Friday, 26 June 2009

What Role for the Opposition

26th June 2009

The Malta Independent - Friday Wisdom

It is no news to anyone that The Times carries an anti-Labour editorial policy which by default becomes an automatic pro-PN policy. But an editorial as that featured last Tuesday titled Time to call Labour leader’s bluff goes beyond all limits and exposes the extreme bias and total lack of objectivity in the paper’s opinion of Labour in general and its leader in particular.

The said editorial could just as well have been penned by the government minister concerned as it could hardly have been more unfair and subjective.

The question at issue is whether four years away from the next general election the Opposition has any duty to offer its own solutions to the problems facing the country or should limit itself to pointing out government’s deficiencies in handling these problems.

The Times editorial team thinks that Labour should not only criticise government’s handling of the energy issue, including matters of strategy regarding energy procurement as much as social issues involved in utility tariffs, but should assume the government’s executive role and offer their own “solution”.

Indeed it appeals to government “to call their bluff and challenge them in no uncertain manner to spill out their solution”.

What’s next? Are we going to expect the Opposition to take over the government’s role so that government ministers will have more time to entertain themselves and devote their energies to the lighter side of being in government? Maybe The Times expects Labour to organise street collections for the Finance Ministry to supplement its revenues and address the gaping hole developing in 2009 government finances which will be far greater than that projected in the Budget of last November!

An Opposition role is to oppose the government where it feels that the government is under-performing or following the wrong policies. No government should seriously attempt to excuse itself for its under-performance purely by suggesting that the Opposition is not proposing alternatives. This is especially true when the election is so far away and the Opposition has no realistic prospects of having an early opportunity to implement its alternatives.

Obviously things will get progressively different as elections approach and especially in an election campaign when the Opposition would be presenting itself as an alternative government and would stand a fair chance of gaining the opportunity to implement its policies. But expecting the Opposition to “spill out their solutions” four years ahead of an election is not much different from pretending the weatherman to supply a weather forecast for 2013. Who knows how the oil markets would be in 2013? Who knows in what shape government finances will be when Labour takes over, if it happens in 2013?

The Times could have been fairer if it stuck to the argument that Labour’s criticism of government policies in energy matters is unfair as this problem has an international dimension beyond the control of any government. This is an argument which could be made with a certain amount of validity.

But it would still have very little justification. This is a government which has been in power for more than 22 years apart from a very short interruption between 1996-1998. They cannot blame others for inherited problems.

The government’s claim that inadequate resources to meet peak demand reflects economic development at far greater pace than anticipated is laughable. To objective observers it looks more a case of mismanaging and under-investing in the energy productive capacity. If anything our rate of development has until 2008 been below that of our peers who joined the EU with us in membership in 2004.

To objective observers it looks more a case of wilfully living with huge inefficiencies at Enemalta for purpose of political convenience. It looks more like a case of deep inertia in developing utility tariffs to bring them gradually reflecting market realities without causing sudden shocks to the economy. It looks more like lack of imagination in providing the right incentives for the private sector to spread its use of energy across all time scales in order to reduce peak demand.

It looks more like government sleeping for too long on the need to diversify our sources of energy supply and introducing incentives to nudge consumers to generate their own electricity through alternative means and to sell back extra electricity to the main grid at the same marginal rate they are charged for using energy from the grid.

The government and its accolades should focus their energy on doing the job for which they are responsible rather than to attempt to hide their failure behind unfair expectations from the Opposition. Leave it to the electorate to decide if the Opposition offers better prospects and that it is not a decision the electorate has to make before 2013. This is not 1998, Sant is no longer Prime Minister and Mintoff is no longer an MP. Or is government still living in the past?

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