4th October 2009The Malta Independent on Sunday
Minister Austin Gatt had an op-ed in The Times with the same title as this contribution and its opening paragraph was an absolute political blowout, which confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt that this government has lost it.
Read this infamous opening paragraph:
“The Leader of the Opposition has challenged me to state who is politically responsible for the Fairmount losses. I have no hesitation in answering that if you look beyond your nose the political responsibility falls squarely on the Labour Party, The General Workers Union and the party militants who were employed at the shipyards ... some political responsibility falls as well on different Nationalist administrations for having failed to come through earlier with the privatisation of the shipyards, although I fail to see the political possibility of doing so prior to 1996 while the 2003/2008 Administration was rightly focused on joining the European Union.”
With an assertion like that one is left breathless and seriously worried that this country is being managed by an executive unwilling to take responsibility for its decisions or non-decisions, and wastes its energy blaming others, even if to do so involves extreme mental gymnastics to link present effects to distant causes way, way back in time.
Governments are meant to govern, leaders are meant to lead and managements are meant to manage. When you are at the top the buck stops with you. It is offensive that a leading executive of a government that has been in power for more than 22 years is unwilling to take responsibility for all the pain the taxpayers are suffering because of the losses at our shipyards, and in particular the losses resulting from the Fairmount contract. At the very least, if the government as the ultimate underwriter of the shipyards’ losses was not satisfied about the shipyards’ competences and resources to make a commercial success out of the Fairmount contract, it should have vetoed management from taking it on board. This was not exactly a two-and-a-half penny contract and the Minister is known to keep organisations responsible to him on a short lead for much less important matters.
Certain assertions made by the Minister beg logic. Why was there no political possibility of privatising the shipyards prior to 1996? Was there any constitutional provision that prohibited government using its majority for this purpose? Was there any supernatural edict stating ‘Thou shalt not privatise the shipyards’?
The truth is that two consecutive Nationalist administrations spanning nine full years between 1987 and 1996 did nothing to knock the shipyards into shape that would permit privatisation. They were always ready to buy industrial peace by writing taxpayers cheques and cultivating the ruinous industrial culture prevailing at the shipyards – that they were too big or too important to fail and that change can be resisted with impunity, because in the end the taxpayer would always bail them out.
The first steps to bring some order at the shipyards were taken in the short Labour administration of Alfred Sant between 1996 and 1998. Prime Minister Sant immediately changed the composition of the council of administration to bring back authority and responsibility on the same page. Before that, a council of administration elected by the workers managed the shipyards, but the government underwrote the cost of their incompetence. What the two PN administrations could not do in nine years Alfred Sant did in the first few months of his administration.
Alfred Sant also did something else that unfortunately was not taken on board by the Nationalist administrations that followed. He wanted to limit government’s annual subsidy to a few millions that could be counted on the fingers of one hand, and if the shipyards could not operate within these parameters then the onus was on their management for force cost cuts and efficiency gains to come within these parameters.
The argument that the Nationalist administrations between 1998 and 2008 were focused on the run-up to EU membership and adaptation in the post membership phase does not hold water. Could not the government also proceed simultaneously with the privatisation of the shipyards? Is there some law that says we should do things in series and not in parallel? Obama does not think so and he is handling a financial crisis of grotesque proportion inherited from his predecessors simultaneously with reform of the US healthcare system, regular G20 meetings and an aggressive foreign policy that includes Iran’s nuclear ambitions, reviving the Middle East peace process, administering the rundown in Iraq and the build-up in Afghanistan, while engaging other major powers like China and Russia to gain their support for the success of these initiatives.
If Minister Gatt wants to know how our shipyards were floored I suggest he reads my article ‘Death by a thousand cuts’ published in my Friday column of The Malta Independent on 27 June 2008. This is a small taste of it:
“If the economists and logical thinkers would have had their way, the solution to the shipyard’s problem would have been arrived at much more quickly and with much less resources and it would have benefited everyone including the workers themselves. A small part of the resources burnt in arriving at a death by a thousand cuts would have been sufficient to retrain workers and re-employ them profitably in new processes that are managed with optimal efficiency and which are well integrated with our ability to compete profitably in a global economy. They would have earned more and enjoyed it more than living all these years with insecurity about sustainability of their employment.
Politicians work differently. As their primary objective is to obtain and retain power they prefer a tactic of making gradual changes over time so that nobody notices, or those that do notice do not raise much of a protest. It does not matter to them how much resources and time are wasted to arrive at their objective provided they get there without compromising their position in authority.”
There was once a politician of a different kind. In 1973 he had the necessary leadership skills to face the workers directly and telling them in no uncertain manner that unless they had the balls to make a commercial success of the shipyards they couldn’t count on government subsidies. After exacting painful concessions to generate efficiency gains, the shipyards stayed in the black until 1981, which incidentally is the last time they made a profit since Mintoff wasted no time and energy blaming third parties. He did what leaders are meant to do and tackled the problem head on.
Today’s politicians are made of a different fabric. They prefer to devote their energies to finding scapegoats rather than engineering true, hard and often painful solutions, as true leaders are expected to do.
Politicians come and go but unfortunately the bill still has to be paid by the taxpayer