 135 per cent according to government when the oil price has plummeted to below USD 50 per barrel? How can we accept to pay higher prices of fuel at the pump when other countries are experiencing a consistent reduction of such prices leaving more spending power in consumers’ pockets? Have we become detached completely from global reality just as Labour government of 1982?

The honest truth is that apart from having hedged forward at high prices, government is withdrawing the cross subsidies from easy profits by the petroleum division which is now being privatised. Government policy after the election seems to be one of privatising profits and socialising losses!

The government has now pooh-poohed EU policy for stimulating the economy to guard against the negative effects of an on-setting recession by voting an extra 1.5 per cent of GDP to add economic activity or consumer demand in the economy. The government simply argued that it’s Budget 2009 already provides for this when in reality Budget 2009 actually cuts by half the deficit of 2008 and is as such restrictive rather than expansionary. We are proposing to adopt fiscal tightening when in reality everybody agrees these are exceptional circumstances requiring exceptional fiscal loosening.

What however carries the crown of concentrated arrogance is Minister Gatt’s curt reply to the owners of he Danish Village at Ghadira Bay. Upon complaining about a proposed new motorway passing right next to their property, they were simply informed that after spending 35 years making an appreciable contribution to our tourism they count for pretty nothing and if they can’t live with a motor way adjacent to their so far peaceful property they should sell out to ready buyers.

Equally offensive and arrogant is the argument that there is no alternative when in fact there is a far simpler, more practical and sensible solution of elevating the current road which can be pushed back a few metres to extend the beach. This will keep the nature reserve totally undisturbed, extend the beach by at least the width of the road, facilitate through traffic and offer motorists a unique elevated view while driving through with Ghadira Bay on one side and the nature reserve on the other.

There is great similarity between Labour’s decision in 1982 that we have to pay three months salary to buy the only make of colour TV on the market and these strings of arrogant decisions by the third term PN government. They are all made to suit particular interests at the expense of the general well-being of the population at large who in government’s arrogant view needs to be punished for failing to show enough gratitude at the last ballot box exercise.

Re-living the flashbacks of 1982 is only eased by the hope that we will eventually re-live the redemption of 1987.


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