Monday, 3 November 2014

Where to draw the line

This article was published in The Malta Independent on Sunday - 03.11 2014
Life presents many difficult occasions where decisions have to be made by drawing a very fine line - and the decision-maker is severely tested as to where that line should be drawn. We have had several such instances in recent days.
Take UK’s decision to stop participating in search and rescue operation to save illegal immigrants who choose to make themselves hostages to destiny by attempting to cross over to Europe from North Africa in rickety over-crowded boats.  

I had previewed this stance in my contribution in this column on 7th September where I expressed:

“The more we improve conditions for giving a welcome to asylum seekers worthy of human beings and children of the same God, the more we are motivating others to risk their lives in illegal boat crossings, in the process enriching the merchants of death who organise such human trafficking. By helping the ones that come ashore we would be risking the lives of those who would be motivated to follow suit.
It is the same argument used in kidnapping. If one meets kidnappers’ demands for ransom, one could be saving the hostage’s life but in the process putting at risk the lives of many innocent people who could become victims of kidnapping as the criminals become emboldened to enrich themselves by expanding their activities. The principle is generally that there should be no negotiations with criminals and we have seen the brutal killing of journalists at the hands of heartless Islamic fundamentalists in the pursuit of this principle.   Why should it be different in the case of irregular immigration?” 

The result of the Mare Nostrum initiative taken by Italy clearly showed that the more effective the rescue operations, the more people are encouraged to risk their lives and, consequently, the more tragedies actually materialise. Britain has drawn the line.
Another case where the decision to draw the line is painful relates to publication of all the details related to reports about a well-known clergyman who is reportedly being investigated for repeated sexual indiscretions. All citizens are equal under the law and their positon or status should not entitle them to any privileged treatment. However, every person is entitled to be considered innocent until proven guilty and disclosure of too many details at a time when investigations are still in process could do more harm than good.
Obviously, no one can deny the media their right to keep the public informed on issues of general interest in cases where they feel their sources are reliable, the evidence is pretty convincing and the normal rules of ethics are respected. This last criterion is, however, very subjective and the media is itself exposed to the risk of sensationalism. My view is that there should be high ethical standards about disclosure in cases that are still under investigation and where no charges have yet been brought.
Respect of ethical standards demands that disclosure where charges have not yet been formalised can only be justified in cases where the media has valid reasons to suspect that the authorities, be they clerical or civil, are showing too much respect to the person being investigated, and that the process is moving purposely slowly as some form of protection while attempts are made for accusations to be withdrawn during the investigation stage. This is not an easy line to draw, either.
Another difficult line to draw is in the judgement about the contract execution skills of Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi primarily, and the Cabinet in general, following the admittance that the new gas-fired power station will not be ready within the two-year limit that was promised in the election campaign.
According to Opposition spokesmen and their media faithful, this is so big a failure that Dr Mizzi and the Prime Minister should join hands and resign as they have defaulted on a crucial electoral pledge that formed the basis on which they secured the people's mandate.
I am all in favour of people being held accountable for their promises and politicians in particular more so. However, judgement should not be based on one particular pledge but on the whole electoral package. If politicians were to resign if they fail to deliver on a particular pledge we would have the instability of political changes every few months.
Furthermore, Minister Mizzi has gone on record to say that the plan is still on track, although moving at a slower pace than anticipated, and that the shortcoming will, in the end, be about delayed execution rather than total abandonment. Frankly, Dr Mizzi has not defended himself sufficiently well from those who are seeking a full pound of flesh for an ounce of failure.
Nowhere in the Labour manifesto was there any pledge about foreign investment and cash infusion into Enemalta, which will make a very substantial contribution to putting its finances on a sounder footing and, in the process, reduce the government's substantial contingent guarantee exposure on Enemalta's debt profile.
Anyone who does not understand the advantages and importance of such a foreign investment is either blind or just prejudiced. All countries, developed and emerging, are bending over backwards to get Chinese investment for their infrastructural needs, as governments are fiscally tight to fund such developments. Even at the micro level, Chinese investors are prominent all over the place, not least in the UK and Germany, whose leaders are regular visitors, with trade delegations to Beijing.
Furthermore, Chinese investment in Enemalta, insofar as domestic operations are concerned, will be a minority one. Our sovereign will still have strategic control over the organisation, whilst the minority shareholder will infuse external discipline to ensure that it is managed in the interests of the organisation and not, as happens when there is full state ownership and elections are on the horizon, in the interests of the fortunes of the party in government.
So, all in all, Dr Mizzi may be delivering later but potentially delivering more. He should be delivering not just the new LNG power station but a Chinese investment with much-needed new funds in a strategic organisation that was practically bankrupt and that was ( and still is - pending proper execution of the deal with the Chinese) bringing down the sovereign financial structures and our sovereign credit ratings.
Only this week, Moody's has confirmed our A3 Stable rating. They said they had refrained from up-grading Malta's credit rating as merited by our much improved macro-economic and fiscal performance, as they prefer to await the proper execution of the deal with the Chinese regarding the investment in Enemalta so as to be sure that the contingent obligations through government guarantees for the borrowing of Enemalta will not become real.
Where does one draw the line? Is it better for Minister Mizzi to deliver what he promised on time or to deliver more, much more, but somewhat later so that all the additional elements are properly integrated in a coordinated project?
For the time being, I support the Moody's way: reserve judgement until the work-in-progress reaches its final destination.

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