Sunday, 13 February 2011

Lost Plot

The Malta Independent on Sunday - 13 02 2011

Lost Plot

The government’s irrational behaviour is gaining a rhythm of consistency providing evidence that it has lost the plot. Objective observers can quite safely conclude that the bungling of Cabinet’s self-award of an astronomic remuneration rise, totally out of synch with the pace of the general economy, has left this government in a state of detritus. Rarely have I experienced a measure that attracted so much distaste and condemnation from a wide spectrum of the electorate not only for its substance but also for the stealth surrounding its execution.

 The sudden interest in pushing ahead with a divorce referendum in summer, when the full implications of the issue have not yet been properly disseminated and permeated down to the grass roots, is nothing if not an attempt to create a diversion of focus away from government’s general performance. In the process the crusaders hope to secure a majority against divorce before it fizzles out as the upcoming pro-divorce generations replace their conservative predecessors.

In subordinating the civil rights of a substantial minority to the will of a dwindling majority, the conservatives’ plan to mothball the divorce issue for a few years until it eventually becomes a political liability for any political party that keeps opposing it.

The excuse for calling a referendum is (I quote from the PN resolution) “that no political party in Malta has the electoral mandate to propose legislation for the introduction of divorce and, therefore, the parliamentary approval of a Bill for the introduction of divorce should not be enough for the law to come into force and this should be confirmed through a referendum”. If every measure that is not covered by an electoral mandate were subjected to a referendum, we would be voting every weekend.

 If the introduction of divorce is a major issue that needs inclusion in an electoral manifesto, it would be much better to address this issue after the next general election when the parties would have explained their position in the manifesto, rather than subject the civil rights of a substantial minority to the orthodox views of the majority. If the Jeffrey/Varist Bill is presented in Parliament with a compulsory referendum clause, my counsel is for pro-divorce MPs to vote against the Bill too.

More evidence that this government has lost the plot is the way it is dealing with private individuals and their property. A large parcel of land has been requisitioned without any advance notice to its owners by the issue of a Presidential decree offering compensation based on its agricultural value. The Presidential decree states, as is normal, that the land is required for a “public purpose”. Before even the dispossessed owners of the land had time to realise the fate of their valuable real estate, Mepa approved the integration of the ‘agricultural’ land within a larger sports complex project, which will now be offered to private interests for commercial development. Since when has it become acceptable for Big Brother to dispossess its citizens of their private property, offering them a pittance in compensation by valuing the land as agricultural, and then suddenly and within days morph this land into a real estate sports development project which will be offered to the private sector to develop?

What difference in substance is this from the PAPB days of the seventies and eighties when the Minister used to decide who becomes rich and who remains a pauper purely by drawing the line of the development limit?

And talking of the seventies and eighties, you would know that a PN government has lost the plot when it needs to revert to scare tactics by reminding the public of the excesses of a Labour government of the seventies and the eighties. This is desperate recourse to a hackneyed and ineffective tactic.

Labour has paid the price for its excesses many times over. For the last quarter century since the PN have been in government, Labour if anything has been on the receiving end of government excesses, with people with known Labour sympathies completely struck off the list of public appointments irrespective of their merit. The PN may not be as bland or as disgraceful as Labour was in handling the worst events of the seventies and eighties, but the substance is not much different. Instead of killing you with one or two blows, they kill you with a thousand cuts.

 It is the thousand cuts strategy that has transformed the country from being debt free a quarter century ago to a public debt of 75 per cent of GDP if only central government debt is measured, and well past 100 per cent of GDP if debt guaranteed explicitly or implicitly by central government is included; and this without counting the present value of future deficits on pension commitments. No way can infrastructural developments undertaken offer anything like fair value for the debt accumulated. The state of our road network, the quality of our air and other infrastructural shortcomings bear witness. 

The Maltese saying ‘l-eżempju jkaxkar’ has been forgotten. I hear horror stories of bonuses which fringe public sector executives award themselves with very scant governance standards of remuneration committees and the like. But how can Cabinet members fight such lax attitudes if they themselves set a bad example?

Take another demonstration of how this government has lost the plot. The Leader of the Opposition has been taken to task by the government and PN media merely for suggesting that we should increase our tourism advertising budget to capture some of the business which is avoiding North African destinations, Tunisia and Egypt in particular, but probably also Jordan and Morocco among others. The PN media pretended to be scandalised by the mere suggestion that we should exploit the misfortunes of neighbouring competitor countries and try to increase our market share of Mediterranean tourism by promoting ourselves as a safe destination.

 What on earth is wrong with this suggestion? What is wrong is that we are not already doing it. We have always made a meal out of the troubles of our neighbours. We would be stupid not to. Of course no one is suggesting that we get involved in any comparative advertising somehow denigrating competing destinations. We should merely extol our virtues.

 The symptoms are all over the place. Pushing ahead with a divorce referendum as a diversionary tactic; heavy handedness when dealing with private property of individuals for public purposes which morphs into commercial development within a matter of days; awarding itself bulge size remuneration increases while demanding sacrifices of the electorate; the need to defend present failures by raising the spectre of 40-year-old excesses by opponents; fake outrage about a suggestion to enhance our tourism appeal as potential clients are cancelling their bookings for competitor destinations experiencing internal political turmoil.

What else is needed to prove that this government has lost the plot?

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