Sunday, 25 July 2010

Cynical Me

The Malta Independent on Sunday - 25 07 2010

Do we have a shadow government?   In posing this question, I use ‘shadow’ not in the sense of shadow cabinet or shadow minister to explain the role of the Opposition in keeping tabs on the government’s work. I use it in the sense that company law gives to shadow directors, people not formally appointed as directors on the board of a commercial company who have a strong influence on the directors, who simply act as agents of the shadow directors.

Try as I can to believe in the goodwill of fellow citizens, I cannot help growing ever more suspicious, to the point of turning cynical, that, apart from the official government, we have a more powerful shadow government. Nothing else explains the reluctance, indeed resistance, to launch a new package of rules and regulations concerning funding for the operation and capital investments of our political parties.

This issue has been discussed for years on end, through parliamentary select committees or independent commissions, but nothing ever changes. The status quo seems to be serving powerful interests well. On the maxim that he who pays the piper calls the tune, any judicious observer has a duty to suspect that political parties have a serious conflict of interest between their general duty to discharge their democratic functions in the interests of the general electorate and their obligations to the narrow segment that makes a disproportionate share of contributions towards party funding.

This conflict of interest then starts producing strange occurrences that defy logic and seriously prejudice basic standards of responsible governance. How else can one explain suspicious contract awards either on a direct basis or through grossly faulty competitive bidding` The Delimara power station extension contract is merely the most recent in a trend of similar contentious awards, which include the direct sale of Mid-Med Bank and the privatisation of Freeport operations as prime examples.

Yet these are only instances that make it to the surface because they stand out like a sore thumb. Beneath the surface, by merely adopting the logical use of averages, there must be innumerable cases of smaller governance infringements that cumulatively pay rich dividends to those who finance political parties. Appointments of the same few talking heads to posts with strong executive power on the fringes of extended government operations bear witness of interests that need protection by friendly faces.

A game of musical chairs has been going on for too long, as if the country produces no new blood to carry it to higher levels rather than just perpetuate the scratching of backs silent affair. Why do we suffer such democratic deficit more than other countries?

I can think of two reasons. Firstly, our two-party system – where the winner takes all and the loser merely observes and criticises, but without having effective tools to supervise – gives government absolute power. And if power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. The political systems of other countries apportion power more fractionally, forcing power sharing through coalitions.

Secondly, alternation of political power has not worked properly since 1987 and that’s a generation ago. The 1996 alternation of power never took root. History will pass judgment on why this happened, but to my mind it is clear that the wide power network, in which the PN is merely a political cell, worked hard to erase the democratic mandate and restore political power to their own.

I remain equally doubtful about the effectiveness of political power alternation for which the electorate may in future vote. Shadows all over, or just cynical me?   

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Defining Social

The Malta Independent on Sunday - 11 07 2010

Why on earth is the Social Affairs Committee (SAC) of our national Parliament wasting its time discussing who should and who should not transmit premium football coverage on pay networks?   Surely there are much more pressing issues of a far more serious nature that should keep the SAC extremely busy, not least among which is the national debate about the introduction of divorce that has, thankfully, again been brought to the fore through the courageous initiative of a back-bencher in the government ranks.

 Surely the SAC should have been working on the divorce issue, which by all accounts has become an issue of strong national importance, given the explosion in the number of marriage breakdowns, children born out of wedlock and the preponderance of unmarried family units. I respect the opinions of all those who have anything serious to say about the divorce issue, from those who, mostly for religious reasons, exclude the very principle of divorce for any reason whatsoever, to the other extreme of those who consider divorce as a civic right that is denied almost exclusively to us Maltese among all peoples on this planet.

What I do not respect is the clear attempt made by the Prime Minister to wash his hands of the matter by stating that this issue should not be decided by a few parliamentarians but by the people. The people can have a say over such matter either through a general election or through a specific referendum. Any attempt to use the medium of a general election for an expression of people’s view on the matter would be cheap political tactics to gain votes and deny freedom of expression outside the rather rigid political divide that our electoral realities confirm at each general election.

On the other hand, abdication of government’s responsibilities to defend the interest of minorities, even substantial ones, and leave them at the mercy of the majority, who thankfully have no need to understand the misery of those who suffer a marriage breakdown, is not dissimilar to holding a referendum among the rich on whether the government should continue to provide social security to the poor. The SAC should be busy, among other things, in extensive consultations on the level of conditionality that the legislation should provide for accessing divorce.

Can someone explain convincingly why divorce should continue to be denied to couples who have been legally separated for endless years and who have no children or have no responsibility for minor children born in wedlock?  What harm can society suffer from the introduction of divorce with such tough conditionality?  Or is it purely a case of religious fundamentalism seeking to impose its values on those who see no merit in fundamentalism.

Yet the SAC thinks it is more urgent to discuss payment for premium sport programmes, which in the end will go to finance such worthy social causes as John Terry’s £200,000 weekly salary, or Cristiano Ronaldo’s expense of a few millions to pay off the surrogate mother of his newborn baby. Football has become an expensive business and if one chooses to see live premium content one has to be prepared to pay for it.

Consumers’ rights are protected by the national broadcasting regulator who classifies certain sport activities as events of importance for society and obliges the broadcasting of such events on a free-to-air basis. Such obligations are normally reserved for events of national importance, such as, for example football matches of the national team, or international events of crucial importance like the final stages of the FIFA World Cup and the UEFA Cup for European nations. In Malta we turn everything upside down.

When the national football team plays competitive matches the transmission, if at all, is on exclusive premium channels and nobody raises a finger in protest. But because a premium TV operator wins, through competitive bidding, exclusive rights for run-of-the-mill weekly club matches of no national importance, specifically the Italian Serie A and the English Premier League, then this becomes a social matter for the SAC. Come off it!

Where was the SAC when such exclusive rights were enjoyed by Melita Cable?  Or is it OK for Melita Cable to enjoy exclusive rights but becomes socially irresponsible for such exclusivity to be enjoyed by GO? Whose interest is the SAC defending` From where I stand, given that the issue has only been raised after exclusivity has switched from one operator to another following competitive bidding, it would seem more likely that they are defending the interests of the operator who lost out rather than the interests of the consumer.

If the winning bidder were to be constrained to share its rights with unsuccessful competitors, the obvious outcome would be that operators would either not bid at all or bid a very low price in the comfort of knowing that if their competitors win they could be forced to share the spoils. If this were to happen, it is more likely that rights would not be awarded at all, with everyone losing out, most of all the consumer.

Consumer protection does not come from imposing unfair competition among operators. It comes from fair competition within the framework of a regulated market to ensure standards are met and that exclusivity does not lead to abusive pricing. Rather than the SAC poking its nose where it does not belong, it should prod the broadcasting regulator to widen the definition of events of importance for society, certainly including football matches of the national team, and the consumer protection agency to ensure fair pricing and minimum standards. Otherwise the SAC should keep itself busy with truly social issues.