Sunday, 16 June 2013

The lure of politics and one hundred days

This article was published in The Malta Independent on Sunday - 16th June 2013
Problem solving requires treatment of both the substance and the optics of the matter: only after taking both into consideration can one devise a proper, fair and lasting solution.
The case of Franco Mercieca being given a partial and temporary exemption from the Cabinet Code of Ethics should be analysed accordingly. No one has made a case challenging Dr Mercieca’s honesty or his dedication to his profession and his patients. No one doubts his professional specialisation in particular branches of ophthalmology. No one has denied that a sudden withdrawal from his profession following his election to parliament and his appointment as a Parliamentary Secretary would have caused untold harm to patients who depended on his services.
So, in substance, the temporary exemption given to Dr Mercieca made sense. It still does – especially considering that ophthalmic surgeons are a rare species and failure to practice his profession regularly could make eventual resumption, when the political cycle eventually turns, very difficult if not impossible. The dexterity required to perform such delicate surgery could be easily lost and hard to regain.
The optics were harder to justify. Allowing a cabinet member to earn money from private practice presents substantial challenges for political justification. Even performing services free-of-charge in a state hospital is not a straightforward matter. Operations in state hospitals involve certain examples of bureaucracy that do not permit the easy transfer of patients normally seen in private hospitals, where commercial charges are charged to people who are prepared – and can afford – to pay in order to avoid queuing for state-provided services.
As the saying goes: justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done. Perception is as important as reality. It seems that the optics have won over the substance and Dr Mercieca has been constrained, given the pressure of media headlines over his case, to give up his private professional practice to focus on his new political duties. He is being allowed to perform limited unpaid surgical procedures in state hospitals.
Time will tell whether society will be better off through losing the ophthalmologist and gaining the politician rather than accepting a bit of both.
But I cannot help wondering about the lure of politics that forces a person like Dr Mercieca, at the peak of his career and making good money by serving his patients without all the pressure of headlines, to trade all that for a cabinet post where by comparison the remuneration is small change and the media pressure asphyxiating. 
Someone said that a political career, especially at a relatively young age, would lure fools, crooks or missionaries. Franco Mercieca is neither a fool nor a crook.

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Next week will mark the first 100 days of Joseph Muscat’s government, following Labour’s landslide victory at the election on 9 March.
Considering that Labour has had no experience of executive power these last 15 years, and that for many Cabinet members, including the Prime Minister, this is their first time in the hot seat, my judgement is that the new administration has hit the ground running.
Obviously, those at both extremes of the political spectrum are disappointed – and they are showing it. Those on the PN side seem to have understood ‘Malta taghna lkoll’ to mean that everything will stay as it was. They complain that promises of meritocracy are not being observed in new appointments. Such claims show residual vestiges of arrogance from quarters that had presumed perpetual tenure in government.  
Meritocracy does not mean that publicly-appointed executives should stay in position if their performance is deemed acceptable. Rotation is important to ensure not only that executives do not get too comfortable in their post but also that they do not become blinded to defects by familiarity. There no doubt existed a significant crop of Labour-leaning executives who were blocked out of positions by the previous government in spite of their credentials. They can do as good a job or better than some politically appointed incumbents. ‘Malta taghna lkoll’ means that these people deserve their turn.
So far, most key posts: Commissioner of Police, chairmen of public companies and corporations, chairmen of ad hoc commissions, have been filled by people who not only carry the government’s trust but have unquestioned merits for the post.
In fact, complaints have emanated more strongly from Labour quarters who consider that merit is being given more weighting than trust or who expect their personal grievances to be resolved instantly without waiting for due process.   
Like a football referee criticised by both sides, the government must be doing a fairly good job with such appointments.
But appointments apart, government’s performance in its first hundred days is impressive and indicates a hands-on way of getting things done:
  • It had the 2013 Budget approved practically instantly on installation, even though it inherited a deficit for 2012 that was much worse than had been indicated.
  • In spite of re-entering the Excessive Deficit Procedure thanks to the high 2012 budget deficit above three per cent, it avoided being forced to make expenditure cuts austerity measures.
  • It honoured the pledge to remove legal prescription on corruption involving people in politics, and this before executive decisions began being taken.
  • Re-allocation was engineered of substantial EU funds for Master it!, which awards scholarships for post tertiary education.
  • It immediately launched the project for a gas-fired power station and has already announced the first short list in a transparent manner.
  • A Commission for reform of the justice system has been set up and has already published its first report for public consultation with a set of very interesting and revolutionary proposals to address a problem that has proved so impervious to all previous attempts.
  • A clear message has been sent regarding the toleration of abuse (in the prison warders’ case)
  • It has shown it is hands-on and that it proceeds from problem analysis, to decision-making and implementation in a logical way – as in the case of the reformed Global Residents Programme for the acquisition of property by non-EU residents and the re-location of Valletta’s Monti.

The main achievement of the government in these first one hundred days is that it has taken over the reins without causing disruption to the economic tempo. On the contrary, with the removal of the uncertainty that elections unavoidably bring, the new initiatives to kick-start the property market and the removal of some of the unnecessary bureaucracy, as well as some luck as the world economy seems to be performing better than expected and the euro crisis, if not resolved, is not brewing additional uncertainty, one feels that the economic momentum has already moved up a gear.
Moaning by Ministers about the mess purportedly inherited has been contained in order to avoid deflating economic optimism, even though in many cases better exposure would have been justified.
Tourism is doing well and should do better as yet another competing destination (Turkey) suffers internal strife not conducive to attracting peace-seeking holiday-makers. 
One hundred days are up. One thousand, seven hundred more to go. 

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